WASHINGTON — You've got to hand it to Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.), despite his momentary insensitivity to taxpayers.
With an offhand joke at the recent confirmation hearing for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Cleland unintentionally put the spotlight on the greatest obstacle to the Bush administration's plan to construct a missile-defense system.
That obstacle isn't the considerable public opposition within the United States to missile defense. It isn't the resistance of U.S. allies or of Russia or China, serious though that may be.
No, the biggest hurdle to missile defense will be the competition for dollars within the U.S. defense budget--that is, all the other priorities that the Bush administration, the Pentagon and members of Congress like Cleland have for military spending.
During Rumsfeld's confirmation hearing, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was lamenting the poor living conditions for American troops.
"I was just down at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma," McCain said. "They're still living in World War II barracks. And we're purchasing equipment that the military neither wants nor needs."
As an example, McCain cited the continuing production of C-130 transport planes, "which 10 years ago, the U.S. Air Force said they didn't need. . . . We're going to have a C-130 in every schoolyard in America before this is over."
Enter Cleland. Those transport planes happen to be made in his home state. Instinctively, he rushed to their defense.
"Since the C-130s are built in Georgia," Cleland retorted, "I'd like to say that I'm for schoolyards being able to be moved anywhere in the world on a moment's notice."
This is the Washington climate into which Bush's missile-defense program will be introduced. Everybody has his or her own ideas for how to spend more bucks on defense. Everybody has new pet projects that the country can't live without or favorite old programs that can't be killed.
For defense contractors, the arrival of the Bush administration represents the biggest new opportunity since the Reagan administration. Bush, after all, promised in his campaign to give greater money and attention to the military.
"The [Pentagon] expects more money because George Bush is president, and so the games have begun," says Gordon Adams, director of security policy studies at George Washington University. "We're in a bidding war right now, and missile defense is in competition with a lot of other high bidders."
There are at least three different constituencies for new money in the defense budget, and Bush supported all three of them during his campaign.
One is missile defense. Another is what is usually called readiness--that is, more money to recruit, pay and train American forces and keep them well equipped. "Our military is low on parts, pay and morale," Bush declared in his acceptance speech at the Republican convention in Philadelphia last summer.
A third constituency for new money is the desire for so-called generation-skipping weapon systems that would advance American military technology far beyond its current levels.
But these are just the constituencies for new money. They don't include the constituencies for all the hardware and other defense programs that already are underway.
The Pentagon has all sorts of expensive new weapon systems in the works: the F-22 fighter plane, the Joint Strike Fighter, the DD-21 stealth ship and many others. Every one of these programs has its supporters, both inside the Pentagon and in Congress.
In some instances, the defense budget includes money the Pentagon itself didn't seek.
At Rumsfeld's hearing, McCain cited an amazing set of statistics. In 1975-76, the last time Rumsfeld was Defense secretary, the "unrequested add-ons" in the defense budget--the projects Congress tacked on even though no one in the executive branch asked for them--added up to about $200 million to $300 million a year.
Now, 15 years later, these unrequested add-ons have jumped to at least $6 billion a year.
By itself, missile defense will add huge new demands on the defense budget. Even the more limited land-based system that former President Clinton was considering was estimated to cost $60 billion. No one knows the price tag for a more extensive system with sea and space components, but Adams says a $100-billion estimate "might be conservative."
So the real question becomes: What other hardware or programs might the Bush administration kill to save money that can help pay for missile defense?
"The military leaders don't want this [missile defense] at all," asserts Lawrence Korb of the Council on Foreign Relations. "They see a lot of money going into something that is not going to work that well."
Of course, in theory, the Bush administration doesn't have to cut any of these programs. It could decide to go ahead with money for missile defense, readiness, generation-skipping weaponry and the other programs in the existing budget too. But if it does, there's not going to be much left over for a tax cut.
"I don't know how you upgrade weapons systems, improve procurement, improve the quality of life for soldiers, sailors and airmen, cut taxes and also do missile defense," says Stephen Blank, a professor at the Army War College. "Something has to give somewhere."
Maybe, with apologies to Cleland, we'll have to stop trying to produce so much military hardware that we can transport schoolyards overseas.
Jim Mann's column appears in this space every Wednesday.