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The Virginian-Pilot January 28, 2002

Defense plan throws money at many yet may be lacking


WASHINGTON -- After a decade of lean budgets, the Pentagon and the rest of America's defense establishment geared up last week for a gold rush. Days ago ``we were ripping stuff out'' of military budget proposals when it appeared there wouldn't be enough money, said one civilian defense consultant.

But Thursday morning, hours after President Bush announced plans for $48 billion in new military spending, the consultant was busy answering an admiral's demand for ideas on how a long-term research program might be accelerated with fresh cash.

``All the services will see this as the mother lode,'' the consultant said. Particularly if it's sustained, others said, the Bush proposal is large enough to preserve today's Cold War weapons systems and guarantee the future of their successors.

Bush will not formally unveil his $378 billion military budget until Feb. 4. Still, what the president calls ``the largest increase in defense spending in 20 years'' will barely be enough to address the military's immediate needs, some uniformed leaders insisted. ``We're still not going to get well,'' said one Navy official.

Ship and aircraft purchase rates will continue to lag well behind what the Navy needs just to maintain today's force levels, he predicted. A pay raise trumpeted by Bush will barely match the growth in the cost of living, another official said.

A significant chunk of the money will go for ``must-pay'' bills, like spare parts for aircraft and replacement bombs to restock inventories depleted during the war in Afghanistan, agreed Steven Kosiak, an analyst at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a defense think tank.

But Kosiak and other analysts expect a furious scramble as military and industrial interests compete for shares of the money to jump-start or accelerate new weapons programs, while protecting established-but-aging systems.

Lost in the shuffle, some worry, may be Bush's opportunity to streamline the Pentagon bureaucracy and fashion the leaner, more agile fighting force he campaigned on and spoke of repeatedly during his first months in office.

The military still needs to reform business practices that routinely inflate costs and add years to the time needed to develop and deploy new weapons, said Mike Doubleday, a spokesman for Business Executives for National Security, a group that lobbies for military reforms.

It's tougher to force such changes when budgets are flush, he said. But ``if you're saddled with a 20th century support system based on hardware that takes five to 20 years to develop and old systems that no longer are responsive to the kinds of threats we face, it's going to encumber the warfighters.''

The main effect of the increase will be to ``reduce the pressure in making choices and prioritizing'' programs, said John Pike, founder of Globalsecurity.org, an Internet site on defense issues. ``There's not $40 billion of unmet needs in the war on terrorism,'' Pike asserted. Further, the $48 billion increase Bush seeks is more than the entire defense budget of Japan, now among the world's top three spenders on military programs, he noted.

Franklin C. Spinney, a civilian analyst in the Pentagon's tactical aircraft programs office, said there's also a danger that Bush's proposed increase will be used to launch -- or bolster -- a plethora of programs whose costs will surely balloon in future years. ``They can get the country pregnant before anyone realizes what's happened,'' Spinney said. That's exactly what occurred in the early years of the Reagan administration, when a Pentagon wish list of programs was ``front-loaded'' with money before their value was firmly established, he said.

As costs grew, Congress found it easier to pay the bills -- and preserve thousands of jobs that went with them -- than to look for cheaper alternatives, Spinney said. By the mid-1990s, the Pentagon found itself in what its top procurement officer called a ``death spiral,'' as the rising cost of weapons outstripped the nation's ability -- or willingness -- to buy them.

If Bush's entire defense plan is adopted, the 2003 Pentagon budget will exceed the average budget of the 40-year Cold War era, adjusted for inflation, Spinney said. Through most of that period, the United States had a force two to three times as large as today's military, he added.

Kosiak said the new Bush program could add up to $10 billion to weapons-procurement accounts in 2003, providing for development of more unmanned aircraft and new kinds of precision-guided bombs and missiles.

He said the new money, which should boost procurement accounts to a total of about $70 billion, also will guarantee the futures of expensive and controversial programs like the Air Force's F-22 Raptor fighter-bomber, the Marine Corps' V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor transport plane, and the Army's Crusader howitzer.

All those weapons were conceived during the Cold War to fight the now-defunct Soviet Union. The Osprey and Crusader, in particular, were considered vulnerable when Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld were focused on reshaping the force.

No more. With the war on terrorism driving a surge in spending and public support for the military, the administration apparently intends to pursue its ``transformational'' force while also preserving Cold War-legacy systems.

Meeting with reporters Thursday afternoon, Rumsfeld insisted that much of the new money will go to provide an active-duty pay raise promised by Bush, major new health benefits for military retirees, and additional research on next-generation weapons.

Health-care expenses in particular are soaring, defense officials said, in part because Congress decided in 2000 to provide care to military retirees over age 65 and their dependents. The 10-year cost of that benefit alone is estimated at more than $40 billion; retirees pay $50 per month for the coverage.

Repairs to the military's aged and sprawling infrastructure and the purchase of spare and replacement parts for Cold War-era ships, tanks, trucks and aircraft also will claim portions of the increase, Rumsfeld suggested. Appropriations for such necessities ``were underfunded, and not a little bit, but a lot,'' in the 1990s, he said.

``So you end up trying to take a 1934 Oldsmobile and prop it up for another five, six years, and there's a point beyond which that doesn't make good sense. We don't get rewards for having antiques in the military.''

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