WASHINGTON - Campaigning for president last year, George W. Bush vowed to rebuild a military that he said was deteriorating under the Clinton administration, declaring, "Our troops are not ready."
Now that Bush is in the White House, Republican hawks and the Pentagon's top officers are becoming restive as they begin to understand that Bush's pledge does not necessarily mean more money soon.
Bush plans to submit a Pentagon budget of $310 billion for next year that is essentially President Clinton's final defense spending plan, without increases.
Bush has rejected the services' request for an additional $7 billion this year, which they say is needed for such things as ship repairs, fuel and spare aircraft parts.
"There's no plan right now for an immediate supplemental," said Mary Ellen Countryman, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, pointing out that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is just beginning a review of Pentagon spending that is expected to take several months. "Once the review is completed, we can decide what we need."
Some critics grumble that Bush's 10-year, $1.6 trillion tax cut plan, which the president has made a top priority, has meant less money for other urgent needs, such as military reform.
As a candidate, Bush had said that he would boost the Pentagon budget by $45 billion over 10 years. That was to cover $1 billion in pay raises, as well as $20 billion for increases for weapons development. During his confirmation hearing last month before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Rumsfeld agreed on the need to significantly expand defense spending.
Though there will be no immediate increases in the defense budget, Countryman said, Bush will make sure that the budget includes additional funding for pay raises and weapons development, and that the Defense Department undergoes needed reforms. Administration officials say they have not ruled out an increase in defense spending after Rumsfeld completes his review of Pentagon priorities.
"The president is funding the specific pledges he made during the campaign," Countryman said.
Last week, Rumsfeld met with Bush and told him the Pentagon might need more money this year, saying he has "bills due that I don't know how to pay," said an official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Rumsfeld told the president that when his review is completed, he might suggest adding to the $310 billion defense budget for 2002. "He left the door open," said the official, who said that even if Rumsfeld does not increase next year's budget, he would "tinker" with it and shift money to priority areas.
Meanwhile, top uniformed officers are trying to determine how they will pay for critical shortages for the current year.
"Ship maintenance is behind dramatically," said one Navy officer, who predicted a "train wreck" without the $2 billion the service needs for ship repair and for aircraft spare parts and fuel.
Navy and Air Force officials have told Rumsfeld that they might have to "shut down flying" without more money to pay their bills. "We stop flying or you take it out of other accounts, and those other accounts are personnel," said a Navy officer.
The Army says it needs about $2.6 billion this year to continue paying for its transformation from a Cold War-era force of heavy artillery and tanks to a leaner, lighter force that can quickly deploy to hot spots around the world. Some of that money is required for upkeep of bases, along with spare parts and training, an officer said.
Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, a Pentagon spokesman, said yesterday that Rumsfeld saw no need for an immediate infusion of cash.
But Sens. John McCain of Arizona and John W. Warner of Virginia, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, along with seven other Republican senators on that committee, disagree. In a letter to Bush on Wednesday, they said that while they support his call for a Pentagon review, the military urgently needs more money.
"There are bills which must be paid now," the senators wrote, pointing to aircraft fuel and spare parts that total $1.4 billion. "That force could be called on to act at any time, and it must be ready."
Moreover, more money must be put into next year's Pentagon budget, they wrote, to help address the military's "critical" needs, and there should be "significant increases" beginning in 2003.
"As you and Vice President Cheney pointed out frequently during the campaign, there are serious readiness and personnel problems which require immediate attention," the senators wrote. "It is important that we quickly address these problems and fix the force that is currently in place."
The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Bob Stump, an Arizona Republican, also pressed for more money this week, saying: "President Bush has inherited a defense program that is woefully underfunded and facing critical and immediate shortfalls."