Arms savings overstated, analysts say

October 03, 1991|By Richard H. P. Sia | Richard H. P. Sia,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Although the Bush administration claims that budget savings from a sweeping package of unilateral nuclear arms cuts will be "significant" over the long run, outside analysts say actual savings will probably be much smaller than advertised.

This will be especially true if Congress allows the military to redirect funds earmarked for the nuclear weapons canceled by President Bush last Friday to other strategic projects, among them the B-2 stealth bomber, several analysts said.

Partial figures already released by the Pentagon, which show a potential long-term savings of about $20 billion, reflect a false assumption that the military would have bought all the mobile missiles and other weapons it wanted, said Steven Kosiak, senior analyst of the Defense Budget Project, a non-partisan research group.

"The way one comes up with big savings is to assume we would go ahead and procure all the systems, but that wasn't going to happen," he said yesterday.

Based on available unclassified data, the Washington-based group reported that long-term savings from canceling mobile missile programs, two short-range attack missiles and production of their nuclear warheads would be about $4.7 billion.

This estimate does not include anticipated savings in operating costs due to the withdrawal or destruction of land-based and naval tactical nuclear weapons and the removal of bombers and Poseidon submarines from alert status. Mr. Kosiak said these savings would be "modest."

The likelihood of smaller-than-advertised savings could fuel a Democratic campaign for accelerated cuts in the defense budget, several analysts agreed. Several Democratic lawmakers already believe Mr. Bush has legitimized their budget-cutting efforts by acknowledging that the need for massive U.S. nuclear deterrence forces has diminished.

So far, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and other administration officials have made it clear that payments to terminate defense contracts and the cost of moving nuclear weapons and destroying them would make short-term savings small, if not non-existent.

But, Mr. Cheney said, "over the long term, over the lifetime of these programs, we obviously save significant money."

Mr. Cheney reported a $20.2 billion combined price tag for the mobile Midgetman project and two other programs canceled by Mr. Bush: the mobile MX missile, which called for redeploying 50 missiles from silos to railroad cars for $6.8 billion, and the SRAM-2 short-range attack missile, of which 700 were to be produced for $2.2 billion.

Other officials warned that about $2.8 billion already has been committed for the programs and that a still-undetermined amount of termination payments to contractors will offset the actual savings in these three instances.

A wide spectrum of analysts, including those at the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, faulted even these partial savings estimates as excessively optimistic, considering that some nuclear weapons programs would never have received full funding while others were already on the verge of cancellation.

The administration has merely touted cuts from Pentagon spending projections, not actual reductions of $20 billion or more from the defense budget, they said. The analysts agreed that these projections were unrealistic to begin with, because the money will not be available in the 1990s to pay for the Pentagon's strategic modernization program.

Some congressional analysts came up with their own figures that differ from the Defense Budget Project's, but not by much. After reviewing four weapons canceled by President Bush -- the SRAM-2, SRAM-T and both mobile missiles -- they calculated gross savings through fiscal 1997 of about $4 billion, not including an additional $3 billion for standing down the bombers and an unknown amount from canceling the warheads and bombs.

"To get real budget impact requires changes in conventional forces, and [the president's] initiatives do not address them," said Representative Les Aspin, D-Wis., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, based on this analysis.

Although the Pentagon does not yet know how many soldiers will be cut as a result of the elimination of Lance missiles and nuclear artillery in Europe and elsewhere overseas, a senior military official said any reductions would most likely be absorbed by the current plan to cut total U.S. military strength by 25 percent by 1996.

This would mean no personnel savings apart from what the military is already banking on. There "probably won't be separate cuts on top of the 500,000 drawdown," said the official, who identified the affected jobs as mainly weapons-handling and security assignments. As the number of U.S. troops in Europe is cut in half to 150,000, the departing soldiers should include the nuclear forces affected by the president's arms control initiatives, he added.

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