Defense bill leaves some major issues unresolved

October 19, 1990|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- The breakthrough compromise in Congress on next year's military spending demonstrates an apparent belief that the Cold War is over but continued confusion and disagreement on what risks the future holds.

Under the compromise worked out by House and Senate negotiators on Wednesday, weapons programs designed to meet the traditional Soviet threat were pared back but not cut off entirely. The tough decisions on how to endow and shape the military were put off until next year, when a vision of the future and its perils may be clearer.

The fate of the $288 billion package remained uncertain yesterday. A senior Pentagon official, speaking on the condition that he not be identified, said that Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and his advisers were leaning toward recommending a presidential veto.

"There's plenty to object to," the official said. "If we swallow it, it's going to be a big lump to get down."

Just as critical of the agreement are those who had hoped that the advent of more amicable relations with the Soviet Union would lead to major cuts in defense spending and a realignment of military priorities.

A year ago, it would have been hard to imagine how quickly the balance of world threats could change.

Now, the United States' chief adversary is Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, whose government had relatively warm relations with the United States during the 1980s. And even as the negotiators were working out the details of the defense package, Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev was announced as the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

In striking an agreement on military spending for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, House and Senate negotiators scaled back, but did not eliminate, the most controversial

Cold War-era weapons programs.

Among the programs that would survive with reduced budgets are the Strategic Defense Initiative missile-defense system, also known as "star wars," and the B-2 Stealth bomber, which the House voted overwhelmingly last month to kill.

The congressional negotiators even spared several controversial weapons that the White House had wanted to ax -- among them, the costly, high-tech V-22 Osprey helicopter, which can transport troops long distances.

In some areas, Congress did not hesitate to make fundamental changes. The total cost of the measure, for example, represents a reduction of more than $6 billion from last year's spending. And it would reduce the U.S. troop count by 100,000, almost triple the cut recommended by President Bush.

The Persian Gulf crisis, which has caused the largest military deployment since the Vietnam War, is a major reason behind Congress' reluctance to make drastic cuts that could weaken the military. "If the Middle East situation had not confronted us, I certainly feel there would have been disruption or maybe the elimination of a major [weapons] system," said Sen. Alan K. Simpson, R-Wyo., the Senate's second-ranking Republican.

Another reason behind Congress' unwillingness to slash defense spending is as old as the Pentagon budget itself: Military dollars mean jobs in someone's district.

Even so, Mr. Simpson said that the defense agreement, which still must be approved by both houses of Congress, demonstrates a new focus, an anticipation that the resolution of future conflicts may involve defusing threats posed by small countries that hold weapons of mass destruction.

The accord devotes some resources, for example, to improving U.S. airlift and sea-lift capability. In those areas, U.S. armed forces have not performed as well as hoped.

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