LIKE street vendors circling a newly arrived tourist, hawkers of military hardware have stepped up their pitches since the United States began its desert standoff with Iraq last month. President Bush joined the hawkers when he claimed in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Aug. 20 in Baltimore, that ``Most Americans...endorse giving the military the tools to do its job - the Peacemaker [MX missile], the Midgetman, the B-2, and the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).''
And so like the unwary tourist, members of Congress returning to Washington from their summer recess may feel pressured into spending defense dollars on gear our troops in Saudi Arabia can't use and don't need.
They should avoid the rush to abandon common sense. With American GIs in the Middle East, it is more important than ever for Congress to make careful choices among competing needs, military and domestic.
Some important points to remember:
The major share of the military budget spent on supporting NATO and opposing the Soviet military threat is still ripe for cutbacks. The Pentagon estimates 60 percent of its total budget - about $170-180 billion - is oriented to a European mission. The Soviet military threat continues to decline and the Warsaw Pact has disappeared. Yet we maintain over 300,000 troops in Europe.
Money spent on strategic nuclear programs - some 12 to 15 percent of the budget - can be pared back. Saddam Hussein is five to 10 years away from his first nuclear warhead. The US arsenal currently contains some 12,000. There is no reason to move to a new generation of mobile, land-based nuclear missiles such as the Midgetman or the MX.
Buying B-2 Stealth bombers at $865 million a copy makes no sense for conventional missions in third-world conflicts. The B-2 was designed to evade Soviet air defenses during World War III and drop additional nuclear bombs on remaining missile launchers. For attacking Iraq we have large fleets of deadly B-1 and B-52 bombers, cruise missiles, and tactical aircraft, already built and much less costly. For the price of one super-sophisticated B-2, we could have 40 F-16 Falcons or similar support and fighter aircraft.
The ``Brilliant Pebbles'' version of Star Wars, meant to attack high-flying intercontinental missiles by crashing small computerized drones into them from space, is irrelevant to the Middle East. If anything, we could use the much lower-tech, ground-based missile defenses that our research focused on before Ronald Reagan launched his Strategic Defense Initiative in space. Beware of politicians who argue, as did Sen. Steve Symms (R) of Idaho, that, ``With SDI, we can be more aggressive in stopping the hegemony of tyrants like Hussein.'' The only thing we would do is spend billions more on a pipe dream.
The decision to transport quickly personnel and supplies to the Middle East shows how badly we need to change our military budget priorities. Clearly, if US leaders feel a need to prepare for third-world battles, transport planes and fast-sealift ships will play a critical role. Yet the Pentagon in recent years has starved our sealift and minesweeping capacity in favor of more glamorous (and heavy) systems designed to counter the Soviet threat.
The Pentagon should not use the Middle East crisis to evade the ``fly before buy'' rule of sound management. The Senate Armed Services Committee recently returned to that concept, abandoned in the Reagan buildup, in deciding to delay buys of the C-17 cargo aircraft and the A-12 carrier-based bomber because of testing problems. A crisis is no reason to rush ahead with weapons that don't work right.
Our federal budget deficit remains a grave national problem that even now requires further military budget cutbacks. Office of Management and Budget Director Richard Darman recently pegged the 1991 shortfall at $168.8 billion. That doesn't include the savings and loans bailout, economic effects of oil price hikes, or direct spending on the Middle East mission.
We can defend the Saudis without unwisely frittering away defense dollars as we go. Our Middle East expenses can be covered by a supplemental appropriations bill next year, when the costs are more clearly known. Adding to the fiscal year 1991 military budget, with no idea of the eventual need, makes no sense.
Not everyone in Washington has been caught up in the ``buy we must'' frenzy exemplified by the president's remarks to the VFW. To his credit, Defense Secretary Richard Cheney in August ordered the Navy to halve the number of Seawolf attack submarines planned over the next four years, and to build 16 instead of 25 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers during that time.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin predicts that military spending will still take a cut this fall. ``A new response to a new threat still means less money than it cost to counter the Soviet threat,'' he said Aug. 11. And as before Iraq, Mr. Aspin noted, ``It's still going to be easier to cut defense than to cut domestic spending or raise taxes.''
By their debate in coming days, his fellow members of Congress will show whether they are listening to common sense or have already been taken in by the weapons merchants.