WASHINGTON — The Pentagon, which had hoped to focus its budget cuts on hardware, is now preparing a plan dubbed "Base Force II" that would accelerate troop reductions and virtually ensure the first personnel dismissals since the period following the Vietnam War.
The plan, which would be implemented over the next three years, is a retreat from the "base force"--the troop level that Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney last year said represented the "absolute rock-bottom minimum" needed for national defense.
While Pentagon officials said reductions beyond the "base force" would be slight, they warned that the latest plans call for an active-duty military smaller than 1,653,000 troops, the number at which they previously had hoped to hold the line.
The change is an effort to counter mounting congressional pressure for major manpower cuts, which some say would deliver large short-term savings that could be used for other domestic priorities. Still, Congress is likely to press for faster and larger military personnel reductions.
President Bush's 1993 budget package is expected to force military rolls down about 20% from 1987 levels. The Pentagon proposal would reduce the number of troops by almost 170,000 in 1993 alone--a modest acceleration of a drawdown that Cheney announced in 1991.
Overall, the reductions are projected to speed up the process of winnowing the Army's strength from 18 to 12 active-duty divisions, the Air Force's active-duty air-wings from 24 to 15 and the Navy's aircraft carriers from 14 to 12.
Government budget analysts estimate that over five years such an acceleration in manpower cuts could reduce Pentagon spending by $10 billion to $15 billion. They project only modest savings--less than $2.5 billion--in 1993 and 1994 together.
The manpower savings are part of a larger package of defense reductions, expected to reach $50 billion, that the Pentagon is now expected to propose in a 1993-1997 spending plan to be unveiled later this month. In drafting the spending blueprint, Pentagon leaders said they have struggled to stave off much deeper cuts in military manpower than those already planned.
To do so, officials said the Pentagon has agreed to significant cuts in the development and procurement of future weapons systems as well as sweeping changes in the nation's strategic nuclear arsenal.
Such changes, including the President's decision to terminate production of the B-2 bomber after 20 such aircraft are built, reflect the Administration's belief that the nation's nuclear-deterrent needs have changed more than has its need to maintain a conventional force capable of fighting military brush fires throughout the Third World.
"It's the nuclear equation that's been transformed," a senior Administration official said. "Our (nuclear) targeting requirements aren't as stressing as they used to be, so there's a lot of room for maintaining a prudent level of deterrence with less than we planned to do. And that's where you'll see big changes."
Those changes are expected to include the early retirement of several of the Navy's ballistic-missile-carrying submarines and the accelerated retirement of some of the nation's older nuclear missiles and bombers.
While those changes will bring some quick savings in the military's operations accounts, Pentagon budget makers discovered that they could not elude further and faster manpower cuts if they were to meet the President's five-year targets for savings.
For Cheney and Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the accelerated manpower cuts present a political problem as well. Last year, both men told Congress that their blueprint for manpower cuts represented a base force that could not safely be reduced further.
"On this glide path, we will reach a base force which I believe is not prudent to go below if we wish to match enduring defense needs with enduring realities," Powell said last March. He warned that the nation risks forfeiting its status as a superpower if it cuts more deeply into military rolls.
Now, with the Pentagon expected to make modest reductions beyond that level, a knowledgeable defense official said that Cheney and Powell are seeking "a little wiggle room" from their earlier statements. "We have sort of become victims of our own rhetoric here," the official said.
But Pentagon officials continue to insist that while they can reduce their ranks a bit faster than planned, the nation's military commitments will not allow them to shrink the military significantly more than already has been planned. As a result, officials said that manpower cuts below the base-force level of 1.65 million will be slight.
Even reducing faster, however, is nearly certain to result in some dismissals, which military leaders have said they desperately want to avoid.