House-Senate conferees agree to $274 billion defense bill, including 20 B-2s

October 02, 1992|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- In the end, after all the fights over the B-2 bomber, "Star Wars" and countless other defense programs, the entire $274 billion 1993 defense budget hinged on a single, simple question: Does the Air Force really need more F-16s?

The Senate said no. The House said yes. And when negotiators from the two chambers got together in private to work out their differences, the test of wills sparked a bitter turf fight waged with old-fashioned horse trading and political hardball.

The compromise bill for the year that began yesterday represents a 9 percent decline, adjusted for inflation, from the current $291 billion military budget, but cuts only $6.5 billion from President Bush's request.

Lawmakers made no additional troop cuts beyond the Pentagon's recommendations and canceled few weapons programs.

In many ways, the bill marks a transition from lingering cold-war-era programs to what are likely to be several years of steep declines in military spending and a focus on regional military contingencies.

Lawmakers generally followed the administration's proposed path toward a "base force" of 1.6 million armed forces in 1995, but signaled the first attempts to address new money-saving strategies, like buying more weapon prototypes before advancing to full production, and to ease the transition for displaced workers in the weapons industry.

A 1990 agreement between Congress and the administration that blocked the transfer of military spending to domestic programs expires this year, prompting many lawmakers and budget analysts to project deeper cuts next year.

"This year is the last year that the defense budget gets to tread water," said Gordon Adams, director of the Defense Budget Project, a nonpartisan research organization here.

The measure adopted yesterday supports development of the new Air Force F-22 fighter, a new aircraft carrier and the Army's light attack helicopter, the Comanche.

It also provides $4.05 billion for the star wars anti-missile defense system -- about $100 million less than this year -- but sharply cuts spending for space-based weapons and delays the construction of a land-based anti-missile site to 2002, from 1996.

Even the main exception to this trend carries plenty of cold-war baggage: After some debate, Congress agreed with the administration to end the B-2 Stealth bomber program after building 20 of the bat-winged, radar-evading aircraft.

But the program's total cost, $44.4 billion, makes the B-2 the most expensive military aircraft ever.

The bill now advances to the full House and Senate, which are expected to approve it this weekend. Mr. Bush is expected to sign the measure.

Lawmakers expressed concern about easing the pain for workers in the weapons industry and communities affected by base closings by setting aside about $1.5 billion to help communities, displaced military personnel and factory workers. One provision, originally offered by Sen. Sam Nunn, the Georgia Democrat and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, allows military personnel with certain specialties to retire after 15 years, instead of 20. Personnel can receive credit for the five extra years by taking jobs in areas like education, law enforcement and health care.

The measure also supports the flagging weapons industry by approving $148 million to upgrade M1 tanks at General Dynamics Corp.

In another program the administration has not supported in the past, lawmakers approved $755 million to develop and build the V-22 Osprey, which takes off like a helicopter and flies like a plane.

The Pentagon's annual effort to reduce the number of reserve troops was again sharply curbed by lawmakers careful to protect one of their most sacred cows: The negotiators agreed to cut 39,000 reserve troops, instead of 116,000 as the Pentagon had requested.

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