FROM Soviet elections to the bursting of the Berlin Wall, perestroika is sweeping over the East bloc so fast that the Pentagon, as well as the rest of the US government, is bewildered at the pace of change. With the Soviet threat appearing to ebb, US armed forces are clearly in for a period of prolonged readjustment. By outlining a proposal to slash upward of $180 billion from the Defense Department five-year plan, Secretary Richard Cheney is simply trying to influence reductions that are now almost inevitable.
``My job would be a lot easier if I didn't have to put up with these cuts,'' Mr. Cheney sighed on television last Sunday.
There is some irony in Dick Cheney being the chief to preside over the shrinkage of the Pentagon. As a Republican member of Congress from Wyoming, Cheney was a forceful advocate for all the big Reagan defense budget increases, and continued to battle for weapons spending hikes even after Congress turned against them in the late 1980s.
But as an experienced legislator Cheney can tell in which direction Congress is continuing to march - downhill, at least as far as the military is concerned. Earlier this fall staff members of the Senate and House Armed Services Committee were openly speculating how much the ``Gorby effect'' would cut the military budget next year. Pictures of delirious Germans dancing on top of the Berlin Wall have only helped along a trend already in motion.
House Armed Services chairman Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin, a moderate in the context of Congress, gave a widely noted speech last week in which he judged that the ``next defense budget will be Gorbachev-driven.''
Events in Eastern Europe ``are going to have a tremendous psychological and political impact in this country,'' said Representative Aspin, predicting that defense budget cuts could now be much larger than 1 or 2 percent annually.
Press reports of a slowdown in Soviet defense spending and production of key strategic weapons has only added to the feeling in Washington that the Pentagon is about to enter a whole new budget era.
Enter Dick Cheney. In a preemptive strike, the secretary of defense announced last weekend that he is considering reductions of around $10 billion for the 1991 budget, as well as a cut of $180 billion in the Pentagon's five-year plan for fiscal years 1992 through 1997.
``He's trying to get out ahead and take control of the process,'' says Lawrence Korb, a Brookings Institution analyst and former Reagan administration defense official.
But the word ``cut'', in this case, is relative. Tentative Pentagon plans had called for the defense budget to grow around 2 percent a year in the mid-'90s. Perhaps a more telling way of describing the Cheney proposal would be ``forgoing of increases, plus some undetermined smaller reduction.''
As an experienced Washington hand, Cheney knows that he who defines the budget base line can win the war. He is hoping to settle the budget at around its current $300 billion level in real terms, and head off larger reductions. White House budget director Richard Darman, for example, has reportedly asked for a 4.5 percent reduction in the `91 defense budget, amounting to about $20 billion in cuts.
``He's not proposing to cut as deeply as most stories would suggest,'' says Gordon Adams, director of the Defense Budget Project.
Given the ever-increasing cost of weaponry, however, the Cheney reductions will cause real pain in Pentagon hallways. Following closely on the heels of Cheney's announcement, the Air Force struck first in what will be a fierce service vs. service battle for the shrinking defense budget pie.
The Air Force list of what it proposes to do without includes five tactical fighter wings, as well as 15 bases, plus a stretch-out in purchase of the B-2 bomber. Conspicuously absent from the list was cancellation of expensive next-generation planes, such as the Advanced Technology Fighter (ATF) or the B-2.
Faced with a budget downturn the services will likely do whatever they can to protect new weapon designs, which they consider the seed corn of the next generation. At the same time, many analysts maintain that some next-generation systems such as the SSN-21 sub or ATF will have to go if Cheney's budget targets are to be met.
The long-term problem for the Defense Department is shaping US forces to correspond to new world political realities.
Early this year Secretary Cheney had a brief meet-and-greet session with Soviet Ambassador to the United States Yuri Dubinin. The two sat in Cheney's Pentagon office and made small talk about election returns - from the Soviet Union.
It was not the sort of political discourse Cheney thought he would ever have with a representative from the USSR. ``It was a new experience for me,'' he confided to members of Congress at the time.
The incident illustrates the difficulties now facing Cheney as he attempts to shape US defense policy. If current trends hold true, with the Soviet Union declining as a threat and continued unrest in third-world trouble spots, the Army's heavy mechanized forces are clearly endangered.
If Army forces based in Europe shrink, the US could return to its military roots and emphasize sea power, whose flexibility renders it useful in the widest range of contingencies.
``The Navy will and should be cut least of the three services,'' says Brookings's Korb.