Pentagon weighs sale of arms to earn billions

March 16, 1994|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The cash-strapped Pentagon is weighing a plan to raise billions of dollars through the cut-rate sale of used front-line military equipment to regional allies, while laying the groundwork for new U.S.-led military coalitions around the world.

With the Defense Department's budget shrinking by 40 percent between 1985 and 1996 and its force levels plunging 24 percent during the same period, huge amounts of materiel are becoming surplus to the needs of the slimmed-down U.S. armed services.

Some of the equipment is so sophisticated and expensive that it has previously been available only to the wealthiest U.S. allies. On the for-sale list would be tanks, missiles and warplanes that are still major components of the U.S. firepower -- including F-16 fighters that shot down four Bosnian Serb bombers last month.

Apart from raising defense revenue at no cost to taxpayers, the proposal is intended to prepare military coalitions to help the United States fight regional conflicts. Under new operational guidelines, the Pentagon is required to be able to fight two regional conflicts at almost the same time while undertaking global peacekeeping operations.

"The basic thrust of this whole idea is to try to [build] effective coalitions for future war-fighting contingencies," said Robert D. Bauerlein, deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for international affairs.

Pentagon planners are looking to the creation of coalitions, based on common use of U.S. armaments, in the Middle East, Asia and possibly Latin America, as part of what Mr. Bauerlein called "a new strategic concept."

"If you look at recent history, something that permeates all of the documents, and all of the thinking, is we will in the future fight as coalitions," he said. "How do we put real coalitions together where we can share the burdens with our allies and potential coalition partners? This is one way. This is designed to help transfer some of the heavy lifting to some of the others."

The weapons, Mr. Bauerlein stressed, would be sold only to nations that qualify under the foreign military sales system, established by Congress and overseen by the State Department. But the cut-rate prices would widen the circle of potential customers to allies that cannot now afford such sophisticated hardware.

Pentagon to keep proceeds

Channeling the money from the sales back into the military is the key budgetary advantage. If the weapons were sold simply as "surplus," the revenue would go to the Treasury. Under the proposal, the weapons would be labeled "non excess; to be replaced." That wrinkle would enable the Pentagon to spend the revenue on modernized weapons systems.

Air Force Secretary Sheila E. Widnall has recommended the plan, initially advanced by Gen. Michael P. C. Carns, the Air Force vice chief of staff, to Defense Secretary William J. Perry, who has signaled interest.

Mr. Perry told the Senate Budget Committee last week, "The dominant criterion for determining whether any weapons system, including the tanks, are sold to a foreign government still is a national security decision, not an economic decision."

The plan also needs the approval of the White House, the State Department and Congress, which would have to give the Pentagon authority to spend sales revenue on improved systems. The Air Force, the initiator of the idea, hopes the plan will be implemented in this congressional term, which ends in October.

Critics of the program contend that it would accelerate global arms proliferation, increasing instability around the world.

"Today's potential partner is tomorrow's potential adversary -- witness Iraq, witness Iran post-1979," said George Perkovich, director of the Secure World Program, a grant-making foundation that favors nonproliferation.

'Does it enhance stability?'

"Politically, it undermines the effort to get other countries to be restrained in their [arms] selling. In security terms, does the arms transfer from the U.S. enhance stability in that region? If it doesn't enhance stability in the region, it is not in the American security interest."

Denying that the plan would increase weapons proliferation, Mr. Bauerlein of the Air Force said in an interview that the sale of modern weapons would enable regional allies to dovetail their military machines more closely with the U.S. system, making coordinated action easier and enabling the allies to shoulder more of the burden of local conflicts.

"What we would be doing," said Mr. Bauerlein, "is saying: 'You are a friend and an ally and a potential coalition partner. If we ever have to put a coalition together in some contingency crisis in the future, we would want you to be able to carry some of the operational requirement. In order to do that, you need to have equipment that is interoperational with ours and appropriately equipped.' "

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