Collapse of the Soviet Union and recession-generated pressures at home are combining to force new cutbacks in the U.S. defense structure -- the second in as many years. Instead of getting $291 billion for the military establishment in the next fiscal year, the Pentagon will probably have to make do with $280 billion, or less. This would be but the first installment of a five-year drawdown totaling $50 billion if President Bush has his way, or as much as $120 billion or even $150 billion if liberal Democrats prevail.
We favor the lower figure for several reasons. Anything substantially higher would further increase the pain of the current recession by requiring a rapid, almost headlong cancellation of defense contracts and by sending tens of thousands of service folk back into a reeling civilian economy.
Furthermore, important national security considerations remain. Although the old Soviet system has dissolved, its mighty military force is still in being -- a prize already triggering dangerous competition among newly independent republics.
The United States, as the only military superpower, also has to worry about regional conflicts that could threaten wider conflagration and economic shock. Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last October that he had already signed onto military reductions that would produce "the minimum force. . . we must have in order to represent our interests in a rapidly changing world." Since then his projected 25 percent drawdown has been superseded. Even conservative Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, has called for a further 5 percent slash in Pentagon allotments.
This may be part of an administration attempt to pre-empt liberal Pentagon-bashers by opting for cuts acceptable to moderate, defense-minded Democrats on Capitol Hill. The president has already acknowledged there is room for "maneuvering" in light of changed world conditions.
With election year upon us, Republicans and Democrats are arguing about this new "peace dividend" although it cannot be cashed until after next November's polling date. Under the 1990 budget agreement, the dividend should be used to reduce a deficit heading toward $400 billion a year. But liberal Democrats such as Maryland Sen. Paul Sarbanes want a huge pump-priming operation on the home front. And GOP leaders would dearly like to offset the costs of new tax cuts.
Probably, in the end, the "peace dividend" will be divided three ways -- deficit reduction, domestic spending, tax cuts -- as part of a political deal that will allow all sides to posture. The more important objective is to make sure U.S. military forces are adequate and smoothly managed, the nation's defense industries are sufficiently maintained to permit a later buildup if required and the coming military drawdown is carried out in a way that is fair to uniformed personnel and to hundreds of communities whose economic welfare was tied to what seemed to be a permanent war economy.