WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Dick Cheney predicted Thursday that the Soviet Union will withdraw all of its troops from Europe by 1995, a forecast that prompted key Senate Democrats to question whether President Bush's new proposal for cutting U.S. forces should be faster and deeper.
As the Senate Armed Services Committee opened congressional debate on reshaping the nation's military structure, Cheney and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin L. Powell, were repeatedly challenged on the Administration's troop-reduction plans.
195,000 Force Level
Cheney, disclosing the Pentagon's rough timetable for cuts in Europe, testified that it may take a year or two to carry out any U.S.-Soviet agreement on the issue.
Bush announced Wednesday night that he was recommending that each side cut its combat forces in Central Europe to 195,000, with the United States allowed to have an additional 30,000 elsewhere in Europe. Currently, the United States has 305,000 troops on the continent.
Sen. Alan J. Dixon (D-Ill.), sharply criticizing the pace of negotiations, declared that he would push the subcommittee he heads to legislate an immediate reduction of 50,000 American troops in Europe and 10,000 in Korea.
Dixon said events are overtaking negotiations, with NATO allies West Germany and Belgium already planning their own deep cuts and Soviet forces certain to be kicked out by new governments in Eastern Europe.
"I'm not saying we should strip until we're naked," Dixon said. "There are reasonable, moderate, fair reductions we can make."
Later, Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) applauded Bush for going beyond his proposal of last May and advocating the withdrawal of 80,000 U.S. troops, not just the 30,000 he called for then. He called it "much more relevant to the changes in Europe and to the budget realities here at home."
But Nunn voiced strong concern when Cheney seemed to advocate keeping 225,000 U.S. troops in Europe indefinitely, despite his prediction that the Soviets would pull all of its forces out of Eastern Europe and the two Germanys would be reunited.
Nunn warned that unless the United States had plans to make substantial withdrawals in such a case, it could wind up supplying most of the ground forces for NATO as other allies disbanded their units.
The influential senator got Cheney to concede that the Administration would "take another look" at U.S. troop levels in the event of a sweeping Soviet pullback and German reunification.
Despite Cheney's expression of flexibility, the defense secretary firmly defended Bush's new plan. He asserted that any effort by Congress to make unilateral troop cuts before the conclusion of U.S.-Soviet arms control talks would undermine the NATO alliance and encourage greater instability in Europe.
"We are on the verge of winning one of the greatest victories in the history of the world without a shot being fired," Cheney said. "We should not unilaterally bring them (U.S. troops) home before we get an agreement."
Several Republicans on the committee strongly backed that position.
"We cannot let the euphoria sweeping this nation drive us to unilateral and hasty reductions in these forces," Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S. C.) said.
Although members of both parties warmly pledged to work cooperatively with Cheney and Powell in the battles ahead, several Democrats served notice that they would press for deep cuts in the Administration's proposals for increased spending on strategic weapons programs.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) proposed a "Democratic alternative" that he said would carve a $169-billion "peace dividend" out of the defense budget over the next five years, more than quadrupling the savings proposed by Bush for the same period.
Kennedy singled out the B-2 Stealth bomber, the "Star Wars" anti-missile program and other major programs for deep slashes. He argued that Bush's budget fails to reflect a dramatically diminished Soviet military threat and a massive upgrading of U.S. strategic weapons in the last decade.
"We have to have a modernization program," he said, "but does it have to be at the madcap pace of the 1980s?"
Cheney, while acknowledging major changes in the world, said that the Soviets continue to modernize their own strategic arsenal. "The Soviet Union remains the only nation on earth capable of destroying the United States," he said.
Powell likewise contended that this was no time for the nation to let down its guard.
"I never want to return to that leisurely, comfortable 'From Here to Eternity' attitude of the 1930s that helped invite global conflict to an unsuspecting world," he said.