US army finds cash is the best defence

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The Independent Online
THE CUDDLY relationship between Congress, the US military and the mighty dollar has rarely been so brazen. When the House Armed Services Committee convened last week to interview the Chiefs of Staff, the politicians actually passed a giant whiteboard around, asking the military supremos to write down exactly how much money they wanted.

After 15 years when reductions were the order of the day, the US defence budget is on its way up. The White House has proposed adding an extra $12bn (over pounds 7bn) to the Pentagon's budget for 2000, or "double zero" as the military call it, part of a package that contains an extra $110bn for the next six years. This has triggered an immediate and predictable row, with the hawks saying it is too little and the doves saying it is far too much, without shedding much light on what it's actually for.

The cash is for "readiness," the military term to describe getting units up to speed, well maintained, trained and ready to go. Over the past few years, the services say, readiness has slipped badly. The budget has come down, but the "operational tempo" has risen as US forces have been deployed to Bosnia, the Gulf, the Adriatic and so on.

Critics insist the cash is more than is needed to match commitments with resources. So the generals stress that the other face of readiness is "modernisation" - buying more shiny new things, like the new F-22 Raptor for the Air Force and the new Attack Submarines for the Navy. This, in the view of the vast military-industrial complex spread out around the nation, is the principal purpose of the US armed services.

The deal also neatly solves a problem for President Clinton and his lack of rapport with the military: the Democrats have promised a few extra billion dollars and protected a vulnerable political flank.

The only problem is that, as they say in Washington: a billion here, a billion there and pretty soon you're talking real money.