Echo of '80s: defense vs. deficits

Congressional debate deepens on Pentagon budget, though some of the toughest choices may be yet to come.

Big defense budgets. Bigger deficits. A tax-cutting conservative in the White House. Is it 2004 ... or 1985?

Today's context for Pentagon spending resembles nothing so much as the late Reagan years. Like then, international tensions have helped push a Department of Defense spend-up. Like then, the nation has suddenly begun to run massive deficits, leading many lawmakers to call for fiscal restraint.

But there's at least one big difference in the eras: the war on terror. With US troops on patrol in restive foreign lands there's little chance the Pentagon will absorb major cuts this year, say analysts - especially with a presidential election coming up.

Thus as congressional consideration of the 2005 military budget begins in earnest, changes may take place largely on the margins. The real crunch won't come until fiscal 2006, or later, say some.

"There is compelling political support in both parties for high defense spending," says Gordon Adams, who was associate director for national security at the White House Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton administration.

In fact, the most heated disputes about the Pentagon budget on Capitol Hill are likely to take place between Republicans - budget hawks on one side, defense hawks on the other.

Last week, the savings-minded Senate Budget Committee voted to cut the administration's defense request by $7 billion. Conservatives on the panel criticized the president for presiding over an about-face in the nation's fiscal fortunes, from record surpluses to a torrent of red ink.

Conservatives in the House - as in the Senate, controlled by the GOP - have indicated plans to trim $2 billion or so from their defense budget legislation. The House Budget Committee was scheduled to debate the subject Wednesday.

Vowing for a fight

But these efforts are already under concerted assault by the Pentagon's proponents. More than 30 House Republicans, including high-ranking members of the Armed Services Committee, have vowed an ugly floor fight against the overall 2005 budget resolution if it includes defense spending reductions. The powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska, has said he'll do whatever it takes to see the cuts restored. "We're at war. That's the amount of money the commander in chief wants. I don't think we should give him less," said Senator Stevens on Tuesday.

Like the Reagan administration, the Bush administration has increased military spending considerably over the level it faced upon taking office.

In 2001 the Pentagon budget was about $366 billion, including nuclear weapons operations. For fiscal 2005, the White House is requesting about $421 billion for the same categories.

And this year's budget, like last year's, doesn't include the considerable expense of paying for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those will be funded by a supplemental appropriation proposed later in the year - leading some Democrats to charge that the White House is attempting to hide the true cost of the war.

"This is not a responsible way to support our troops, and it is not responsible budgeting," said Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, ranking minority member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, at a hearing last month.

Like the Reagan team, the Bush administration is also forging ahead with plans to purchase a number of expensive new weapons systems in coming years, ending what both characterized as periods of procurement neglect. In the 1980s, the Pentagon began stocking up on M-1 tanks, B-1 bombers, and Bradley Fighting Vehicles. Today the Defense Department is looking toward the new F-22 air-superiority fighter, the F-35 joint-strike fighter, Virginia-class attack submarines, missile defense, and other new weapons.

Big bills due soon

In the Reagan years critics worried about a coming "bow wave" of procurement expense. Similarly, many say the Pentagon won't be able to afford all the new systems when big bills start coming due in the next few years.

In a possible prelude of hard choices to come, the Army on Feb. 23 canceled the RAH-66 Comanche attack helicopter despite having already spent $7 billion on the projected $39 billion program. Army officials plan to use the money saved to buy almost 800 existing-model helicopters, while upgrading 1,400 others.

The pro-defense atmosphere created by Sept. 11 has allowed Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to avoid choosing between systems, says former Clinton official Gordon Adams, who is now a George Washington University professor.

"But beginning with the [fiscal 2006 budget] somebody is going to have to pay the piper," he says.

Pentagon critics have a list of usual suspects they'd cut if given the choice: the F-22, which they call a plane designed to counter a Soviet threat that no longer exists; the V-22, a tilt-rotor aircraft dogged by crashes; and Virginia-class attack subs.

"What's the role of an attack sub, given the dissolution of the Soviet Union?" says Christopher Hellman, a defense analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non- Proliferation. "Their continued purchase boggles the mind."

But once weapons systems reach a certain point they become extremely difficult to cancel - as Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney discovered when he killed off the Navy's planned A-12 attack plane during the administration of George H.W. Bush, launching lawsuits that continued for years.

The Iron Triangle of the military, contractors, and home-state lawmakers can often deflect outright cancellation. Instead, purchase numbers are cut, raising per-weapon cost but allowing many systems to squeeze under budget caps.

Says Mr. Hellman, "I don't think any of these new weapons will really go away."

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