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Paying for Defense

From the sounds of the debate in Congress, you'd think the Clinton administration was determined to leave America defenseless in a dangerous world. But, in fact, defense spending is an area where partisan differences are more politically manufactured than real.

Evidence of this is found, most obviously, in the president's choice for secretary of defense. William Cohen is a Republican with a hawk's eye for force modernization. And modernization is the major bone of contention between the administration, with its current military budget request, and what GOP leaders in Congress would like to see.

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Modernization took a great leap ahead in the mid-1980s, when President Reagan undertook the development of many new weapons systems. In the years since, the services have essentially consolidated those advances. Of course, the world meanwhile has changed radically. Weaponry aimed at countering a looming Soviet threat may possess less utility today.

And the US military has been changing too. The "peace dividend" never came with the fiscal impact many hoped, but the armed forces have been shrinking. The Pentagon's budget has dipped from a high of nearly $300 billion in the late '80s to around $260 billion today. The overall size of US forces has gone from 2.06 million people in 1990 to 1.46 million currently. That's smaller, but hardly small.

The Pentagon budgets of the Clinton years have concentrated on maintaining force readiness, not on new weapons. The president's 1998 budget continues that emphasis, but it also projects a shift toward procuring new weapons in the years following. The new fighter planes and naval vessels getting less this year will probably have their day.

Before that, the military's leadership, headed by Secretary Cohen, is slated to complete by May 15 a thorough quadrennial review of defense needs in light of today's changed geopolitics. Is it really necessary to be prepared to fight two major regional conflicts at the same time? What kind of new capabilities are needed for quick-deployment peacekeeping missions? These questions, and others, need answers before the country ventures into a new round of weapons procurement. The outcome should be leaner but better prepared and equipped forces.

Part of the heat in Congress will be generated by a perennial procurement controversy: whether to plunge into the development of a national missile defense system. The financial and technological dimensions of this controversy have shrunk since a "star wars" space-based system was first proposed well over a decade ago. Then, of course, Soviet warheads were targeted on US cities. Now a tightened federal budget and the absence of a cold-war nuclear threat combine to scale back dreams, needs, and expectations.

The administration is funding continued research on missile defenses, particularly those designed to protect forces in the theater of battle. That's more than adequate.

Last year, disgruntled Republicans insisted on tacking an extra $10 billion onto what the Pentagon itself requested. They may be so inclined this year. If, at the same time, they insist on continued parsimony with diplomacy, foreign aid, and international organizations - which represent no less an investment in security than weapons - their reputations for thrift and vigilance should suffer.

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The top generals and admirals acknowledge they're being treated rather well in the current drive to cut federal spending. They have a new defense secretary who will champion future modernization. If defense spending becomes a sticking point in this year's budget negotiations, the reasons are likely to be political posturing and the economic interests of home districts, not the safety of the nation.

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