WASHINGTON -- Almost as if there were no Persian Gulf crisis, the Defense Department is pushing ahead with plans to slash military forces by about 500,000 people and steeply cut its spending over the next several years.
It is simultaneously expanding its forces in the Arabian desert and continuing with plans for an overall troop reduction of about 25 percent by the mid-1990s.
Before Defense Secretary Dick Cheney flew to Saudi Arabia last week, it was learned, he approved the outlines of a $278.3 billion military budget for fiscal 1992, which starts next Oct. 1.
That is substantially the amount of money that Congress gave the Pentagon for the present fiscal year, but it represents a cut of about $10 billion after allowing for inflation, officials said.
It is $22 billion less than the Bush administration estimated a year ago that the Pentagon would need for 1992.
The probably unprecedented slashing of overall forces at a time of a major buildup for a possible conflict has given Pentagon planners fits.
On one hand, planners are hectically filling in details of the 1992 blueprint for reduced air, land and sea forces to be sent to Congress early in February. On the other, they are working just as feverishly to fashion a separate money request -- expected to exceed $30 billion -- to cover the costs of the mobilization in and around Saudi Arabia.
Congress mandated last fall, in its budget agreement with President Bush, that Persian Gulf costs should be kept outside the regular Defense Department budget.
Perhaps the key marker laid down by Congress and the administration is that the uniformed strength of the services is to be reduced from 2.1 million men and women in 1990 to 1.6 million in 1995.
Congress ruled that 100,000 positions must be cut in 1991 -- almost 63,000 more cuts than the Pentagon had proposed.
This ruling goes far toward determining size and numbers of future combat units, support forces, training loads and costs of operations and arms procurement.
The Army appears to be the service in the biggest bind. It began the fiscal year with an authorized strength of 744,000 men and women and with orders to get down to 704,000 by Sept. 30, 1991.
It is supposed to do this although it has had to ban departurefrom service at the end of enlistments in order to keep up strength in the gulf area. The Army is also still taking in recruits. In short, it is getting larger while facing a mandate to end the fiscal year much smaller.
Army officers say they have virtually no slack, with troops deployed in Korea, Europe and, most heavily, in Saudi Arabia.
The present outlook, when the multiyear cuts are finally made, is that the Army will number 520,000 to 580,000 troops. That level would be smaller than at any time since 1940, officers say.
Army officials estimate that, when the gulf buildup is complete, a larger percentage of the Army will be deployed outside the United States than was the case in World War II: 70 percent vs. 68 percent.
In the overall military retrenchment now being planned, the Army is to be cut to 12 combat divisions (it hopes to be able to change that to 14) from 18 now. Two of the 18 have already been drastically reduced.
The present goal for the Navy is to reduce its force to 450 or fewer ships from 539.
The Air Force, which once had a plan for 44 tactical jet fighter wings, is to cut back to 25.
The reductions, with planning going forward for completion in 1992 regardless of the effects of the gulf crisis, are in line with a proposal of Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for a long-term "Base Force" that, he believes, should be the nation's minimum force for the post-Cold War period.