WASHINGTON -- In the midst of a costly war, the Bush administration told Congress yesterday that it would push ahead with plans for slashing military manpower, canceling major weapons programs and closing military bases.
Sticking to spending limits agreed on by the administration and Congress last year, the Defense Department said it would cut the uniformed ranks to 1,653,000 men and women by late 1995.
That would be down by about 350,000 from current strength and 521,000 from the peak year, 1987, of the Reagan defense expansion.
There would be corresponding reductions in ground combat units, naval fleets and air formations.
Such cutting while a war is being fought may have no precedent in this country. The reductions, stemming from the end of the Cold War, began last year before Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.
The reductions are part and parcel of what Defense Secretary Dick Cheney yesterday called "the new U.S. defense strategy, which has been formulated to counter the threats likely to concern the nation throughout the 1990s."
They were forced, as much, by budget stringencies and congressional quests for a "peace dividend" that could be used for domestic programs.
Defense spending under the new budget for fiscal 1992, starting Oct. 1, was pegged at $295.2 billion. That was $3.7 billion -- or 1.2 percent -- below this year's estimate and was in accordance with last year's budget agreement. In real purchasing power, the Pentagon said, it is about 12 percent below 1990.
A notable fact about the new defense budget is that it excludes all costs of the Persian Gulf war. Mr. Cheney said at a Pentagon news conference yesterday that he would submit a separate request for a war appropriation in about two weeks, as Congress has directed.
The request presumably will include estimates of multibillion-dollar offsetting contributions from other countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Germany and Japan.
While Mr. Cheney gave no indication that the gulf war would affect the planned reductions, he suggested that developments in the Soviet Union might cause later revamping.
"The plan we are submitting takes us down the good-news road" regarding the Soviets, Mr. Cheney said. However, pointing to what he termed "enormous uncertainty" about events in the Soviet Union, he said, "I think the jury is still out on where the Soviet military is headed" over the long term.
Mr. Cheney has been a consistent skeptic about perestroika and liberalization in the Soviet Union.
While the budget submitted yesterday reduced the general level of defense, it had cross currents that are likely to prove controversial in Congress and could drive up some spending categories in the mid- to late-1990s.
The Pentagon endeavored to use two successes in the gulf war -- Patriot anti-missile weapons and radar-evading stealth fighter planes -- to gather support for new approaches to strategic defense and production of B-2 Stealth bombers.
The Patriot, an anti-aircraft weapon turned into an anti-missile rocket, has run up a high score of kills of Iraqi Scud missiles. The F-117 fighter plane apparently has been flying around Iraq undetected by the foe.
Therefore, Mr. Cheney proposed a $4.6 billion appropriation for the Strategic Defense Initiative, a $1.7 billion increase over this year, "to provide global protection against limited ballistic missile strikes -- whatever their source."
He said, "I can't think of a better argument" for a defense against missiles than shown in the Scud attacks on Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Similarly, he said the "enormous value of stealth," proved in the gulf war, made it "vital" to continue with the B-2 bomber. The bombers, which ultimately might cost more than $800 million apiece, were designed during the Cold War to deliver nuclear weapons against Soviet targets.
The B-2 barely survived in Congress last year. Yesterday, Mr. Cheney asked for $4.8 billion for fiscal 1992 and $4.6 billion the next year for continued development and production. Seven bombers would be ordered in the two years.
At the same time, he proposed to cancel enough major arms programs to save about $10 billion next year and an additional $70 billion by 1997. They included the Bradley fighting vehicle, Trident missile-carrying submarine, MX missile and advanced fighter planes for the Navy and Air Force.