Army, Navy budgets reveal shift to high-tech forces

Both spending plans draw criticism from lawmakers, some military officers

February 08, 2000|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The charts and figures of the Clinton administration's $277 billion defense budget for next year reveal that the Army and Navy are for the first time shifting huge amounts of money to become high-tech forces for a new century.

The Army is cutting hundreds of millions of dollars from heavy, Cold War-style artillery and tanks to pay for experimental units that will use lighter armored equipment and new tactics.

The Navy is setting aside billions to finance a destroyer that employs stealth technology and resembles the Civil War-era gunship Monitor -- and requires two-thirds fewer sailors than similar ships now in the fleet.

But both plans are drawing criticism from Capitol Hill. And some Army officers are questioning how their service is leaping into the 21st century.

Cutting back on heavy armor may leave troops vulnerable, some Army officers say, and lawmakers complain that heavy weapons systems are needed for current threats such as North Korea and possibly for future foes.

Other lawmakers argue that if the Navy shifts money into a new destroyer expected to sail in 2009, it won't have enough left over to build the ships necessary to maintain the current 300-ship Navy.

In the Army's $71 billion budget for next year, $1 billion will be saved by scaling back funding for existing programs, including the 110-ton Crusader self-propelled howitzer; Grizzly, a cross between a tank and a plow used to breach enemy defenses; and Wolverine, a mobile bridge.

Over the next five years, Army officials have also called for reducing the number of 70-ton M-1 Abrams tanks it will upgrade, from 80 this year to 24 in 2005.

The money cut from those Army weapons would help pay for two experimental units at Fort Lewis, Wash., that will begin training this year with light, armored troop vehicles and will one day have other new weapons, such as fast-moving mobile artillery guns.

"The Army will undergo a major transformation," Gen. Eric L. Shinseki, the Army's chief of staff, said last fall in unveiling his plan for a "medium-weight force" to handle everything from peacekeeping missions to full-scale war.

Sen. James M. Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican and member of the Armed Services Committee, said he is worried by the Army's plan to cut back the Crusader, which is more precise and more heavily armored than the howitzer now in use.

"The performance is what's important," Inhofe said.

An Army tank officer at Fort Carson, Colo., said he has his own doubts about an Army with less armor. "I just hope we are not giving up lethality for speed," Maj. Eric Schwartz told the Army Times soon after Shinseki's plan came out.

The Navy hopes to spend about $4 billion of its $92 billion budget to finance research and development of the new DD-21 destroyer, which will have more precision guided weapons than current destroyers and a new electric drive propulsion system. By using more technology and automation, the ship will require a 95-member crew, down from the current 300 or more sailors on similar warships.

The service plans to use $2 billion more on developing the DD-21 than it estimated last year. The additional research will delay the program a year, said Navy officials, with the first of 32 new destroyers expected in 2009.

Some senators worry that by shifting billions into the DD-21, there won't be enough left for the Navy's shipbuilding plans.

Congressional and military officials say that to maintain its 300-ship force, the Navy must build eight to 10 ships annually to replace vessels that are beginning to age from the Reagan defense buildup. With the military busier than ever -- in operations from Haiti to Indonesia to Kosovo -- there is a drastic need to replace aging equipment, they said.

In 2001, the Navy plans to build eight ships. That will drop to seven ships in 2005.

"I'm concerned because the new budget doesn't really address the Navy's fleet-size problem," said Sen. Charles S. Robb, a Virginia Democrat on the Armed Services Committee. "It's a serious situation, which is getting worse."

A senior Navy official conceded that some on Capitol Hill might bristle at the budget figures for the DD-21 but insisted that the investment is necessary for the ship of the future. "You've got to make that transition into the 21st century," said one top Navy official, "and there's a price to pay for doing that."

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