WASHINGTON -- Fearful of a congressional stampede on the military budget next year, the Pentagon is quietly preparing options for deeper long-term spending cuts than were planned, senior administration and Defense Department officials say.
The cuts, which could give President Bush a chance to reclaim the initiative on the domestic front, would affect fundamental military programs, including troops, weapons purchases and military bases.
They could free as much as $50 billion over the next five years for use in other domestic programs at a time when Mr. Bush is under growing attack by Democrats who assert that he has failed to address problems at home.
The administration has made no final decision on the deeper reductions, which probably would require modifying last year's budget agreement, and it publicly continues to resist cuts beyond the 25 percent reduction in forces envisioned by 1995 under current Pentagon plans.
But Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have ordered a comprehensive review of future military needs that could result in deeper reductions in troops, warplanes and aircraft carriers, and some officials said Mr. Bush could announce an initiative early next year, possibly in his State of the Union message in January.
The cuts could reduce the Pentagon's budget to about $240 billion, possibly lower, from $291 billion in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.
"The pressures are growing on the domestic front for reducing the defense budget beyond the present plan," said Sen. John W. Warner, R-Va., the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee.
High-ranking Pentagon and congressional officials say such pressures have been building in the aftermath of the collapse of communism, the failed Soviet coup and growing calls for the Bush administration to give domestic programs higher priority as a presidential election year approaches. They say that increases the likelihood that the White House will reluctantly order additional cuts in military spending.
"The purpose is to prepare for the worst, but we're not sure the worst will hit," a senior Pentagon official said. "There's really nothing authoritative yet, but certainly people here are thinking that Congress will do something stupid to us."
The reviews are being conducted in secret by members of the military's Joint Staff under Army Brig. Gen. William Fedorochko, deputy director for force structure and resources, and by senior Pentagon staff members under the guidance of I. Lewis Libby, the principal deputy undersecretary of defense for strategy and resources.
Mr. Libby is a top aide to Paul D. Wolfowitz, the undersecretary of defense for policy, who is Mr. Cheney's senior strategic planner.
One possibility under consideration, a senior Pentagon official said, calls for the Army to cut the number of active divisions to 10 by 1995 from 18. Under the Pentagon's current plan, Army divisions would be reduced to 12 by 1995.
The Air Force would reduce fighter wings to 20 from 36 now, instead of 26. The Navy would pare its carrier fleet to nine ships from 14, rather than 12, as now planned. The Marine Corps, already by far the smallest of the forces, is scheduled to shrink to 177,000 troops by 1995 from 194,000 now and is not likely to suffer much deeper cuts.
Advanced weapons programs, including the B-2 stealth bomber, the F-22 fighter jet and the Seawolf attack submarine, could be canceled or production schedules could be extended. Under other scenarios, these force reductions would be stretched out through fiscal year 1997.
Cuts would be made gradually, beginning with $3 billion to $7 billion in fiscal year 1993, to avoid large immediate layoffs in the military. Deeper reductions would come in the mid to late 1990s.
Mr. Cheney and General Powell could stick to their existing plan, resist congressional efforts to make further reductions and risk lawmakers' dictating additional force cuts to them in next year's budget process.
Or they could take the initiative by combining cuts in forces with further reductions in two areas that are sacred to lawmakers -- military bases and reserve troops, such as the National Guard.
That way, they would force Congress to share the pain and would retain some control over the size and shape of the military. But Pentagon officials say they do not like that approach because they fear that ceding some cuts to Congress would only whet lawmakers' appetite to pare more.
"Dick Cheney and Colin Powell know how to read the political tea leaves, and everything says the budget has to come down faster than their five-year plan," said Gordon Adams, director of the Defense Budget Project, a non-partisan research organization in Washington.
For now, though, Mr. Cheney's marching orders are to stand firm. He continues to emphasize that the Pentagon's current reductions will take the U.S. military to its lowest troop levels since 1950 and that military spending will be about 3.6 percent of the gross national product, the lowest proportion since 1939.
In a number of recent speeches, Mr. Cheney has stepped up criticism of people who are clamoring for deeper cuts, warning that such reductions could hurt training and readiness and could force the Pentagon to dismiss thousands of troops.