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Several Weapon Systems Feel Pinch of Defense Spending Cuts : Military: Pentagon budget proposal halts production of B-2 bomber and Seawolf submarine. More funds are sought for 'Star Wars.'

January 30, 1992|MELISSA HEALY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Dick Cheney on Wednesday unveiled a 1993 defense budget that scales back or cancels several weapon systems, including the B-2 bomber and the Seawolf submarine, while seeking more funds for development of "Star Wars" missile defenses and holding the line on personnel cuts.

At the same time, Cheney warned that U.S. officials' "shaky record" of predicting dramatic shifts in the world situation should inspire caution in those--especially in Congress--who would make further reductions.

In his State of the Union speech Tuesday, President Bush implicitly threatened to veto a 1993 defense bill that would cut forces more deeply than his budget proposal. But as Democratic lawmakers lined up Wednesday to criticize the Pentagon budget request, Cheney said he would work with Congress to alter the plan if necessary.

"I don't want to be in a position where we say to the Congress that they've got to approve this plan without change," Cheney said. "I'm not foolish enough to think that that's realistic." But he called it "just . . . plain stupid" to seek further savings by cutting military personnel beyond the 1997 "base force" level of 1.6 million servicemen and women.

Cheney's budget would trim $10 billion from earlier Defense Department spending estimates for 1993. It would cut a combined $50 billion from projected defense spending between 1992 and 1996.

After accounting for inflation, the new $280-billion proposal would return defense spending levels to roughly those of 1960, when the Cold War was in full flower. But unlike that year, the Pentagon's top brass is now ordering major cuts in the nation's nuclear arsenal in 1993 and beyond as well as putting significant new limits on the production of futuristic weapons.

Cheney ordered a halt in the development of a small intercontinental ballistic missile--dubbed Midgetman--and canceled production of a radar-eluding cruise missile and the W-88 nuclear warhead, which was to have given unprecedented destructive capability to U.S. missiles aboard submarines.

Those cuts would be the first of a far more sweeping nuclear arms-reduction plan that Bush said he would carry out if the Commonwealth of Independent States--formed out of former Soviet republics--agrees to dismantle its most powerful land-based missiles, those that carry more than one nuclear warhead. Cheney on Wednesday called Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin's initial reaction to Bush's challenge "a very positive first step," but urged Yeltsin to reconsider his apparent opposition to U.S. efforts to develop the "Star Wars" shield against missile attacks.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union could result in cutting the U.S. nuclear arsenal to about a quarter of its current level, defense officials said. But Cheney made clear that it also has set the stage for a major change in the Pentagon's weapons-buying strategies.

Cheney and Deputy Defense Secretary Donald J. Atwood detailed what Atwood called a "fundamental new approach to acquisition," under which all but a few weapons-development programs would be halted before reaching the large-scale production phase. Officials said the new Pentagon approach would help maintain the U.S. armed forces' technological edge over potential adversaries while saving substantial sums in procurement costs.

Now that the decades-long technological contest with the Soviet Union has ended, Atwood said the Pentagon would put new emphasis on developing and building modifications to enhance existing weapons.

Cheney cited the new acquisition policy as the basis for his decision to end production of the B-2 bomber at 20 aircraft, to halt construction of the Seawolf attack submarine after a single vessel is completed and to defer production of a new Army attack helicopter called the Comanche. Over the next five years, eliminating production of ten weapons systems is expected to reap taxpayers savings of $42.1 billion, according to the Pentagon.

The new acquisition policies, in addition to the proposed nuclear reductions, are expected to have a greater impact on California than on any other region of the country because defense contractors in the Golden State produce parts of nearly every weapon on Cheney's hit list. Statewide, more than 200,000 workers, including 175,500 in Los Angeles County, are employed in the defense and aerospace industry, according to the UCLA Business Forecast Project.

With the early termination of the B-2 bomber, Northrop Corp., which was to have built 75 of the radar-eluding aircraft, has been dealt a severe blow. Bush's decision to discontinue production of the advanced cruise missile, also a radar-eluding weapon, also will affect workers at General Dynamics Corp.'s Convair Division in San Diego.

"I would like to be able to say to everyone: 'No one's going to lose their job, this isn't going to have a negative impact on anybody's community,' " Cheney said. "I can't do that."

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