The Pentagon's Priorities

Early in his tenure, Secretary of Defense William Cohen has placed a premium on increasing the Pentagon's weapons procurement budget. He has suggested he might do so even if it requires cuts in forces and fewer operations in places such as Bosnia - operations that save lives and demonstrate American leadership.

The post-cold-war United States military has been uncommonly busy in Panama, the Gulf, Iraq, Somalia, Rwanda, Haiti, and, most recently, Bosnia. Such missions generally make sense for the country and support the Clinton administration's strategy of "engagement and enlargement." They also result in a safer world. Although associated costs are significant, such missions typically amount to less than 2 percent of the Pentagon's budget. And although some combat skills suffer during operations other than war, participating troops often gain militarily valuable experience.

To be fair, Mr. Cohen has not ruled out all future peace and humanitarian operations. But he has made funding for new weaponry his top priority. Specifically, he wants to increase annual procurement spending from about $45 billion to at least $60 billion. The current Pentagon plan will get the spending level only back to $50 billion by 2002 (in constant 1997 dollars). Therein lies the crux of the problem the Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review is facing. Its decision is due next month.

It is true that the armed forces must soon spend more money on hardware. The large amounts of equipment purchased in the 1970s and 1980s are beginning to wear out and will have to be repaired, refurbished, or replaced. These aging weapons do not in all cases need to be modernized with brand new systems. Yet the Air Force and Navy, which already account for about three-fourths of all Pentagon weapons purchases, plan to spend even more by doing just that.

Why? In terms of quality, our military equipment is far ahead of any plausible foes. Targeted improvements in areas such as air-to-ground attack, all-weather precision-guided munitions, and real-time communications systems make sense. Large numbers of fancier and fancier fighters and ships do not.

US leadership and interests are more likely to be threatened by aversion to overseas involvement than by lack of modern military technology. That aversion is reinforced when the cost of every peacekeeping or humanitarian mission is falsely portrayed as a budget-buster by those who focus too much on weapons modernization.

If we retreat from the world stage, we'll lose much of the moral credibility and reputation for leadership that characterized successful United States cold-war foreign policy. We also will lose a tool for improving stability in the developing countries where many of our future security problems could originate.

For example, it would be enough to buy small numbers of fighters such as the Air Force's F-22 and Navy's F/A-18 E/F while continuing to purchase existing types of F-15s, F-16s, and F-18s. By outfitting the latter planes with improved munitions, sensors, communications gear, and/or localized stealth treatments, their capabilities could be improved at modest cost. The Army and Marines can play a part in the economizing - not by canceling pricey weapons but by carefully reducing the sizes of their divisions.

Cohen also should use the defense review to recommend further closures of bases and privatization of defense support activities such as equipment maintenance. Such a balanced approach can eliminate the Pentagon's looming budget shortfall without compromising US foreign policy.

* Michael O'Hanlon is a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

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