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BUSH BUDGET MISSED SOMETHING: IT'S TIME FOR CUTS IN DEFENSE WHY DOES ADMINISTRATION WANT AN INCREASE?

EVERYONE IN America is looking for the "peace dividend," the reductions in defense spending that should be possible from the end of the Cold War and the dramatic democratic gains in Eastern Europe. One study even suggested $500 billion could be saved over the next decade.

So why does President Bush's new budget actually proposes an increase in defense spending from the current $296 billion to $303 billion? This is being lamely presented as a reduction of 2 percent after inflation.

Where is the peace dividend? Budget Director Richard G. Darman says it is not going to be as large "as some naively think at the moment." A lot of members of Congress are going to take issue with that, and they should.

The president says his defense proposals reflect "the dramatic changes in the world political situation." But do they really? Some few steps have been taken, but Defense Secretary Dick Cheney warned that this is "the worst possible time to contemplate changes in defense strategy." It sounds like business as usual at the Pentagon.

The cuts that have been made are welcome. The proposed 38,000 reduction in personnel would mean savings, but it would be less than 2 percent of the 2 million people now in the armed forces.

Positive proposals, but too few

The Navy would retire two World War II battleships, four old subs and two cruisers. Twenty weapons systems would be terminated, with a savings of $2.9 billion. The closing or realignment of 72 military bases at home and abroad will be studied.

Other Pentagon by the Pentagon, however, suggest a reluctance to change old patterns of thinking. It would like a billion for another Trident submarine and $1.7 billion for Trident nuclear missiles. It wants five more B-2 "Stealth" bombers at a cost of $530 million each. It wants $2 billion more than last year for MX and Midgetman missiles and a billion extra for "Star Wars" defense.

The future of many weapon systems that seemed essential at the height of the Cold War may now be in doubt as arms talks continue. In the meantime, with the prospect of a frontal assault on Western Europe "remote," as Cheney put it, there is no urgency to rush new weapons into production.

We have time to assess our defense needs for the years ahead, rather than rushing to deploy weapons that might have to be destroyed in a new arms-reduction agreement.

Take a look at the big items

Annual defense spending doubled during the Reagan years, and a key figure in helping to guide the steady arms buildup was Richard Perle, then assistant defense secretary. Perle was so intent on arms spending that he viewed many arms negotiations with either skepticism or alarm. But today even Perle says "the Soviet empire is collapsing" and it is time to cut back.

Perle suggests "skipping the next generation of weapons systems" in order to benefit from new research in a few years. He favors dropping both the MX and the Midgetman and "making do" with the current generation of nuclear and conventional weapons.

He does like Star Wars and the Stealth bomber. Both are questionable because of cost and technological complications and may not deserve his ringing endorsement. But in talking about the big systems that cost big money, Perle is raising the right questions.

Democrats in Congress would like to see defense cutbacks of up to $12 billion, and that could responsibly be achieved if they avoid the pork-barrel tactics of last year, when programs canceled by the Pentagon were actually restored by Congress. The proposed closing of useless military bases is already stirring an uproar among congressmen whose districts are affected.

It is disappointing that Secretary Cheney has done little more than slow the growth of defense spending. Looking ahead, Cheney projected more after-inflation 2 percent "cutbacks" over the next five years. In actual dollars, that would bring the defense budget to $326 billion by 1995. What kind of peace dividend is that?

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