Congress Sets Stage for Defense Debate in Fall
WASHINGTON — THE Senate has ensured a bitter fall debate with the House over what the United States military should emphasize in the wake of Desert Storm.By backing President Bush's request for more B-2 Stealth bombers and a big Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) budget in a series of floor votes last week, the full Senate endorsed a fiscal 1992 defense authorization bill different in key respects from the version passed by the House earlier this summer. Winning senators said they were being guided in their choices by the lessons of the war with Iraq - specifically, the values of Stealth technology and the need for defense against missiles. "One short year ago we had the strength to deal swiftly with the aggressor. This debate is about the outcome of the next challenge," said Senate minority leader Robert Dole (R) of Kansas. When the House had its debate, representatives claimed the same thing. They said the Gulf war proved the need to keep buying such tried-and-true systems as the F-14, instead of the new B-2 or SDI. In fact, when the subject is defense in Washington, everyone seems able to find a way to invoke Desert Storm as support for his or her position. Take the B-2, which was the subject of hours of Senate speeches last Wednesday and Thursday. B-2 supporters, including the influential chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, said the success of the F-117 Stealth fighter helped make the case for radar-avoiding airplanes. The B-2 "could perform the F-117's mission with fewer aircraft and without the necessity of refueling," said Sen. Richard Shelby (D) of Alabama. "Let us face it, Stealth works." B-2 opponents drew the opposite lesson from the F-117's success: Since the fighter was so good, why bother to continue buying the bomber? "We decimated the world's fourth-largest military power with 40 to 45 F-117s," said Sen. Jim Sasser (D) of Tennessee. With the 15 B-2s that Congress has already ordered, the US "has the capacity to engage three countries with the size of Iraq's forces simultaneously," according to Senator Sasser. In the end, the Senate rejected an amendment that would have halted B-2 production, and it voted to buy four more of the jagged black bombers. The House, in its version of the bill, voted to end production. The Senate's SDI debate was also replete with Gulf war imagery. SDI backers continually invoked the Patriot antimissile missile and its success against Iraqi Scuds. Where once "star wars" was advertised as a means from breaking out of the superpowers' mutual assured destruction embrace, now it is put forward as a hedge against future Saddam Husseins. "One of the most important lessons of the Persian Gulf war is that we must develop an effective defense against ballistic missile attacks," said Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina. The Senate eventually voted for Senator Nunn's controversial proposal to deploy a single-site ground-based SDI system of 100 interceptor missiles by 1996. Under the proposal, the White House would also be directed to try to get the Soviet Union to agree to ABM Treaty amendments allowing multiple SDI missile sites. As the ABM pact now stands, such a deployment would be a violation. The Senate approved a total of $4.6 billion for SDI, as opposed to the House-passed figure of $3.5 billion. In often-emotional floor debate, Senate SDI opponents accused Nunn of needlessly endangering a major arms control treaty and pushing an SDI system that in any case wouldn't protect the US against a third-world despot with nuclear weapons. Said Sen. Dale Bumpers (D) of Arkansas, "My state will not be protected against a private jet flying from Cuba across Louisiana into Little Rock, and dropping a bomb." The Senate's SDI provision will almost certainly be toned down when a final defense bill emerges from a House-Senate conference in the fall. One possible compromise position might be removal of the 1996 target date for deployment, while allocating star wars a larger budget than the House's $3.5 billion. Still, language calling for erection of a phase-one SDI system could well survive. "The final result will likely be quicker movement up the path toward deployment," says legislative analyst John Isaacs of the Council for a Livable World, a group which opposes star wars development. A final influence of the Gulf war on the congressional defense debate was in the debate on women in combat. Both House and Senate voted to repeal a law which prevents women from flying combat missions, and called for wide-ranging study of other combat roles for women. Such a sweeping change could never have taken place if Desert Storm had not revealed how much the US military already relies on women.