Defense for the Future

November 25, 1991

Anyone seeking a blueprint for a sensible restructuring of the U.S. military establishment in the post-Cold War era will not find it in the $291 billion defense budget passed Friday by Congress.

There are, to be sure, some signs of what Mikhail S. Gorbachev would call "new thinking." Most dramatic is the House-initiated decision to stall production of B-2 bombers beyond the 15 already authorized. Congress hedged, however, by providing $1.8 billion to keep production lines open and $1.6 billion for research on stealth technology. Thus, the Senate Armed Services Committee will have another opportunity to find a credible mission for this costly stealth aircraft now that little need is seen for a penetration bomber, invisible to enemy radar, to fly into Soviet air space.

If the cutback on the B-2 was a victory for the House Armed Services Committee, its Senate counterpart essentially had its own way in pushing ahead with a missile defense system to deal with limited ballistic strikes against U.S. territory. The measure sets a 1996 target date for a project in Grand Forks, N.D., calling for 100 ground-based intercepters that would be battle-managed by space-based sensors. Funds also were provided for research on space-based intercepters, along with instructions for negotiating changes in the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to permit deployment of a pared-down "Star Wars" system. As is the case with the B-2, however, no convincing scenario is offered either on the threats to be combated or the military missions to be accomplished.

The huge measure also includes some military hardware the Pentagon did not request but well-placed legislators wanted. And it authorized more National Guard and Reserve personnel than Mr. Cheney considered necessary. This pork barrel approach, designed to please reservists with political clout in congressional districts, will force cutbacks in active forces if goals for a 25 percent cut in personnel over the next half decade are to be met. The Persian Gulf war experience was cited to justify not only Congress' case for the Reserves but, more convincingly, for the decision to permit women to fly combat missions.

It is much too late to fashion a fiscal 1992 defense authorization that coherently anticipates a U.S. military structure attuned to the new global security situation. But Congress, through a special study commission modeled after the Goldwater panel that brought about needed changes in the chiefs-of-staff organization, should take a long look at what the United States needs and what it can afford in the post-Cold War era. House and Senate committees plan hearings. But a more authoritative review would be reassuring to those who anticipate irresistible pressure for defense spending cuts in light of the nation's fiscal plight.

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