Smaller Pentagon plans to rearm New weapons: Even though the armed forces have been reduced by 30 percent to nearly 1.4 million people, the Pentagon is planning an ambitious modernization of its weaponry.

Sun Journal

March 19, 1996|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The ranks of the military are now about as small as they are going to get. So the Pentagon is busily turning to its next priority: modernizing its arsenal.

It's a ritual that recurs almost every decade with the rhythm of war World War II in the 1940s, Korea in the 1950s, Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, the Cold War spanning the decades and the Persian Gulf war in the 1990s.

After each major conflict, the defense budget is routinely cut, almost as if the most recent war is assuredly the last one. The world, of course, doesn't always cooperate. And so after each military drawdown, the nation decides to improve its arsenal.

That cycle is alive and well. After the Carter administration's military squeeze, which produced the so-called "hollow" force, came the Reagan buildup, only to be followed by the Bush and Clinton downsizing, now about to end.

In the Reagan years, the money spent on new weapons more than doubled in inflation-adjusted dollars. Conversely, under President Clinton's stewardship, such spending fell more than 50 percent in real dollars.

There is a wrinkle in the corrective action about to be taken this time: The defense budget will not shoot up as it did after previous reductions.

Under the administration's plan, the defense budget will continue declining in real terms for two years. But the modernization of the arsenal will receive a larger slice of the pie.

The talk at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue these days is of rearming not increasing the ranks of soldiers, sailors, Marines and aviators, but giving them better weapons.

Congress is even more anxious than the administration to get on with the job. Last year, the Republicans added $7 billion more to the defense budget than the Clinton administration had requested mostly for new weapons.

And this year, they are expected to add at least as much to the Pentagon's request for $242.6 billion.

"It is essential that we find ways to meet our modernization needs as well as maintain the readiness of our current and future forces," Sen. Strom Thurmond, the South Carolina Republican who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in opening hearings on the Pentagon's new budget this month.

"Modernization crisis"

At another hearing on military readiness, Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, spoke of a "modernization crisis" and accused the Clinton administration of ignoring "the dangers" of under financing new weapons systems.

But the administration is in a financial bind, with efforts to balance the budget making it all but impossible to find more money.

"This is the best I can do with the constraints I'm working against," Defense Secretary William J. Perry said in delaying until next year the proposed increase in spending on new weapons.

The Pentagon expects the coming buying spree to be financed by savings from base closings, greater efficiency in the Pentagon's purchasing system and sufficiently high budget levels being approved by Congress all of them questionable assumptions.

Since 1990, the uniformed force has shrunk 30 percent, to near its target level of 1.4 million men and women at arms.

One positive side effect of reducing the number of men and women in uniform was to buy the Pentagon some time for weapons renewal.

The smaller military was able to discard its older weapons and keep only the newer ones.

This reduced the average age of weaponry, giving the Pentagon a respite from the relentless dollar-gobbling requirement for new guns, ships and planes.

But ominously, the average age of military hardware is climbing, the Pentagon says. Weapon systems are near or beyond the halfway mark in their expected life span, the critical point of balance between a modern and an aging arsenal.

An Army truck, for example, is often older these days than the soldier driving it, according to senior Army officers. Some vehicles date back to the Truman era, they say.

The Marines' workhorse Sea Knight helicopters will be 50 years old before they are all replaced by 2017, warns Gen. Charles C. Krulak, the Marine Corps commandant.

10 new ships a year

The Navy warns that it could soon be heading for trouble unless it increases purchases of new ships. The service says it needs to buy an average of 10 ships a year to maintain its 350-ship fleet. It is now budgeted to buy an average of seven ships annually for the next five years.

"We are living off the procurement of the past," Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman, the Air Force chief of staff, told a congressional budget hearing last week. "It has got to stop."

The driving notion behind weapons modernization is, of course, the smaller the force, the better armed it should be.

So what weapons are in the pipeline for the next century? There are some revolutionary ideas out there.

The three services are working on a joint attack plane, a single airframe that will serve the purposes of the Air Force, the Navy and the Marines. Normally, the three services design and buy their own planes.

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