Guns or butter?

Tom Wicker

August 02, 1991|By Tom Wicker

MANY AN American is happy that the Cold War is over and the astronomical cost of the military must therefore be coming down.

Many others are unhappy to discover that their states and municipalities no longer have the money to pay for libraries, schools, parks, public services and other accustomed amenities.

Both kinds of Americans may be shocked to discover that by the reckoning of the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, the Pentagon still is seeking more than $500 billion of taxpayers' money for "about 100 major weapons acquisitions programs."

Targets for these weapons seem mostly to be in the eyes of their supporters.

Nor is it only the military that wants a lot of high-priced hardware to play with.

Both House and Senate have agreed to throw away $2 billion in fiscal 1992 on the space station; ultimately, it will cost a nation that can't provide decent health care for millions of citizens the grandiose total of $30 billion.

That may not count the $4 billion already down the drain, and surely doesn't include the expectable cost overruns or the design changes necessary to make this turkey fly, if it ever does.

As for the Superconducting Supercollider -- or is it the Supercolliding Superconducter? -- this monstrosity will bleed taxpayers by only $535 million in FY '92 (cigarette money in the hardware league) but $11 billion before it either supercollides or superconducts, whichever comes first.

Is opposition to these boondoggles anti-science? Not at all. Jim Sasser of Tennessee, the aforementioned Budget Committee chairman, pointed out in an Op-Ed article for the New York Times that paying for the space station would "doom other necessary space-science projects to extinction."

He was too charitable to report that many scientists consider the space station a man-made black hole, down which to pour taxpayers' money. The supercollider, Sasser wrote, "would relegate smaller-science programs, the heart of America's technological capability, to a budgetary no man's land."

But members of Congress apparently never met a big-ticket item they didn't love. The military, of course, continues to be the biggest feeder at the technological trough. Here is Sasser's partial list of Pentagon phantasmagoria:

* Star Wars: Despite a General Accounting Office report that the $24 billion already invested in this pipe dream has resulted in $3 billion wasted on poor planning and unproven technologies but very little usable weaponry, the outlook is for $20 billion more to be blown into the blue sky over the next three years.

Not content with this profligacy, the Senate Armed Services Committee now proposes to spend about $10 billion on the deployment of 100 ground-based anti-missile missiles -- a money-guzzling nightmare rejected as far back as the Nixon administration and for the resurrection of which no one can offer a coherent rationale except to make Democrats look hard-nosed. But who could believe that?

* The B-2 bomber: Someone ought to be able to say why we need this bomb at this price, about $16 billion. That would rebuild -- if Congress must have hardware -- a lot of highways and bridges.

* The Aegis: Here's a real budget destroyer, a high-tech naval rip-off flying a $10 billion price tag at its foretop.

* The F-22 tactical fighter: For $7.1 billion, will we get an advanced version of "Top Gun," starring Tom Cruise, maybe called "Son of a Gun"? Or will Cruise's career be finished before the F-22?

* The C-17 military transport: $17 billion for this oversized beauty, which will make it easier to carry U.S. troops here and there, to police up those little wars that may be part of the New World Order.

Sasser is primarily concerned to reduce the federal deficit. But cutting some or all of a projected big-ticket outlay that he estimated at more than $85 billion over the next three years is necessary, also, for the reason advanced by Bob Traxler of Michigan, the chairman of a House subcommittee that boldly but vainly tried to jettison the space station.

"We simply can no longer afford," said Traxler, "huge new projects, with huge price tags, while trying to maintain services that the American people expect."

But don't hold your breath until he and Sasser get their way.

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