WASHINGTON — The only way to reform the Pentagon, one of President Bush's top advisors has been fond of declaring, is to "fire a few generals."
It has yet to come to that. But the Bush administration has sent tremors through the huge defense bureaucracy by serving notice it plans to impose the most extensive remaking of the nation's military in years.
Fancy new fighter planes, helicopters, destroyers--technology the military has long planned on buying--are now on the table. An arsenal of nuclear warheads that has been sacrosanct for decades may be cut by two-thirds.
And the extra $50 billion to $90 billion in spending that the generals had been anticipating will not be coming this year--and maybe not in 2002, either, unless the military can justify it, the new defense team said.
Those prospects have jolted many officers who spent two terms under Bill Clinton nostalgic for the first President Bush and President Reagan, who they felt were stronger advocates for the military.
"I'm not ready to say I'm yearning for life under the [Clinton administration]," said one officer, who asked to remain unidentified. "But it certainly was less nerve-racking."
While pro-defense Republicans in Congress have been polite in their public comments about the new president, in private some have expressed a different view.
"We beat up on the Clinton administration for years for letting down defense spending," said an aide to one GOP senator. "Now this. And what are the Democrats going to say about us in 2002?"
Some longtime friends of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld have howled. Frank Gaffney, head of the Center for Security Policy, a pro-defense think tank with which Rumsfeld is associated, wrote that for the administration to withhold spending "would be fully to implicate the new administration in [its] predecessor's treatment of the U.S. military."
It is not that the Bush team's plans were a big secret.
During the campaign, Bush said that he would review the military's needs, top to bottom, to reshape the services for the post-Cold War world and possibly "skip a generation" of new weapons in favor of more advanced technology.
Bush talked about adding money, though only $45 billion over 10 years, less than half of what his Democratic rival, Vice President Al Gore, was promising.
Though his message was plain, many at the Pentagon and in Congress focused more on what Bush also said about taking care of the neglected needs for better pay, housing, spare parts and equipment. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, who had increased their budget requests gradually for the last two years, suddenly began telling congressional backers that they would need to hike the $297-billion defense budget by as much as one-third.
But earlier this month, as the White House prepared plans for a $1.6-trillion tax cut, administration officials let out the word that they intended to stick with Clinton's $297-billion defense budget for the fiscal year that begins in October while they figure out where the military's real needs are. And they would not even commit themselves to the "emergency" supplemental spending bill of $7 billion to $8 billion that the services had been expecting early in the administration.
What's more, top administration officials, while acknowledging that spending had been neglected, were also dropping broad hints that they are prepared to buck the tide of history by killing big procurement programs, even at advanced stages.
Vice President Dick Cheney, for example, recalled last month in a television discussion of the Marines' trouble-plagued hybrid aircraft, the Osprey, that as Defense secretary in the early 1990s he "tried to kill it three times."
The president's message in all this, said John Hillen III, a former Bush defense consultant and speech writer, "is, in my view, simple: 'I'm in charge. You work for me. Period.' "
Adding to the Pentagon's sense of powerlessness, the team is bypassing the Defense bureaucracy as it tries to figure out the military's needs.
Pentagon planners have been laboring for months on a ponderous planning exercise called the Quadrennial Defense Review, with the aim of delivering recommendations at year's end. Four years ago, a similar exercise produced a document that recommended little change in the status quo.
But Rumsfeld plans to have his review conducted by Andrew W. Marshall, an iconoclastic in-house defense analyst, who has been teaching reformist doctrine within the Pentagon since the Richard Nixon administration.
Marshall in the past has called into question the value of some of the U.S.' most beloved weapons.
He has argued that the Air Force's new F-22 Stealth fighter has too short a flying range and that the Army's 72-ton M1 tanks and the Navy's aircraft carriers are too vulnerable to enemy attack.
Rumsfeld has ordered that the new review be completed by mid-March--a schedule guaranteeing that the big Pentagon planning study due later in the year will have little importance.