CALL it the ``Gulf dividend.'' While United States forces wait tensely in the Arabian Peninsula, the Persian Gulf crisis has already convinced Congress to approve bigger defense budgets back home. The final 1991 defense bill, hammered out by House and Senate leaders last week, is some $5 billion larger than it likely would have been if Saddam Hussein had not invaded Kuwait, according to a number of Washington analysts. That's in addition to money for the Desert Shield operation itself, which will be paid for via separate legislation.
Threatened weapons suitable for a Gulf-like scenario, such as the V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft, easily survived. Others, liek the B-2 Stealth bomber, may have benefited from a congressional feeling that despite the fall of communism, the world remains a dangerous place.
``When Iraq invaded Kuwait, all of a sudden you had a sea change in the way this town looks at defense,'' says Rep. Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
Earlier this year, many in Congress figured 1991 military spending would be around $283 billion - the amount of money approved by the House in its version of the defense bill. After all, the Soviet Union was beginning to seem only somewhat more threatening than Canada. The Iron Curtain had been ripped down as easily as a shower curtain, and the Warsaw Pact no longer existed as a functioning military alliance.
Then, in August, Saddam Hussein's tanks moved south. Support began to flow to the Senate's more expensive version of the defense bill. The White House-Congress budget summit held in late September approved $289 billion for defense, the same figure as the Senate defense authorization.
``Saddam played into the summiteers' feelings somewhow,'' says a liberal Democratic congressional aide.
The budget-summit agreement was voted down by Congress, but the defense budget figures it contained have held up. The House-Senate conference, which last week ironed out the final contentious differences in their defense bills, adopted a top-line authorization figure of $288.3 billion.
Though higher than it might otherwise have been, that number is still about 9 percent smaller than the 1990 defense budget, after inflation has been taken into account.
Part of the $5 billion Gulf dividend is being spent on items clearly applicable to the massive deployment of US troops to Saudi Arabia. Conferees approved an extra $250 million for purchase of fast sealift ships, and another $20 million for research on sealift alternatives.
A FEW big weapons systems whose backers claim they'd be perfect for a Gulf-like scenario also did well in the '91 defense bill. The V-22 tilt-rotor was marked for elimination by the Pentagon, but conferees approved $403 million for the plane. The C-17 transport has been under attack as redundant and expensive; yet the '91 bill authorizes the first two production aircraft.
And the Gulf dividend, by increasing the size of the defense pie, also made life easier for some weapons that have little applicability to the desert but were under attack because of cost. Primary among these is the B-2 Stealth bomber. The House version of the defense bill had called for elimination of the Stealth, but with strong backing from Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, the influential chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, the final defense bill contains $4.1 billion for the B-2.
B-2 opponents put the best face on things by stressing that Congress authorized production of no new Stealth planes. The B-2 billions will go instead for research and development and cost overruns on the 15 aircraft already under way.
But what the B-2 provision really means is that an up-or-down decision on the controversial plane has been put off for another year.
``I don't think the long-term prognosis for this program is good,'' says Gordon Adams, director of the Defense Budget Project.
The B-2 wasn't the only expensive item that has found new life. The Milstar communications satellite program, troubled by technical glitches, had been marked for elimination by the Senate. But after hearing of tactical communications problems in Saudi Arabia, House-Senate conferees approved $600 million for the program.
Congressional leaders bill the '91 defense budget as the first step into the post-cold war era. But they admit it's a baby step, as few defense programs were canceled outright.
``What we do is we buy the same stuff we used to buy for the Soviet threat, but we buy it for the Persian Gulf,'' says Representative Aspin.