ACKNOWLEDGING that it has no choice, the Pentagon has struck camp and begun a retreat from the 1991 budget request it submitted to Congress a few short months ago. The question now is how far a retreat it will be. By outlining cuts in major aircraft programs last week, Defense Secretary Richard Cheney hoped to help limit his budget losses as much as possible. But there's significant sentiment in Congress to push the Pentagon back as much as $20 billion in budget authority for next year.
Secretary Cheney is ``a little too optimistic still about where the budget line is going,'' says House Armed Services Committee chairman Rep. Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin.
Defense officials have long hoped that any budget reductions resulting from the lessening of cold-war tensions wouldn't begin in earnest until the 1992 budget process begins next year. But with the Warsaw Pact disintegrating a little more every day, pressure has been increasing for big cuts as soon as possible.
The fate of the 1991 defense budget was sealed when influential Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia weighed in on April 19 with his own reduction proposals. For the short term, Senator Nunn wants to cut $16 to $18 billion in defense budget authority from the Pentagon, and $5 to $6 billion from defense outlays.
Budget authority is, in essence, money the Pentagon would be authorized to have in its bank account, ready for spending. Outlays represent the cash that would be spent next year.
For the long term, Nunn argued that the Navy's aircraft carriers need not number more than 10 or 12, and that US troops in Europe might be cut to 75,000 by 1995, as opposed to the 195,000 President Bush has proposed.
Cheney's new list of 1991 defense budget cuts could be seen as a Bush administration response to such proposals as Nunn's. The list focuses on major aircraft programs that have been the subject of a Pentagon review to determine their utility in the changing international environment.
The B-2 Stealth bomber program would be cut from a total of 132 planes to 75, under Cheney's plan. Purchases of the new C-17 cargo plane, designed mainly to ferry troops and arms to Europe in a crisis, would be reduced from 210 to 120.
The Navy would receive only 620 A-12 medium bombers, instead of the 858 previously planned. Production of two new Air Force planes - a version of the A-12, and the new Advanced Tactical Fighter - would be deferred.
Savings from these moves in the long term would be substantial - $35 billion by 1997, according to Cheney. But since all of these programs are just gearing up, immediate savings would be small. In 1991 only $2.4 billion would be chopped from Pentagon budget authority. Actual savings would be just $109 million.
One thing Cheney may hope to gain from submitting these cuts is the salvation of the B-2. Opponents have been pushing to kill the program; as a veteran congressional tactician, Cheney knows that providing a number between 0 and 132 gives moderates something to back beside the extremes.
The problem with this is that by slowing aircraft production, the unit cost of each B-2 coming off the assembly line is pushed even higher, to some $800 million. Though the planes to be bought have been cut in half, total program cost has been reduced only 20 percent, to $61 billion.
``Far greater savings would be achieved if the program were canceled,'' says Michael Brower, a Union of Concerned Scientists analyst.
By acknowledging that he has to start naming cuts now, Cheney also hopes to head off moves to slash his 1991 budget even more than Nunn has proposed. The House Budget Committee, for instance, has voted to slash '91 budget authority by $24 billion, and outlays by $8 billion.
``Cheney got the message he could be in front of Congress or behind Congress,'' says Dr. Natalie Goldring, a senior analyst at the Defense Budget Project.
More hit lists may be forthcoming. Large Navy programs such as the new Seawolf submarine and DDG-51 destroyer are also undergoing review. Cheney suggested this week that the Navy might be reduced to 12 aircraft carriers, from 14.
The Bush administration has already promised to chop the defense budget 2 percent a year through 1997 - a total of around $180 billion off the services' current spending plans. The aircraft reductions contribute only $34 billion in itemized reductions towards that goal.
Congress and the Pentagon will finally ``get down to some serious bargaining about what the fiscal year '91 package is going to be late this calendar year,'' Cheney said at a press conference Friday.