$9 billion stockpile has the military ready to refight World War I

February 21, 1992|By Mark Thompson | Mark Thompson,Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- It rests in countless vats, vaults and depots across the country, intended to carry the nation through the first three years of a global war.

But a look inside the Pentagon's little-known National Defense Stockpile suggests that if World War III breaks out, the U.S. military will be ready to fight World War I all over again. Among its contents:

* 150,000 tons of tannin, used in tanning cavalry saddles and knapsacks -- enough, in the words of one top Pentagon official, "to refight the Civil War."

* 3.3 million ounces of quinine, an anti-malaria compound supplanted years ago by superior medicines.

* 22 million pounds of mica, used as windows in camp stoves and to insulate radio vacuum tubes -- technological artifacts from earlier in this century.

* 7 million pounds of thorium nitrate, a radioactive mineral that glows when hot -- the key to keeping those kerosene lamps glowing brightly around the old campfire.

And so it goes, 50 million tons of materials valued at about $9 billion. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney says that's about $7 billion more than the Pentagon needs for a full-scale war.

Portions of nearly half the 91 stockpiled materials don't meet Pentagon standards, defense officials say, and about one-third have been obsolete for at least 20 years.

Yet the stockpile continues to bulge, largely at the insistence of an 81-year-old Congress member and his 82-year-old aide, a pair of World War II veterans who vividly recall shortfalls in the "Arsenal of Democracy" in that conflict.

"I don't see that anything that has happened so far in the world that would say that the stockpile we now have is excessive," said Rep. Charles E. Bennett, D-Fla., chairman of the Armed Services Committee's subcommittee on strategic materials. "There's no indication there couldn't be another three-year war."

His aide, William D. Price, a retired Air Force major general, admits that much of the stockpiled material isn't needed.

"We've got a hell of a lot of stuff in the stockpile that's no cotton-picking good," said Mr. Price, who oversees the inventory for thesubcommittee.

But Mr. Price defends the stockpile as an "insurance policy" to keep the nation strong during a prolonged conflict. "The lack of natural rubber killed Germany in its war with Russia," he noted.

Congress won't allow the Pentagon to sell anything from the stockpile if the stockpile account has more than a $100 million surplus. In other words, unless it keeps buying, it can't sell. Currently there's a $300 million surplus.

Mr. Bennett said the Pentagon can sell whatever it wants from the stockpile -- so long as it uses the money to replenish it with materials even the military acknowledges are in short supply, such as beryllium, cadmium, cobalt, platinum and titanium.

"The Pentagon wants to sell the stockpile and put the money into the Treasury because the government is so bankrupt," he complained.

But military officials say future conflicts will be so short that the idea of a stockpile is almost quaint.

"In our most recent military engagement -- Desert Storm -- there were no requirements for material from the stockpile," said Colin Mc Millan, the Pentagon official who oversees it.

"The stockpile wasn't set up for a . . . war like Desert Storm," Mr. Price retorted. "It was set up to tide us over in case we get caught with our pants down and can't get this stuff from overseas."

History reveals that the Pentagon and Capitol Hill share responsibility for overstuffing the stockpile. Pentagon bureaucrats have exaggerated what's needed, according to the department's inspector general.

All this leads to one conclusion, said Derek J. Vander Schaaf, the Defense Department's deputy inspector general: "Many of the items are excess by virtually any definition."

The military's latest list of war scenarios doesn't contain any projected to last longer than 90 days.

But Mr. Bennett shows no signs of relenting.

"We thought at the end of World War I that everything was over, and we've had a whole bunch of wars since then," he said.

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