Budget Gap Tops Agenda For Defense Chief

Internal Pentagon memos indicate billions more might be slashed from five-year plans

`HELP Wanted - Management. Must downsize $260 billion enterprise plus develop new foolproof strategy for safety of world. Staff members are heavily armed and think they know job better than you. Slip-ups pilloried on national TV. Salary: one-tenth of what you make now.''

Sound attractive? In essence, that's a description of the assignment facing Ret. Adm. Bobby Ray Inman, President Clinton's new secretary of defense.

Running the Pentagon is difficult in the best of times. But today, with continuing military budget problems and nasty trouble spots bubbling up around the world, it may be the toughest job in Washington, outside the Oval Office.

Mr. Inman will need every bit of his vaunted discipline and organizational ability to avoid the fate of his predecessor Les Aspin.

``I think he's got some real problems on his plate,'' says Bob Gaskin, a retired colonel who is currently an analyst at Business Executives for National Security (BENS).

The budget will be his first challenge. Inman will be taking over the Defense Department just as final interdepartmental wrangling occurs over President Clinton's proposed 1995 spending plan.

Right now, there's a widely publicized gap between the Pentagon's available funds and the amount of money department budgeteers think they'll need to support the planned force over the next five years. Some internal memos have put this gap as high as $50 billion; Defense officials now insist it is closer to $31 billion.

An unexpected, congressionally mandated pay raise for troops and higher inflation forecasts are the causes of this gap. Pentagon officials claim that they can close it without deep cuts in force structure.

Other analysts aren't so sure, however, and the military services are not happy about draft memos circulating in the Pentagon that indicate billions of dollars more might be slashed from their five-year plans.

The technique of muddling through budget cuts only works so long before existing forces become unready and hollow, notes Steve Kosiak, an analyst at the private Defense Budget Project. He claims that force-structure plans, based on Mr. Aspin's bottom-up review of United States military posture, still call for more new weapons than the budget can sustain.

``They have to decide to cut the force structure'' beyond reductions that have already been made, Mr. Kosiak says.

Yet that might endanger the bottom line of the bottom-up review, which holds that the US should be capable of fighting two large regional conflicts at the same time.

When the new defense secretary gets out of White House budget meetings, he will face another major problem: world trouble spots. Bosnia, Somalia, and Haiti won't put their problems on hold while Inman reads briefing papers and formulates positions.

The situation in North Korea remains particularly troublesome, with its government continuing to create obstacles to international inspection of its nuclear-weapons sites.

Some members of the outgoing Aspin staff feel their boss fell victim to the nation's difficulties in formulating its role in the post-cold-war era.

His reluctance to commit armored forces to Somalia was understandable, these staffers say, in light of the message of confrontation such a move would have sent the US public and the Somalis.

Yet criticism of this decision, after American forces took severe casualties in a firefight with the forces of Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed, was a major factor in the former defense secretary's departure.

At a holiday party for Pentagon staff members after Aspin's resignation, Aspin was jolly to the point at which one participant said he felt sorry for him having to put on what they assumed was a difficult act. Considering the weight of decisions being lifted off his shoulders, however, the outgoing Pentagon chief may be feeling some genuine relief.

As a retired military officer and longtime intelligence official, Inman is likely to be more popular in the Pentagon than was the rumpled, professorial Aspin.

He is being widely hailed as a fine choice, with support coming from conservative Republicans and Democrats alike.

Yet Inman's popularity could prove a political problem for the White House.

It is not at all clear whether he shares the same national-security goals as the president. After all, he voted for George Bush in last year's presidential election.

He may resist further defense-budget reductions. Any veiled criticism of Clinton on Inman's part, or the new defense secretary's resignation, could damage a president whose own national-security credentials are not yet firmly established.

``Inman now has enormous leverage,'' Mr. Gaskin says.

In the Rose Garden ceremony at which he accepted his new post, Inman described himself as ``an operator'' - a phrase that the White House should remember in months to come.

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