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Aspin's Challenge

IN light of renewed conflict with Iraq, intervention in Somalia, possible armed involvement in Bosnia, and other world flashpoints, the rush to cut United States military spending has tapered off. But it's far from halted.

The central challenge facing incoming Defense Secretary Les Aspin will be to strike a balance between maintaining the forces necessary to respond to world crises and having the Pentagon do its share of budget trimming. The pressures to follow through on the latter commitment remain intense.

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The Clinton administration promises to take deficit reduction seriously, and while Pentagon cuts can provide only a fraction of the reductions needed to move the federal government out of the red, it's a crucial fraction. Also, Mr. Clinton's pledges to increase key domestic spending - for example, business incentives and job training - will have to be at least partially met through military cutbacks.

President Bush already has put the Pentagon on an austerity program with his plan to achieve 25 percent reduction in forces by 1995.

Mr. Aspin has talked about taking an added $40 billion or so out of the armed services budget. At the moment, it's anyone's guess just how much that budget will actually shrink in the next few years.

Politics will become heavily involved in the process, as lawmakers try to protect defense dollars spent in their districts. Accounting methods will also come into play. Some budget analysts point out that the assumptions on which Bush's military-spending plans are based could be off. Weapons programs are notorious for rising above cost estimates, and the reductions in administrative overhead counted on by budget planners may not materialize. Possible sponginess in the numbers could make Aspin's cutting j ob more difficult.

The new secretary will, we hope, be able to make some of the efficiency moves he has long advocated, such as combining functions now duplicated by the various services. He should also move toward a thorough overhaul of procurement procedures.

The new administration will have some tough calls on controversial weapons systems - which new tactical jet fighter to build, whether to back a vertical takeoff plane for the Marines, whether to fund a third Seawolf submarine.

For guidance, it will need a well-thought-out strategic plan that takes into account both world needs and domestic priorities. Presumably Aspin, who has spent the past decade and a half as one of Congress's top experts on the military, is primed to formulate just such a plan.

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