WASHINGTON -- In a move with major implications for the defense industry, a Pentagon initiative would freeze virtually all future defense programs after the research and engineering stage, avoiding production of the weapons indefinitely, say sources.
The plan, to be unveiled when the Pentagon submits its 1993 budget this month, would save billions in procurement costs for big-ticket projects at a time when the Department of Defense is under extreme pressure to reduce its budget.
Officials said yesterday that the proposal is a response to changes in the world that give U.S. war planners, for the first time since the Cold War began, at least a year's warning of any significant need for advanced U.S. combat capabilities.
In the event of a crisis, a Pentagon official said, new weapon designs could be rushed into production.
The initiative has received tentative White House approval as part of the budget process. Although it is likely to get a more critical reception from lawmakers wary of job losses in their districts during an election year, it does not require congressional approval.
Under the proposal, the Pentagon would continue to contract with defense companies to develop and engineer new weapons. But instead of following the traditional route of putting those weapons quickly into production, in all but a few cases the Pentagon would direct the contractor to leave the blueprints on the drawing board -- or the prototype on the test range. The weapons then could be produced on short notice.
Pentagon and defense industry officials familiar with the initiative said that it would mark the end of an era in which defense contractors maintained large forces of skilled production workers and counted on the production phase of a weapon program for the bulk of their profits.
In the past two years, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney has said that he was reluctant to sacrifice weapons acquisition programs and preferred to make cuts in the military's manpower rolls.
But this year, Mr. Cheney has argued that the Pentagon cannot cut personnel faster or deeper than already is planned. Under pressure from Congress to cut further, Mr. Cheney has chosen to save some $50 billion by cutting back and canceling production of weapons systems.