First Post-Iraq Defense Budget

May 21, 1991

The issue in this year's defense debate is whether the United States should prepare to clobber Iraq again, gird for nuclear battle with the Soviet Union or anticipate future conflicts whose circumstances can hardly be conceived.

On the surface, the debate in the House this week would seem to pit legislators obsessed by the gulf war against military officialdom still immersed in Cold War thinking. The House Armed Services Committee has voted to terminate further procurement of B-2 Stealth bombers and slash the "Star Wars" Strategic Defense Initiative -- both quintessential weapons systems for fighting a strategic nuclear war. It has, instead, shifted billions thus saved to purchase conventional tactical weapons systems that proved highly useful in a desert turkey shoot against a paralyzed Third World enemy.

Defense Secretary Richard Cheney has vowed a veto for the $290 billion defense authorization bill if it reaches President Bush's desk without adequate funds for the B-2 or SDI. But the situation is not as pat and simplistic as this week's debate in the House would suggest. The Senate Armed Services Committee, more in sympathy with the administration, will come up with a bill that tries to deal with both strategic and tactical contingencies. No conceptual or intellectual breakthroughs should be expected. Instead, the final bill will probably reflect the usual mix of pork-barrel, individual service ambition and pet schemes.

What no one involved in the defense debate can escape is a budget squeeze that is forcing a 25 percent cut in personnel, the closing of bases, the dropping of much-desired weapons programs and on-going reorganization of the military. In that environment, decisions are bound to reflect funding limitations rather than new military initiatives.

As we have suggested before in these columns, SDI and the B-2 bombers were conceived to meet a Soviet nuclear threat that is diminishing dramatically. Therefore, the House is right in questioning administration spending priorities that allot 6 percent of procurement funds for these weapons.

At the same time, we are suspicious of knee-jerk fads for conventional weapons systems that happened to work well in Iraq under war conditions that are unlikely to be repeated. Why not stick to basics until the dust settles?

We favor funding shifts that would radically improve and increase U.S. sealift and airlift capacity for two reasons: First, because the gulf war proved it is dangerously inadequate; second, because the geographic position of our country almost guarantees that rapid troop deployment is essential in nearly any situation the present world situation is likely to produce.

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