It was a sign of the times March 23 when Senate Democrats overwhelmingly rejected an appeal from Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, to limit defense reductions to the level that President Bill Clinton campaigned on last fall. That irony, however, was eclipsed a week later when Secretary of Defense Les Aspin revealed the Clinton Administration's budget proposal.
The plan he announced March 27 roughly doubled the reductions mentioned in the campaign. It went deeper than a revised proposal Mr. Clinton floated in February. It also undercut both the Senate and House defense budget resolutions adopted in March.
Secretary Aspin laid out a five-year defense program $254.2 billion below the baseline forecast by the 1990 budget summit--$131.7 billion lower than the final projection of the Bush Administration. Mr. Aspin said his budgeteers were "treading water" until they could plumb for the real depths.
By Mr. Aspin's reckoning, defense spending will fall (after inflation) by forty-two percent between 1985 and 1997. In 1998, he says, defense outlays will drop to 3.0 percent of the Gross Domestic Product. We can assume this to be a ceiling, not a floor. The next proposal will be lower.
As Senator Nunn has complained, "We have been dealing with numbers grabbed out of the air. No one knows where these cuts are going to come from." The Clinton budget forecasts dollar reductions through 1998 but makes no detailed projection of force structure or personnel strength beyond 1994.
Those--such as House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ronald Dellums (D-Calif.)--who want deeper reductions see that as an opportunity rather than a problem. "The faster that we get to the issue of force structure, the more money we'll be able to save," Mr. Dellums said. The chance for that will come in the "Bottom-Up Review" that Secretary Aspin has ordered for defense needs and programs.
Mr. Dellums is hardly alone in calling for harsher cuts. The literary and liberal communities are in full cry. The New York Times says Mr. Clinton's reductions do not go far enough. The Defense Budget Project (whose former boss, Gordon Adams, is now an official in the Clinton Administration) prescribes a troop level of 1.2 million rather than the 1.4 million Mr. Clinton suggested in his election campaign.
That would give the United States parity in military manpower with North Korea, whose forces number 1.2 million. But why stop there? Deborah Shapley, writing in the Washington Post, scored the Clinton cuts as "incrementalism" and endorsed a proposal by William Kaufmann of the Brookings Institution to reduce the force to 1.1 million.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is among those taking strong exception. "We are not cutting defense spending relative to today's force," he says, but "relative to a force that is already intended to be twenty-five percent smaller." He sees a "devastating impact" on US status as a world power as the force that won the Persian Gulf War erodes. Between 1991 and 1998, he estimates, capabilities would shrink from twenty-eight Army divisions to fourteen, from thirteen carriers to eight, from 545 combat ships to 340, from fifteen carrier air wings to eight, from three Marine Expeditionary Forces to two, from thirty-six Air Force fighter wings to nineteen, and from 268 bombers to 141.
Senator Nunn points out that "the defense cuts proposed by the Administration make up eighty-five percent of all the net spending outlay reductions in the budget proposal" and come on top of substantial defense cuts made earlier. Such observations make Senator Nunn unpopular with Administration insiders. Twits in the media depict Nunn as obstructionist and petulant. A recent cartoon in the Economist, for example, dressed him in a diaper.
Senator Nunn is right. So is Senator McCain. The Clinton Administration and its supporters are hacking blindly. Neither we nor they know what the consequences will be. A half-dozen crises in progress or threatening in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East have not moderated the urge to cut.
The New York Times assures us our forces are adequate and, to boot, superbly equipped. "US weapon systems are unrivaled, so production of new tanks, planes, and ships can be put off for a decade or more," its editorial writers declare. Mark that.
These are the same weapon systems that have been subjected to unrelenting attack by the news media and the defense cutters at every point in design, development, testing, and introduction for the past twenty years. It is good to know at last that their quality is "unrivaled."
What we are witnessing here is nothing less than the destruction of national defense. At some point--and the latest budget projections might not be far from it--the United States will cease to be a superpower. At another point (perhaps not discernable at the time), we will put ourselves on a course toward the failure of American arms in some future conflict.
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