By John Rhea
WASHINGTON - Despite showing a belated interest in ballistic missile defense (BMD) and promising to reverse past declines in procurement spending, the $250.7 billion fiscal year 1998 defense budget that Clinton Administration leaders submitted to Congress last month is unlikely to satisfy military or congressional critics who are clamoring for new weapons programs.
Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and many congressional Republicans are asking for an additional $60 billion for procurement that supports modernization.
Research, development, test, and evaluation (RDT&E), the other critical account for the electronics industry, fares even worse. This year`s level of $36.6 billion is due to fall to $35.9 billion next year and then continue dropping to $32.9 billion in 2001.
Pentagon top management, from Defense Secretary William Cohen all the way down, make it clear that modernization is a remote third place on their priority list, falling behind maintaining the operational readiness of current forces and providing an adequate quality of life for military personnel and their families.
However, the priorities may change materially with the completion of the Quadrennial Defense Review, a periodic exercise in adjusting the types of weapons needed and the amounts to be spent to the latest projected threats from potential enemies.
A top-level group of advisors known as the National Defense Panel is reviewing whether Pentagon leaders can reduce costs by changing their policy of being able to fight two regional conflicts simultaneously. Also being considered are closing more unnecessary military bases.
The defense budget, which represents just 14.8 percent of the $1.7 trillion that the Clinton Administration is requesting to run the entire federal government next year, also is caught in a squeeze between entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare (52.8 percent) and interest on the national debt (14.8 percent).
Cohen, a Republican and former senator from Maine, in responding to criticism that the DOD request was a "tread-water" budget, reminded a Pentagon news briefing, "We also have a very strong movement on Capitol Hill for a balanced budget."
Within this context, it`s not surprising that Cohen and other defense officials stressed ballistic missile defense, a favorite among congressional leaders.
Another $17.9 billion for BMD is projected for the five succeeding fiscal years - $2.4 billion more than administration officials had planned when they submitted last year`s DOD budget.
This money would speed up the Theater High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) program and Navy ship-based missile defense system. THAAD which would receive $722 million next year, while Navy missile defense would get $252 million, both for deployment in 2004.
Other key BMD programs include the Patriot PAC-3, Medium Extended Air Defense System and the Air Force Airborne Laser (ABL).
For NMD, the budget anticipates completing sufficient research and development by 2000 to meet the congressional mandate of deployment by 2003 - providing that the tests are successful and the threat is determined to be sufficient to require this kind of protection.
Other major procurement and RDT&E programs highlighted in the 1998 budget by service:
Procurement: Longbow Apache helicopter, Patriot PAC-3 missile, family of medium tactical vehicles, M1 tank upgrade, and SINCGARS radio. RDT&E: Comanche helicopter, Crusader artillery system, and battlefield digitization.
Procurement: F/A-18 E/F aircraft, DDG-51 destroyer, and New Attack Submarine, plus the Marine Corps V-22 tiltrotor aircraft and remanufactured AV-8B light attack aircraft. RDT&E: Arsenal ship, ship self defense, and cooperative engagement capability.
Procurement: C-17 airlifter, E-8B Joint STARS aircraft, global positioning system satellites, and Titan IV space boosters. RDT&E: F-22 fighter, MILSTAR communications satellites, space-based infrared system, ABL, and evolved expendable launch vehicle.
Procurement: command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance upgrades. RDT&E: joint programs such as the Navy/Air Force Joint Strike Fighter, smart munition programs, and the AIM-9X missile.