WASHINGTON -- Reflecting growing concern over recent reductions in defense spending, the United States' top military leaders have warned that the Pentagon must boost its budget for weapons modernization sooner than planned or risk eroding military preparedness.
In a memo to Defense Secretary William J. Perry, the military service chiefs recommend increasing the modernization budget to $60 billion a year by fiscal 1998, rather than fiscal 2000, as currently anticipated. The budget currently stands at $39 billion.
The unusual move by Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the heads of the four individual services is intended to serve as a warning flag, both to the Clinton administration and to the top generals and admirals involved in putting together the military budget.
Although President Clinton has promised to restore some of the recent defense spending cuts by fiscal 2000, the services say they are being squeezed and have had to use funds from their modernization and procurement budgets to help keep military readiness from slipping.
There has been no immediate indication that the administration would adopt the Joint Chiefs' recommendation in the fiscal 1997 budget, which is due out early next year. Mr. Clinton is already under pressure to hold down spending.
Wait till next year
Although Mr. Perry pledged in a return memo to General Shalikashvili and the other chiefs to "work closely with you to accelerate" the budget increase, officials said the memo has come so late in the budget-preparation process that any serious consideration must likely wait until next year.
Military leaders have been warning for months that many of the weapons systems and types of equipment in need of upgrading or replacement were not being modernized on schedule.
All four services have put off purchases of a wide array of new and replacement weapons and equipment, from fighter aircraft and helicopters to ships, tanks and basic trucks. They also have begun to accumulate maintenance backlogs.
Mr. Clinton asserted last winter that the squeeze on modernization would be temporary, and he pledged to restore ** much of the earlier cutbacks by the turn of the century. With pressures on overall federal spending mounting daily, however, military leaders have been skeptical that the White House can come through.
$39 billion for procurement
In the fiscal 1996 budget that it sent Congress last January, the administration requested $39 billion for procurement -- a drop of 71 percent from the 1985 peak, after adjustment for inflation. The Republican-controlled Congress raised that to $43 billion, but the House and Senate bills are stalled in a conference committee.
Both the administration and the Joint Chiefs want the individual services to provide at least some of the difference by saving money in other areas, such as eliminating unnecessary programs and transferring some jobs to civilian contractors, but the effort is not yielding much.
Senior military officials insisted that the memo, while strongly worded, is not intended to provoke a confrontation with the administration, but merely to put the service chiefs on record as cautioning that the procurement problem may soon become serious.