When they began drafting their versions of the fiscal 1997 Pentagon budget in April, House and Senate Republicans made the service chiefs offers they could not refuse: Tell us what you would buy if we gave you more money than your commander in chief is willing to give.
What the GOP lawmakers did with the "wish-lists" they received has exceeded even the expectations of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Defense spending bills forged in the House and the Senate are respectively $10.6 billion and $13.3 billion higher than the $234.5 billion spending plan proposed by the Clinton administration for fiscal 1997. The bulk of the unrequested funds, which approach almost 1 percent of all discretionary federal spending, would go to the purchase of new weapons.
Most significant, the measures authorize billions of dollars never sought by the service chiefs in the "wish-lists" they submitted to the Senate Armed Services Committee and House National Security Committee.
Supporters of the increases, including a handful of pro-defense Democrats, insist the additional armaments are needed to make up for 12 straight years of falling defense spending that they contend have jeopardized the military's moderization efforts and weakened the US defense industrial base.
"The president's proposed defense budget is the epitome of the mindset that our military can do more with less," contends Sen. Dan Coats (R) of Indiana, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "A strong national defense does not come cheaply."
Critics, including Republican fiscal conservatives, respond by accusing GOP leaders of loading the bill with "pork" to curry election-year favor in their home districts. To compensate for the largess, critics say, deeper cuts will have to be made in social and educational programs if the goal of a balanced federal budget is to be achieved.
"None of the add-ons are necessary and the Congress should not be funding anything beyond what the Pentagon asked for," says Martin Calhoun, a senior research analyst at the Washington-based Center for Defense Information. He says about half of the unrequested weapons purchases were absent from the service chiefs' lists "and could be considered pork."
Citing "serious budget and policy concerns," the White House vows to veto whatever compromise defense plan emerges from a House-Senate conference later this summer if it preserves the unrequested spending. The Republicans warn they will use the veto this fall against President Clinton, who is anxious to win key states with large defense industries, such as California and Texas.
The bulk of the unrequested procurement funds added in each house would purchase what independent analysts call a hodgepodge of aircraft with minimal strategic rationale and little impact on overall US military power.
"There is no strategy behind this," says Steve Kosiak of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis in Washington. "It's based on what the services want and the congressmen want."
The Senate's proposed defense budget would appropriate $234 million for the purchase of 12 F/A-18 "Super Hornet" fighter-bombers, the Navy's top-of-the-line combat aircraft. The acquisition from McDonnell Douglas Corp. was neither included in the administration's proposal nor the House's version.
Both chambers, however, saw eye-to-eye on adding to the number of the newest version of the F-16 "Fighting Falcon" tactical fighters the administration proposed buying from the General Dynamics Corp. The Pentagon sought four for a total of $105.5 million. The House added $54.4 billion for two more, while senators went further, calling for a total purchase of eight for $213 billion.
In contrast, the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Ronald Fogelman, had included only two additional F-16s on his "wish-list," an Air Force spokesman says.
The Air Force is considering buying a total of about 110 new F-16s in coming years to make up a shortfall in tactical aircraft projected for 2010 as it moves ahead with buying the new F-22 fighter and developing the advanced Joint Strike Fighter. A decision has yet to be made on the F-16 plan.
Critics say that buying new F-16s - at about $21 million each - is unnecessary and wasteful. They contend that there are sufficient numbers that are in mothballs, having been retired before their full life-spans as part of the military's post-cold-war cutbacks. These can be upgraded more cheaply that buying new aircraft, they say.
The two congressional plans would also add several more C-17 transport jets and E-8A radar planes to the administration's proposal and authorize unrequested funds for upgrades to helicopters and jets that are almost as expensive as buying them new. The House approved funds for two unrequested F-15 "Eagle" fighter jets.
Lawmakers accepted the Marine Corps request to accelerate procurement of the V-22 "Osprey," which takes off and lands vertically using huge propeller engines that swivel at the wingtips. The "tilt-rotor" aircraft will replace the Marines' CH-46 and CH-53 helicopters. The administration called for buying four for $558.7 million in fiscal '97; the House and Senate plans would add two more for a total of six at about $800 million.