Spending priorities questioned Panel urges Pentagon to drop two-wars plan, trim current weapons

High technology stressed

Experts also suggest that Congress close more military bases


December 02, 1997|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon should stop planning to fight two wars at the same time and cut back on current weapons to spend more on high technology, the congressionally created National Defense Panel said yesterday.

The panel of nine military experts also urged Congress to hold at least two more rounds of base closures as soon as possible, and warned that the nation needs to do more to protect domestic soil from outside threats.

"Our effort was to go beyond current issues, to get to the year 2020 and look back," said panel chairman Philip A. Odeen, chief executive officer of defense consulting firm BDM International.

Odeen and several other panel members released their report yesterday at the National Press Club, some eight months after being charged by Congress with envisioning the long-range future of the military.

The panel said that after considering several ways the world may change in 20 years and then looking back to the present day, they found that much of current military practice defies logic.

One of the most basic assumptions targeted by the panel is that the United States must be prepared to fight two major wars simultaneously, long a staple of military planning and a central tenet of the Quadrennial Defense Review released by the Pentagon in May.

The panel found that such a "low-probability scenario," such as envisioning conflicts on the Korean peninsula and in the Persian Gulf, serves to "divert funds and distract attention from investing further out in the future," Odeen said.

The end of the Cold War and America's clear technological advantage over the rest of the world provides a rare opportunity to look beyond current concerns, the panel said in its 94-page report, "Transforming Defense: National Security in the 21st Century."

"We need to take some risks in the near term. That may mean stretching out, cutting back or even canceling some current weapons," Odeen said.

While the panel did not recommend specific program cuts, it questioned the wisdom of continuing to develop battle tanks beyond the current M1A1; disagreed with the Navy's decision to cancel the Arsenal Ship missile platform program; and questioned the cost and effectiveness of the three jet fighter programs now under development -- the Navy F/A-18 E/F, the Air Force F-22 and the multi- service Joint Strike Fighter.

"There need to be longer-range aircraft rather than larger numbers of shorter-range aircraft to deal with the challenges we see in that [future] time frame," said James P. McCarthy, a panel member and retired Air Force general who now teaches at the Air Force Academy.

He pointed out that future conflicts may require U.S. forces to penetrate deep into a hostile country without the benefit of nearby air bases, and that the Pentagon has no plans for new long-range aircraft.

Meanwhile, an increasing number of nations are bristling with cruise missiles that could destroy super-advanced F-22s before they even leave the ground. What's more, those same missiles could carry weapons of mass destruction to U.S. soil -- a prospect the panel said needs far more attention.

To counter such threats, and to prepare for a world that lacks a single Soviet-style enemy but instead features unpredictable adversaries in many far-flung regions, the Pentagon needs to devise an agile force that can react quickly and capitalize on advances in information technology, the panel said.

It should encourage defense contractors to experiment, and should stop paying for vast numbers of any single weapon system. That would mean increasing funding for research and development -- and the panel recommended setting aside $5 billion to $10 billion a year to fund explorations of new military technologies.

On the matter of funding, the panel assumed that the defense budget will remain stable for the next several years. While that will not satisfy critics who point out that the roughly $240 billion a year spent on defense is the same as for much of the cold war -- except during the Korean War, Vietnam War and the Reagan buildup -- current funding would still not pay for all the investment in technology the panel envisions.

That leads to the need for cuts in other types of military spending. Defense Secretary William Cohen failed this summer to get Congress to go along with two more rounds of base closures, and the defense panel presumably will give Cohen additional authority to try again next year.

"We are convinced we have far too many bases and that at least two rounds of [closures] and perhaps more" are needed, Odeen said.

Five of the panel's nine members are retired military officers, and though the group officially ceases to exist in 30 days, the members said they anticipate testifying before Congress next year about the need for such reforms.

Six members of the panel also have business ties with the defense industry, leading some to question the objectivity of their call for more investment in technology.

Odeen said he understood that criticism, but that the panel had tried to be fair.

"We're questioning some of the largest programs the defense industry is pushing right now, so I think we're balanced," he said. "We're proposing not necessarily spending more money, but spending it differently."

Byron Callan, a defense analyst with Merrill Lynch who is not affiliated with the panel, said defense companies are not likely to experience much gain or loss as a result of the new report.

Congress and the Clinton administration, he said, are not likely to make such dramatic changes. "The political reality of it is, if the choice is the here-and-now or the distant future, the here-and-now is going to win," Callan said.

Pub Date: 12/02/97

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