Tough Choices on Defense

March 30, 1992

Despite the anguish of the National Guard, the Reserves and their solicitous representatives on Capitol Hill, the force reductions in local units throughout the 50 states announced by Defense Secretary Dick Cheney are thoroughly justified.

Those who consider Mr. Cheney "dead wrong," especially such inveterate Pentagon budget-cutters as Maryland's Sen. Barbara Mikulski, have an obligation to specify where else they would downsize: In the active forces? In weapons procurement on home turf? In operations and maintenance?

"Congress cannot have it both ways," says Mr. Cheney. And he is dead right, not dead wrong. It cannot slash the defense budget on one day, in the supposed interest of making funds available for domestic spending, and then the next day wail and denounce when the Pentagon eliminates home-district jobs by canceling defense contracts or dismissing "weekend warriors."

The Bush administration has indeed failed to come up with a credible, long-range plan for converting the economy from its Cold War orientation to a less threat-prone environment in which more resources can be devoted to the civilian needs of a troubled society. But this in no way excuses the demagogy one hears in Connecticut, for example, over cancellation of the Seawolf submarine or, now in Maryland, because Guard and Reserve units dear to many a locality are being phased out.

Almost all of the 830 units targeted for closure by Mr. Cheney in a six-year, $20 billion savings effort are now assigned to support regular armed forces units that are also being liquidated. There is no doubt these Guard and Reserve contingents have a long and honorable service record for their country and their locality. There is also no doubt they are cheaper, on a per capita basis, than the active-duty forces and they build up public support for the military establishment. But every component in the armed forces, just as every contract on the Pentagon wish list, must be judged by what mission it serves in the post-Cold War world.

During the Persian Gulf conflict, senior officers became convinced that part-time soldiers were not as effective as full-time soldiers in combat situations requiring vast technological expertise. From that experience came a Pentagon resolve that national security is best preserved by maintaining regular forces at a level necessary to deal with foreseeable crises.

There was another consideration, too, directly related to the Reserve-Guard issue. That is how to make full-time military careers attractive at a time when more and more active-duty officers and NCOs are being selected out as the pyramid narrows at the top. In other words, how to choose between keeping a Reservist or a full-time officer? Mr. Cheney has made his choice on the basis of national security. That's a lot better than responding to parochial, constituent demand.

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