Pentagon sets its sights on bigger budget

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The Independent Online
PRESIDENT Bill Clinton is about to face an onslaught from the Pentagon, which wants more money to pay for new weapons programmes. This is the most probable explanation for a memo by the Deputy Defense Secretary, John Deutch, ordering the army, navy and air force to prepare plans to cancel some of their favourite new weapons systems.

The memo, which landed on desks in the Pentagon last Thursday, was instantly leaked to the press. Some dollars 15bn (9.7bn) is needed for pay increases and better housing for servicemen, Mr Deutch says commanders must consider cancelling such programmes as the army's new Comanche helicopter and delaying for four years the air force's purchase of 422 F-22 fighters.

It is unlikely that such swingeing cuts will occur. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US military has demonstrated that it has the political clout to defend its budget, which is still higher than at the height of the Cold War in 1950-65. The real purpose of Mr Deutch's memo is rather to put the White House and Congress on notice that the Pentagon wants more cash.

The demand was foreshadowed earlier in the year. General John Shalikashvili, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in February: 'The risk we run today is that we will become complacent, that we will cancel one modernisation programme after another because we do not have a terrifying ogre knocking at the door.'

Even without an ogre in the shape of the Soviet Union the Pentagon has done well in resisting cutbacks. For the next fiscal year the defence budget will be dollars 264bn, which is about what the rest of the world spends altogether on defence. The next biggest defence spender in the world after the US is Japan, which spends dollars 40bn.

Generals and their congressional allies complain bitterly of the fall in defence spending since 1987 but their point of comparison is always the free-for-all years of President Reagan. Republican Senator John McCain, who as a pilot was shot down over Vietnam, says President Clinton 'has emasculated the military', though in real terms spending is still 17 per cent above what it was in 1980.

The US Navy, for instance, is to build a new aircraft-carrier at a cost of dollars 6.5bn, though it will have to retire an existing carrier early to make room for it. Some 80 US submarines are still deployed to protect allied convoys from attack by their Soviet counterparts and make forays into Soviet waters in the event of war.

The numbers in the armed forces have fallen from 2.1 million at their peak to 1.6 million today. But congressmen and senators are deeply resistant to military-base and defence-plant closures which affect their states. Black congressmen know that in ghettoes the military has long provided the best jobs going. President Clinton himself is eager to help the defence industry in southern California, a state critical to his hopes of re-election in 1996.

Last year the White House did replace Les Aspin as Secretary of Defense, in part because he wanted a bigger budget. But the fiasco of his replacement by Admiral Bobby Inman, who withdrew his nomination in a bizarre press conference claiming a press conspiracy against him, has made Mr Clinton very dependent on the present Defense Secretary, William Perry. Though very much a spokesman for the Joint Chiefs, he cannot be sacked.

Mr Deutch's memo makes clear that the Pentagon cannot pay for its present needs, but it is unlikely that the solution to its problems will be a wave of cancelled programmes. 'He is lobbying for more money,' says Robert Borosage, director of the Campaign for New Priorities. Given the strength of the Pentagon's allies in Congress, Mr Clinton is in a poor position to resist their demands.