Rumsfeld's revamp: tough sell on military

To pay for bold plans, Defense chief may call for base closings, troop reductions.

Like a baby bird pecking its way out of the shell, the new military strategy of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is slowly emerging.

The vision centers on high-tech precision, emphasizing quick-to-deploy forces, missile defense, satellite communications, and unmanned planes.

The plan also embraces a broad job description for America's armed forces. The tasks range from defending the United States and its allies in major conflicts, to warding off attacks from so-called rogue nations, to performing limited peacekeeping assignments.

But in its daunting depth, the transformation Mr. Rumsfeld envisions creates another, perhaps even more daunting, challenge: How to sell the plan, not just to President Bush, but to Congress and top military brass. Those two key constituencies are both currently skeptical.

"Here is a guy who wants to have it all," largely retaining the present military forces and adding new weapons, says Michael O'Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. Even if that is Rumsfeld's desire, he won't be able to fulfill it unless he can find a large supply of money not now apparent.

The Defense Department budget released over the weekend underlines this challenge. It adds only $18 billion, rather than an expected $30 billion, to the sum President Bush had earlier sketched out for the military's budget for the next fiscal year, beginning Oct. 1.

Moreover, the $1.35 trillion Bush tax cut, economists say, will severely limit the amount of money available for expensive weapons in future years.

It is a point not lost on Democrats, who are asking where the needed defense funds will come from.

"We're going to have to make tradeoffs between current capabilities and investments for the future," Rumsfeld told senators.

That's widely interpreted as meaning, in part, reductions in the duration of peacekeeping missions, such as in the former Yugoslavia.

"We need to cut back what they do," says Ivan Eland, defense analyst at the CATO Institute, a Washington think tank.

Rumsfeld's strategy also dispenses with the decades-long plan of preparing to fight two wars simultaneously. That strategy "isn't working," Rumsfeld told congressional hearings late last week.

Since the plan is still evolving - it should reach the White House by early fall - many important elements of the future military, such as individual weapons systems, remain unknown.

One of the questions is both central and prosaic: What will the size of the overall conventional combat forces be? How many Army divisions, Navy ships, Air Force wings?

There's a lot of money to be saved in this area, so one of the other "trade-offs" could be troop reductions.

"Sixty percent of the military budget is paying people," including salaries and allied benefits, says Baker Spring, a defense analyst at the Heritage Foundation, another Washington think tank.

Beyond that, Rumsfeld offers two other ideas: closing more military bases, and having some defense work done by private contractors rather than the military.

All the experts say "the base structure is 25 percent too big," Rumsfeld testified.

But closing more military bases is, for Congress, one of the most tender military-related subjects: Closing any base means a loss of jobs.

That results in at least a temporary jolt to the community's economy. A vote for base closure is sure to cost votes for any local member of Congress.

Besides, for the first three or four years after a base is closed, the military must pay more money, rather than saving any, because of the costs of closures, such as exiting from existing contracts and cleanup of environmental pollution. Closing 1 out of 4 US bases would save billions eventually.

There's money to be saved, too, by privatizing some of the work the military now does, such as housing.

But here, too, most of the savings come several years after the decision is made.

Moreover, steps such as privatization of services, closing bases, and scrapping weapons systems also disturb the military status quo. That makes them a tough sell to the armed services, regardless of whether they are wise ideas.

Rumsfeld can repair his somewhat shaky standing with the military, analysts say, if he can get major budget increases that can translate into higher pay and better living and working conditions for the military, and new weapons systems. But given the future budget squeeze, this will be hard to do, they warn.

As if Rumsfeld's task of developing a new military strategy isn't already difficult enough, he must also roll back the tide of history. This is a time of relative peace for the United States, and for two centuries the nation's history has been that "when peace comes, people want to demobilize," notes Loren Thompson, head of the defense program at the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Va.

The only way to fight back, he says, is "to offer them something in return.... If you take away the bases and outsource the jobs, you have nothing to offer them."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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