Bush seeks massive defense hike

Tonight's speech will call for a major spending shift toward the military, posing difficult budget tradeoffs.

Not since the Reagan administration charged into Washington, pledging to repair a "hollow" Army while confronting the Soviet "evil empire" around the world, has the US defense budget been such a rocket-hot issue. In terms of size, disposition, and politics, it is likely to be at the forefront of national debate through this election year.

In his State of the Union speech tonight at 9 Eastern time, George Bush will lay down his marker.

He wants the biggest increase in military spending in 20 years. That is sure to involve difficult tradeoffs, especially at a time of returning red ink in Washington. Mr. Bush also wants to increase certain domestic programs - school spending and help for the unemployed, for example - as well as cut taxes. On the military front, he's still enamored of what could be a highly expensive missile defense system.

But in the fight against international terrorism, Bush says, "our military must have every resource, every weapon needed to achieve full and final victory."

This means expanding and equipping sophisticated and secretive Special Operations Forces. At the same time, the shift to dealing with unconventional threats requires the expensive training and posting of US forces in more places around the world. All of this comes at a time of unprecedented uncertainty regarding US national security.

A recent Pentagon report warns of "rapid and unexpected changes" as well as "new geopolitical trends shaping the world," including "a great deal of uncertainty about the potential sources of military threats, the conduct of war in the future, and the form that threats and attacks against the nation will take."

The war in Afghanistan has spotlighted the value of small, highly mobile commando units working with highly accurate - and highly lethal - weapons dropped from the sky.

But it's also been a boost to the supporters of some of the most expensive conventional weaponry: naval battle groups centered on aircraft carriers, as well as long-range bombers and transport aircraft.

In order to complete their assigned missions, each of the services wants new gear. The Navy wants a new destroyer ($750 million each); the Air Force, a new fighter jet ($180 million each); the Army, a new armed reconnaissance helicopter and howitzer ($32 million and $23 million each); and the Marine Corps, a new troop-carrying tilt-rotor aircraft ($80 million each).

Modernization continues

Bush's defense spending blueprint continues the military modernization begun under former President Clinton, provides for a pay raise, and includes a $10 billion war reserve to continue the fight against terrorism (which has been costing about $1 billion a month).

In all, it amounts to a 14 percent increase over current spending (a $48 billion boost to a total of $379 billion). That's the largest annual increase since former President Reagan's first year in office and a total matching the Pentagon budget during the height Vietnam War.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld acknowledges the logic of drawing down US military forces and weaponry when the cold war ended. "But the problem is, it overshot," he said last week. "It went too far, and there was a [weapons] procurement holiday that was way too long."

But a pledge to provide "every resource, every weapon" sought by the generals and admirals raises a major question: Can the Bush administration efficiently and effectively spend that kind of money while also bringing about the kind of military transformation that's needed in the 21st century?

While all the details are yet to be known - not to mention what Congress will do to the president's proposed Pentagon budget - it appears to many experts that the administration is avoiding the kind of hard choices that candidate Bush promised during the campaign.

"They are giving the services essentially everything they want - not a way to encourage greater efficiency on the part of any organization," says Michael O'Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

All of which raises questions about pork and the storied "iron triangle" of Pentagon brass, defense industries, and their champions in Congress - especially at a time when the administration is projecting a return to red ink with a budget deficit this year of $106 billion.

"The current $350 billion total is already more than enough to fight the small- to medium-scale conflicts overseas - such as the war in Afghanistan or even a larger campaign against Iraq - needed to combat terrorism," says Ivan Eland, director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington.

"The United States is already more dominant militarily vis-à-vis the rest of the world than the British and Roman Empires at their zenith."

Earlier this year, Mr. Rumsfeld promised to take on the military establishment and push reform.

No reform after 9/11

The events since Sept. 11 could make that all the more difficult.

"Rumsfeld has said his top priority is defense transformation, yet he submitted a budget which does not point the way to change at all," says Larry Seaquist, a former Navy warship captain and Pentagon strategist.

"We haven't seen the details yet, but it appears that they just plan to pour more fertilizer on the same old crops."

"I remain hopeful that Rumsfeld and [Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul] Wolfowitz, who are very savvy, very experienced defense policy generals, are serious about overhauling the Pentagon," adds Mr. Seaquist.

"They may be just too busy with Afghanistan right now to plunge into the transformation fight."

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