A NEW study indicates the Pentagon has vastly understated the amount of money it has spent on antimissile defense programs - a conclusion likely to fuel debate over military spending.
The report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) concludes that the Pentagon poured at least $70.7 billion into antimissile defense efforts in the decade that followed the 1983 launch of former President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), popularly known as ''star wars.''
The figure is more than double the $32.6 billion the government says was spent.
The study goes on to raise serious questions about whether there is adequate congressional oversight on antimissile defense projects. It says the Pentagon has spent billions of dollars on such work, from accounts that are not specifically earmarked for antimissile defense or about which most lawmakers have little or no knowledge.
The CRS study, commissioned by Sen. David Pryor (D) of Arkansas, is expected to give fresh ammunition to opponents of GOP antimissile defense legislation on which the Senate is scheduled to resume debate today. A draft copy of the study was obtained by the Monitor.
''For years I have been asking for reliable information on how much we are spending on the 'star wars' program,'' says Senator Pryor. ''This report ... makes it clear that the official number of $32 billion is far from complete.''
The findings come amid an ongoing battle over how much money the country should spend on antimissile programs at a time of other pressing defense needs and GOP-led proposals for drastic cuts in social programs.
Conservatives argue that the global proliferation of missiles requires that work forge swiftly ahead on a system to shield the US from attack. The Clinton administration has downplayed the threat and focused instead on funding the development of systems to shield troops and ships from existing short- and intermediate-range missiles. But some experts question whether effective antimissile defenses can ever be built. They say billions of dollars have been wasted on programs that have produced few, if any, tangible results.
''Instead of looking at $33 billion and asking what we have to show for it, we are at $70 billion and still ask what do we have to show for it,'' says Steve Hildreth, the author of the CRS report and a veteran analyst of antimissile defense efforts.
Says Pryor: ''The taxpayers ... are entitled to know just what we have purchased with all of their money. I am afraid that most of this money has gone to contractors and consultants and all too little of it has gone for true scientific research.''
Republican legislation before the Senate would add $626 million to the $3 billion that President Clinton requested for ballistic missile defense (BMD) programs in fiscal 1996. It would also require the deployment by 2003 of a multi-site system that could protect the US from a limited missile attack.
The measure is part of the Senate Republican version of the fiscal 1996 Defense Authorization Act. Debate on the act was interrupted by the August recess and is set to resume today, with Democrats expected to mount a fresh challenge to boosting BMD funding.
The CRS report says the $32.6 billion the Pentagon cites for antimissile defense spending between fiscal 1984 and '94 was only for projects funded under official BMD budgets. Other programs with antimissile defense applications were not included in those budgets.
To estimate the costs of those projects, the study employed a computer program used by the US intelligence community to analyze how much money foreign militaries spend on producing new weapons systems.
It found that some programs that originated under SDI were shifted to individual armed services as Mr. Reagan's ambitious plan for a space-based shield against nuclear missiles was drastically scaled back by his successors. The effect was that the projects continued, while the size of the official BMD budgets shrank, the study says.
These projects include Army, Air Force, and Navy work to develop space-based observation and targeting satellites and systems capable of destroying incoming missiles, the report says. It says spending on these programs totalled an additional $3.47 billion.
One category of BMD-related expenditures the report called ''generic'' or ''shadow'' programs involve research on new weapons that produce results adopted by BMD programs. These include advances in electronics, new rocket- and missile-propulsion technologies, and improved command, control, communications, and computer systems.
Another category of BMD-related expenditures identified by the study is Pentagon weapons-development budgets that are labeled only as ''All Other Projects.'' The purposes of most of these programs are not disclosed, even to the lawmakers who vote on the military's annual budgets. But many involve work on radar and ground-support equipment associated with BMD systems.
The study determined that overall ''generic'' and ''All Other Projects'' spending between fiscal 1984 and fiscal 1994 totalled $146.23 billion. Of that, it estimated that $34.66 billion went to antimissile defense.