Leaner, meaner defense establishment Cohen reforms: More money for advanced weapons would come from a smaller civilian bureaucracy and fewer military bases.

November 13, 1997

THE CLINTON administration deserves support for the economies in defense spending in the reorganization plan unveiled this week by Defense Secretary William S. Cohen. It is the only way to pay for developing the next generation of smarter and more accurate weapons on the budgets that can be anticipated.

One part of this, which Congress cheers in broad terms though members may carp at details, is a massive reformation in the way the Pentagon conducts business, to catch up with the innovations in computer management, plastic payments and speedy distribution that private sector business has made.

One goal is to pare 30,000 civilian support jobs from the secretary's office and 13 defense agencies over five years. Another goal is to reduce the inventory in the Pentagon's warehousing system from $103 billion to $48 billion. This would involve more computerized data-keeping, less paper, more plastic card use, more competitive bidding, more reliance on private-sector distribution of non-military products.

It is long overdue. The Pentagon bureaucracy needs to adjust to the smaller complement of fighting personnel in the post-Cold War era, as well as to modern ways of doing business. On the whole, Congress seems to be applauding such efforts.

But the other shoe dropped is a call for more rounds of base closures. Secretary Cohen has said that, including the current quadrennial defense review, force structure will have been reduced 36 percent since 1985 but infrastructure only 21 percent. Four previous rounds shut 98 bases amid economic and political pain. Congress this year rejected two more rounds, for 1999 and 2001. The Defense Department will be asking again for them, in 2001 and 2005.

Members of Congress are protective of their districts and resist this, which would be less hypocritical if they were not also pressing for economies. Forcing the Pentagon to operate bases it does not need, like forcing it to buy weapons it does not want, weakens rather than strengthens our national security.

Mr. Cohen, who is establishing his regime as a crusade for modernization, shows good faith in plans to cut his own office staff from a swollen 3,000 to 2,000 in 18 months. Congress should help him tailor the nation's defense to the security needs of the next century, rather than look out for its own political interests.

Pub Date: 11/13/97

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