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Defense Spending Reality Check

February 11, 2001

There was muted jubilation in the Pentagon over George W. Bush's election, reflecting a belief among top military officers that his administration would move quickly to raise defense spending. The brass should have paid closer attention to what Bush said during his run for the White House.

While faulting the Clinton administration for spending too little on the armed forces, Bush avoided promising that he would spend a lot more. Instead he spoke of raising military spending by only $45 billion in this decade, less than half of what Al Gore proposed. While that figure may not be chiseled in stone, President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld have warned the service chiefs not to expect a major increase any time soon. In fact, they plan to stay with Bill Clinton's proposed $310-billion budget for the next fiscal year, an increase of $14 billion over the current budget. Much of that will go for pay raises, better housing and higher health and fuel costs.

Bush's reasons for moving cautiously are strategically and fiscally sound. He doesn't want to commit to any major new spending until Rumsfeld has thoroughly reviewed where the military stands now and what it should be preparing for in the years ahead. One thing it need not do is plan--as it has for many years--on possibly fighting two major regional conflicts at once. That contingency, usually defined as having to go to war simultaneously on the Korean peninsula and in the Persian Gulf, has not been credible for the better part of a decade. It's time to bring military planning, and spending, into line with more plausible threats to national security.

Bush has shown interest in saving money by "skipping a generation" in technology advances, implying he might want to cancel particularly costly projects or those that would only marginally improve performance or readiness. It is a sensible approach. There is no longer an arms race with the Soviet Union or anyone else.

The administration seems especially skeptical about moving ahead with all three new fighter planes under development, one of which, the F-22, is projected to cost $180 million a copy. Other projects in line for a deserved close look are the Marines' trouble-plagued V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, the Navy's proposed DD-21 stealth destroyer and the Army's bulky Crusader artillery system.

Bush's priority of identifying and investing in the right long-term strategies before spending more on weapons doesn't mean that all new military spending should be put on hold. Besides spending what's necessary to improve morale and retention rates, funding for maintenance and training should increase. Meanwhile, billions in unnecessary expenditures still wait to be eliminated. Congress suffers a collective anxiety attack whenever the subject of closing redundant military bases is raised, but the administration should raise it nonetheless. It's scandalous to go on spending money on these unneeded Cold War artifacts.

The military chiefs recently told Congress that they would need an additional $90 billion a year for years to come to buy the new weapons systems now in development. The Bush administration is signaling that the services have to bring their expectations into line with strategic realities. And it is making clear that it, not the military, will be in charge of the budget. That's the right approach to national security, and to fiscal responsibility.

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