Pentagon Perplexities

March 01, 1995

Usually at budget time the Pentagon leadership troops up to Capitol Hill with a large spending proposal supported by dire predictions if they don't get it all. They face hostile questioning from legislators trying to free up money for their own pet projects.

This year the roles are reversed. President Clinton has submitted a tight budget but key GOP leaders -- pushing deficit worries aside -- want to put more money into the Pentagon, particularly in areas that conflict with administration objectives.

Congressional Republicans have some grounds for concern. The armed forces are supposed to be ready to fight two regional conflicts. But when they were called on for a series of emergency missions short of war last year, the Pentagon had to divert training and maintenance money to pay for them.

Moreover, the Pentagon has been giving short shrift to the development of the weapons its forces will need a decade from now, in favor of keeping up current strength. It has papered over that shortfall because personnel reductions have permitted the discarding of old equipment, statistically maintaining average age. But in fact the weapons that will be needed in 2005 should be on the drawing board now, and they are not.

Republican critics, however, have overstated their case. What some of them want is the revival of the grandiose Reagan administration "star wars" anti-ballistic missile defense. Yet there is no credible foe that could launch an intercontinental threat in the foreseeable future. True, the old Soviet missiles could again be targeted on this country, but that possibility doesn't justify the spending of tens of billions of dollars for "star wars."

This country needs a strong defense and the ability to project its power internationally. Yet throwing money at defense readiness makes no more sense than throwing it at questionable domestic projects. At the same time, the administrations's readiness claims ring hollow when tested by circumstances. It can't wait until 2000 to start developing the weapons needed in 2005.

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