WASHINGTON -- Charging that leaders in both Congress and the White House have "failed" the U.S. military, Republican presidential contender John McCain called last night for an increase in military spending to finance a pay raise for soldiers, restructure the forces and modernize weaponry for the 21st century.
"Given our global commitments and strategy, we need to increase defense spending," McCain said in remarks prepared for a speech in New York. "The United States does not have the modern force and defense posture we must have to meet the threats to America's interests and values in the 21st century."
McCain, a former Navy pilot who spent 5 1/2 years as a POW in Vietnam, was to give his first major defense speech aboard the USS Intrepid, an aircraft carrier on which he served in the 1960s that is now a floating museum.
McCain was silent on how much he would boost the current $280 billion in annual defense spending if he becomes president, saying he must first cut "wasteful" defense spending, specifically items added by lawmakers and not requested by the Pentagon.
Some $20 billion could be saved in the military budget, he said, by eliminating political "pork" programs, as well as closing unneeded bases, using private contractors and eliminating some Buy America programs.
Included in the total that could be saved, McCain said, is more than $6 billion in wasteful "pork" spending not requested by the military. He said such weapons as the Seawolf submarine and the B-2 bomber are "unneeded."
The Arizona senator noted that he was outlining his defense views on the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which taught America the "perils of military unpreparedness." Today's troops, he said, are poorly paid and stretched too thin around the world.
"We have failed them," McCain declared.
McCain said he would make military personnel a first priority by making sure that the estimated 12,000 soldiers and their families no longer have to use government assistance programs to make ends meet.
"If I am the next president, I will end the days of a food stamp Army once and for all," he said, also proposing a way to end the gap between civilian and military pay. McCain for the first time called for a 3 percent military pay increase per year over three years and eliminating federal income taxes for troops deployed overseas.
This year, the Clinton administration approved a 4.4 percent pay raise, which was increased to 4.8 percent by Congress.
Echoing requests by military leaders and civilian defense experts, McCain also called for "smaller, lighter, more automated" military forces that could quickly deploy to hot spots of the 21st century. Many have complained that the current military, particularly the Army, is too burdened with heavy tanks and weapons better suited to fight the former Soviet Union than the terrorists and ethnic wars of the future.
McCain, who trails GOP front-runner George W. Bush but is gaining momentum among voters in New Hampshire, the first primary state, also embraced a favorite Republican defense item: missile defense.
He said he would build a national missile defense program, which has angered the Russians -- and even NATO allies who feel they will be left outside such a defensive umbrella.
"It's time to tell our friends and adversaries alike, that ballistic missile defense is now a national priority, not just another Pentagon program," he said. The Arizona senator said missile programs in rogue states such as North Korea, Iran and Iraq make the program necessary.
The Clinton administration is expected to decide next year whether to deploy a national missile defense program, though some Democrats worry that deployment -- still years away -- would violate the 1972 anti-ballistic-missile treaty with the Russians.
McCain said he would sit down with the Russians to see whether the treaty could be "altered" to allow both countries to build national missile defenses, though he would back out of the treaty if that could not be achieved.
The pay increases, force restructuring and missile defense stances outlined by McCain reflect many of the same themes pushed by Bush, the Texas governor, in his defense speech in September.
McCain was able to use the Intrepid backdrop to highlight perhaps his greatest political strength, his heroic military record. McCain recalled searching for the Intrepid through "the dark night skies." But he also remembered a less noble day when he made a low pass over southern Spain, running into power lines and knocking out power to many homes.
"Not the Navy's greatest moment, nor mine for that matter," he joked.