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'Star Wars' Era Ends as Aspin Changes Focus

May 14, 1993|MELISSA HEALY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"But now we need to adjust our funding levels for missile defense to reflect that reality and put a good portion of the savings toward deficit reduction," Bumpers said. "I believe we've got to make real reductions in the program this year. The threat we're facing now isn't Soviet missiles, it's the budget deficit."

Another longtime critic of the program, Sen. Jim Sasser (D-Tenn.) charged that Aspin "is putting 'Star Wars' through the equivalent of the witness protection program: They've given it a new name and a new identity." But he cautioned that the new program faces the same questions as the old one.

"Why is it growing faster than anything in the federal budget--even faster than Medicare, Medicaid and interest on the debt?" Sasser asked. "Do we really need to build a defense system that will benefit our allies most? And if we do, why should U.S. taxpayers bear most of the cost?"

Steinbruner and others said the changes Aspin has ordered may help preserve the political viability of the Pentagon's missile-defense program in Congress. But they said Aspin's initiative will likely lead to deeper budget cuts in the years ahead.

In Aspin's 1994 budget submission, spending on space-based defenses accounts for roughly half of the $3.8 billion requested for the missile-defense program. The space efforts are likely to be cut even more in the coming years if they take a back seat to work on defenses against short-range missiles.

The Central Intelligence Agency has estimated that, within roughly the next decade, a Third World power could build nuclear weapons and the long-range missiles needed to reach the United States.

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