Cuts in military spending aren't very drastic after all

August 13, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- Lost in the debate about the nation's dwindling defense budget is this little mentioned fact: The United States will spend more on its military next year than it did in 1980, at the height of the Cold War.

You remember 1980, when the aging Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev ordered 30,000 troops into neighboring Afghanistan, when thousands of Warsaw Pact tanks were poised to invade Western Europe and the Berlin Wall stood guarded by shoot-to-kill East Germans.

The Pentagon spent $143 billion that year, which when adjusted for inflation, equals $252 billion in today's dollars.

By comparison, next year Congress will give the Pentagon $263 billion, 4 percent more money than it had 15 years ago.

Even after five years of defense budget cuts, President Clinton's 1998 military budget will be 90 percent the size of the 1980s' budgets. That means the so-called "peace dividend" -- the defense savings gained by the end of the Cold War -- will be a thin dime out of every military dollar.

The depth of the nation's defense cuts depends on where you stand: While there has been a 30 percent cut from the Reagan administration's peak military budget of 1985, that reduction merely brings the budget back down to the pre-Reagan level, once inflation is wrung out of the equation.

"We're spending about the same as we were during the Cold War," says Lawrence Korb, who was an assistant defense secretary during the Reagan administration. "But 50 percent of the Cold War level should be sufficient if we spend it smartly and don't exaggerate the threats we face."

According to Pentagon officials and outside experts, the key reasons for the continued high level of military spending are increased spending on daily operations, and for research and development.

New weapons costs fall

Money for the military's daily operations -- fuel, food, pay and bullets -- has risen from $75 billion in 1980 to $89 billion next year. And research and development contracts -- for missile defense systems and other exotic weapons -- have soared from $22.8 billion in 1980 to $38.6 billion next year.

In contrast, money for new weapons has fallen from $59 billion in 1980 to $46 billion next year.

While there have been some changes in the size of the U.S. military between 1980 and 1994, they are modest. The 1980 military had 2.1 million active-duty personnel, compared to the 1.6 million who will be in uniform next year.

The military's civilian work force will dip from 929,000 in 1980 to 919,000 next year. The Navy plans on 12 carriers in 1994 -- the same number it had in 1980.

But to ward off deeper cuts, defense officials relentlessly stress the budgetary punishment they already are inflicting upon the troops.

Powell shuffles figures

"Hundreds of thousands have left the force over the last several years, hundreds of bases and installations have been closed around the world, billions of dollars of contracts canceled, inventories and stockpiles reduced, and proud volunteers asked leave the force," says Gen. Colin Powell, outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Pentagon officials invariably measure the cuts from the 1985 peak in military spending, without noting that Pentagon spending exploded from $252 billion in 1980 to $388 billion five years later. (All figures are expressed in 1994 dollars to eliminate distortions caused by inflation.)

General Powell, the nation's top officer, practices fiscal sleight-of-hand with the best of them.

"We're going from 6.3 percent of the gross national product down to only 3.6 percent," Powell has told Congress.

"When we get through with this, we will only be claiming 16 percent of total federal expenditures for national security, down from a Cold War high of some 27 percent."

But outside budget analysts question the relevance of those numbers.

"The appearance is created that drastic cuts are being made," said Jeff Gerlach of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank. "In essence, however, the United States is simply returning to business-as-usual Cold War figures."

Four new challenges

Both the gross national product and federal spending have mushroomed over the past 50 years, making the military's budget shrink in comparison, Mr. Gerlach said.

Such contrasts -- unconnected to military threats or needs -- are "either misleading or largely irrelevant," he said.

Defense Secretary Les Aspin argues that although the Soviet threat has been eliminated, a quartet of new and diverse challenges will require that defense spending be kept high: regional conflicts, the spread of nuclear weapons, the potential failure of reforms in the former Soviet empire, and the need to use defense spending as a tonic for the economy.

"These four threats I believe are going to drive our forces and our budgets in the coming years in the way that the Soviet threat drove them in the years before," Mr. Aspin says.

In fact, those new threats are so ominous that Pentagon spending, under Mr. Clinton's long-range defense plan, begins rising once again in 1998.

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