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Reshaping the Pentagon

Despite a dejected look from the top brass last week, President Bush appears to be sticking to script when it comes to the Pentagon budget. As a candidate, Mr. Bush promised a $45 billion spending increase over 10 years, but he also promised a stem-to-stern review of the military.

The review is now his top priority. A basic restructuring of the armed services certainly is called for, mainly to save money and retool the military for wholly new kinds of threats. More bases in the US should be closed, for instance, and new weapon systems will need to be designed for 21st-century conflicts.

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The post-cold-war world still is in flux, despite a relative peace. Wars are different, peacekeeping is in more demand and more demanding, more nations are seeking missiles and weapons of mass destruction, and terrorists are more nimble in striking anywhere.

As Winston Churchill said of Europe after World War II, it's a "bewildered, baffled, and breathless world." The uncertainties are uncertain. Military planners don't even know what they don't know. But given its history of rising to challenges, the Pentagon is sure to find a new path that meets the nation's needs for defense.

Still, the military brass weren't prepared for a message from the White House that their proposed budget will be the same as President Clinton's: $310 billion dollars, which includes a $14 billion increase.

Now, instead of extra money for big projects, the Pentagon faces a period of long-range strategic thinking, shaped in large part by one of the Pentagon's top analysts, Andrew Marshall. He has questioned the need for some basics, based on his projections of global threats. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld already has held up a decision on whether to begin production of the F-22 Raptor, an aircraft critics say was designed to counter Soviet planes never manufactured.

Although Mr. Marshall's report is not out yet, his previous studies show he's a champion of shifting the defense focus to potential threats from Asia (specifically China), as well as playing on US strength in information technology and beefing up military development of more precise long-range weapons, thus reducing the sitting-duck vulnerability of tanks and aircraft carriers.

The Bush administration's willingness to hold off before throwing big money across the Potomac reveals a sensitivity to keeping a lean budget that can afford tax cuts. In the meantime, the president also showed this week a sensitivity to the troops and their families by promising pay raises.

With no military threats to the US on the horizon, Bush can afford a pause in higher spending while the Pentagon peers into a telescope to find its future missions and purpose.

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(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society