Pentagon Pick Crunches Numbers Well

Speaking before the Senate, Perry talks of possible savings in military buying

DESPITE his years of business and academic experience, the resume of Defense Secretary nominee William Perry lists his occupation as ``mathematical scientist.'' That's a skill that could soon stand him in good stead, as President Clinton's next Pentagon chief will have to be good at juggling large numbers.

Administration officials now figure that expected costs for the fiscal 1995--2000 Defense Department program exceed planned budget allotments by about $20 billion. Proposed fiscal '95 budget documents that Congress will receive next week contain no proposals for closing that gap.

``We don't have a specific plan to deal with that $20 billion shortfall,'' admitted Mr. Perry at his confirmation hearing on Feb. 2.

The bookish Perry said that the gap does not really start showing until 1996 and beyond, anyway. That means military budget planners will try to figure how to sew it shut as they put together their '96 budget plans later this year.

Both Perry and Clinton have insisted they will stick to the force structure outlined by the departing defense secretary, Les Aspin, in his bottom-up review. That means Perry will have to scrounge up $20 billion somewhere. The defense nominee listed three possible solutions:

* Squeeze the money from the budget through management efficiencies.

* Hope for lower inflation estimates.

* Get tight-fisted Office of Management and Budget czar Leon Panetta to allow him a $20 billion budget raise.

That last scenario appears unlikely. But Perry claimed that savings through management efficiencies is a real possiblity. Reform of Pentagon acquisitions is a subject that has long stimulated the former consultant. Perry insists that billions can be saved by simplifying the way the military buys things.

The practice of insisting on special military requirements of durability or size for items such as radios and computers wastes precious dollars, according to Perry. ``There is a continual history of those requirements being overstated,'' he said.

The Pentagon nominee discussed at some length the work of special Defense Department action teams now scrutinizing the requirements-setting process. It is hard to imagine Les Aspin spewing forth that sort of detail on proposals.

As both secretary and head of the House Armed Services Committee, Aspin was more prone to discourse about large philosophical questions, such as the proper course of nuclear nonproliferation policy.

Perry made a point of saying he, too, had skills of breadth and geopolitical interest. He emphasized that he had helped negotiate the recent pact with Ukraine on disarming its nuclear weapons, and talked of a nuclear armed North Korea as a ``nightmare scenario'' the US must work hard to avert.

Clearly his heart was with the flow charts and budget columns, however. To many Pentagon officials that is a welcome change, as the vast bulk of the five-sided building works every day on just such mundane problems. They often found Secretary Aspin's style to be too academic.

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