Pentagon engaged in budget battle with OMB, leaving Clinton to arbitrate

December 10, 1993|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- After drafting an ambitious post-Cold War strategy, the Pentagon finds itself $50 billion short of what it needs to carry out the plan and is skirmishing with the White House budget director over the money.

The dispute has been going on behind the scenes for weeks. But it broke into the open yesterday, when Leon E. Panetta, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, confirmed that the Defense Department would be short $40 billion to $50 billion over the next five years. With President Clinton trying to cut the federal budget, Mr. Panetta said he did not expect a change would be made in next year's Pentagon spending request.

Defense Secretary Les Aspin plans to ask for the extra money anyway when he meets with Mr. Clinton next week, leaving Mr. Clinton to arbitrate the fight.

The shortage stems from faulty inflation estimates and the decision by Congress to raise military pay.

That puts the president exactly where he least wants to be: in a dispute between his budget director and the Pentagon and potentially in a standoff with Sen. Sam Nunn, the Georgia Democrat who heads the Senate Armed Services Committee and supports the Pentagon's push for additional money.

This latest episode is the opening round of the annual infighting NTC over the budget. This year's debate is especially heated, however, because Mr. Clinton is trying to protect the U.S. role as a military power while honoring his promise to shift the nation's priorities more to domestic programs.

Also at stake are the White House's relations with the uniformed military. "Something will have to give if we don't get the funds," a Pentagon official said. "We will either have to cut the forces and throw the strategy overboard, give up some weapons modernization, or get the funds we need from domestic programs."

One general said: "This is a real war. It is a war with OMB and a war among ourselves."

From the start, some critics questioned whether the Pentagon had sufficient resources to underwrite its strategy of being able to fight two regional wars that begin nearly at the same time.

The Pentagon says it needs to maintain this ability to deter attack by Third World countries.

Thus, the already-tight Pentagon budget was further squeezed when Congress decided to order a pay increase for military personnel that the Clinton administration had not sought. That and other personnel decisions added $14.5 billion to the Pentagon's five-year plan.

Inflation estimates that were too optimistic also mean that the military budget is underfinanced by $33 billion, Pentagon officials say.

As a result, Pentagon officials say they are faced with a five year shortage of almost $50 billion.

Mr. Nunn said then that he had received assurances in March from the White House that it would support increases in military spending if they were needed.

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