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Congress aims to cut defense -- but where?

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Like the bow wave from a battleship at flank speed, criticism of the Pentagon's largest-ever peacetime budget is running strong on Capitol Hill.

Professional analysts at the Congressional Budget Office and the General Accounting Office are raising warning flags, and even some of the Defense Department's best friends in Congress are saying that the administration's $258 billion plan for military authorizations must be cut back.

As opposition mounts, however, it is becoming clear that it could be extremely difficult to reduce Pentagon spending significantly. Outlays for expensive new hardware (like the B-1B bomber) are relatively small in the early years of development.

Holding back funds for other high-cost weaponry already in production (like Navy and Air Force fighters) can add to per-unit costs in the long run. Operations and maintenance are the easiest areas to cut, but they are essential to readiness and sustainability, which all agree need improving.

Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee (a group that is generally more accommodating of the Pentagon) are particularly restive as they begin considering the budget.

Sen. John Warner (R) of Virginia, a former secretary of the Navy, questions the administration's desire for more expensive big aircraft carriers and apparent desire to achieve ''maritime supremacy.'' He wonders whether high federal deficits and a consequently weak economy are not ''just as threatening as the Soviets.''

''I have supported a strong national defense,'' says freshman Republican Dan Quayle of Indiana, who serves on both Budget and Armed Services Committees. ''But the hard-core reality is with the deficits we're facing. We simply are not going to be able to accommodate these increases in national defense.''

Committee chairman John Tower promises that ''this budget will be scrutinized as never before.''

Says the Texas Republican: ''This will involve canceling or altering programs which are not cost-effective.''

Democrats are even more critical. They not only charge the President with showing favoritism for defense over social spending, but also criticize him for what Democratic Sens. Gary Hart of Colorado and Sam Nunn of Georgia call ''the gap between budget and strategy.''

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