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$2.7-Billion Plan Drafted to Enhance Military Life


WASHINGTON — Hoping to boost the quality of life in the armed forces, the Pentagon announced an ambitious $2.7-billion initiative Thursday to modernize and build new military housing, enhance family-support programs and raise military paychecks for those who live in high-cost areas like Los Angeles.

The programs, which officials hope to begin by the next fiscal year and continue until the end of the decade, underscore a belief by senior defense officials that modern American soldiers are under increasing stress as they are called on to defuse more and more regional crises around the globe.

"We have the highest quality force in our nation's history," said Defense Secretary William J. Perry. "But there are stress points that need to be addressed if we want to maintain that quality into the future."

Added Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: "We cannot jeopardize the backbone of our armed forces, the core of military excellence--our people. This is not merely a sentiment but it is a conviction."

Pentagon officials said that the initiatives will not require an increase in defense spending. Instead, the money will be shifted from programs for modernization and other technological improvements that had been planned for the years ahead. Perry would not specify which of those programs would be cut but he suggested that keeping troop morale high is more important at this point than investing in new weapons systems.

"To the extent it's necessary to trade off between modernization on the one hand and readiness items on the other, I am prepared to do that in favor of readiness," he said.

He also declined to comment on whether the public would support increased defense spending as proposed by some Republicans taking over key roles in Congress.

"I'm not making any assumptions at this point about increases in the top line of the Pentagon budget," the secretary said. "We will meet with the new committee chairman and get their views and their programs."

He added that he and other Pentagon officials have worked well with members of both political parties in Congress. "I don't have any basis as I stand here for seeing a discontinuity in decisions or judgments about support for our defense program," Perry said.

The main elements of the six-year program call for keeping 10,000 on-base homes that otherwise would close for lack of maintenance, making repairs to another 5,000 barracks spaces and establishing "private sector housing ventures" to stimulate new home building projects.

Other highlights are paycheck boosts of up to $167 a month for some 30,000 enlisted people living in communities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York where housing prices are high, and improved child care centers, recreation programs and base commissaries.

The goal, Perry said, is to make a military career more enjoyable.

He noted that as the military reduces its size, "many service members question their long-term commitment and the prospects of a full career." He said that the turbulence of base closures "has disrupted" many military families.

Fighter squadrons in Europe are being moved around even "before families were settled," he said, and a "high operational tempo has put an extra strain on selected units."

In the Air Force alone, he said, the number of service members deployed away from home is four times as high as it was just five years ago.

Easing some of these stress levels will go a long way to improving the overall effectiveness of the military, he predicted.

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