Campaign ’88 The Issues Paying for Defense : Both Nominees Seen Evasive on Military Budget

Times Staff Writer

When Vice President George Bush was asked during the two presidential debates which weapons he would trim from the Defense Department’s budget, he offered up three programs that had already been killed and a fourth whose cancellation would produce no net savings.

As for his Democratic rival, Michael S. Dukakis said in an early interview that he would boost non-nuclear defenses to levels that would allow the United States and its allies to forswear the first use of nuclear weapons in the defense of Europe. He estimated the cost of the task at $3 billion over four to five years--less than one-tenth of the bill as estimated by the Defense Department.

“It’s a dreary campaign,” says William W. Kaufmann, a Harvard professor and Brookings Institution defense analyst. “Neither candidate is facing the hard fiscal issues that the next President is going to have to face.”

Both candidates seem convinced that their commitment to military strength packs a bigger political wallop than their allegiance to fiscal realism. The result, budget experts say, is a gaping mismatch between each candidate’s defense promises and budget resources.


“We’re in campaign rhetoric land,” says Gordon Adams, director of the Washington-based Defense Budget Project, a research center that has been critical of the Administration’s military spending priorities. “Alice would recognize the terrain.”

How the candidates would reconcile their rhetoric with reality remains uncertain.

For all of Bush’s promises to build upon President Reagan’s defense achievements, analysts say Congress and the Republican nominee’s own deficit-reduction program would be likely to force substantial cuts in Pentagon programs under a Bush Administration.

And despite Dukakis’ stated commitment to maintaining a strong and well-trained force under conventional arms, analysts caution that his budget-cutting goals would force greater sacrifices in American military muscle than the Democratic candidate is willing to concede.


Politically Popular

As President, either candidate will find that the quickest defense savings require slashing military pay, manpower and readiness funds, such as troop training and equipment maintenance. But those components are both militarily significant and politically popular, and each candidate has vowed to protect them from erosion.

By contrast, cutting weapons programs offers a broader range of possibilities and is less likely to inflict immediate damage on the nation’s military preparedness. But big savings are hard to come by. When weapons are in the development stage, relatively little money is spent on them; by the time they get to the big-spending production stage, multi-year contracts have already locked in large outlays.

Bush has vowed not to go that route.

He has committed himself to a deficit-reduction plan that could force as much as $70 billion in cuts over the next four years from the Pentagon’s current budget blueprint. But, he said during the Sept. 25 debate, “I don’t think it’s a question of eliminating” weapon systems.

In that debate with Dukakis, Bush said he would kill the A-6 Navy attack plane, the Divad air defense gun and decoys for Minuteman 3 missiles--all three of which have already been dropped from the Defense Department budget. In the Oct. 13 debate, he offered to kill the HEMTT, a 10-ton Army truck that the Army wants to abandon in favor of a more expensive truck.

Beyond those programs, Bush’s advisers say the vice president would achieve savings by pressing for reforms that would eliminate wasteful and fraudulent spending for weapons systems. And he would implement a bipartisan blueprint called “competitive strategies,” a collection of weapons and military strategies designed to exploit the weaknesses of U.S. adversaries.

Sparse Savings Seen


But even the most enthusiastic reformers concede that for all the revelations of $600 toilet seats and fraud in the procurement of major weapons, the savings that can be realized through tighter management are relatively sparse.

“The problem with waste, fraud and abuse is that it isn’t a line item in the budget,” Adams says. “It’s kind of a dodge for tough choices. You don’t get real savings until you cut programs.”

And as for Bush’s “competitive strategies,” they would not come free. A study of “competitive strategies” prepared for the Reagan White House urges deployment of nearly every weapons system initiated by the Reagan Administration--a torrent of programs for which, by Kaufmann’s calculations, a $900-billion bill would come due over roughly the next decade.

Bush’s defense posture has drawn derision from his Democratic opponent, who has charged that Bush is unwilling to make “the tough choices” that will be necessary in defense. When Bush promised during the Sept. 25 debate to modernize the nation’s land-based nuclear missile force, Dukakis quipped: “I hope it’s Christmas when you make that decision.”

For his own part, Dukakis has been vague about how much he would spend for defense, calling for “stability” in current budget levels of about $300 billion a year. Reagan’s Defense Department, by contrast, has planned for annual growth of about 2 percentage points more than inflation. The difference between that and no growth could total about $200 billion over four years.

Goes Slow on Choices

But the Dukakis campaign, tarred by Bush’s forces as anti-defense, has been wary of making any of the “tough choices” necessary to accomplish those savings.

Instead, Dukakis has preferred to stress his support for high-profile nuclear modernization programs, such as the $68-billion stealth bomber and the Navy’s submarine-launched D-5 missile, a program slated to cost $11 billion in the next three years alone, including the cost of building the Trident submarines on which it is to be based.


And he has vigorously backed improvements in non-nuclear programs, such as tank-killing weapons, battlefield communications gear and submarine-hunting technologies. Dukakis has called the improvement of such conventional forces his “top priority for building a strong national defense.”

But that commitment also promises to be costly. Building, manning and maintaining the nation’s non-nuclear forces, from tanks to attack submarines, already accounts for more than 85% of the defense budget.

Scale Back ‘Star Wars’

Unlike Bush, however, Dukakis has offered up existing Pentagon programs where he would achieve savings. His advisers say he would scale back the Reagan Administration’s high-priority missile defense program--the Strategic Defense Initiative, or “Star Wars"--from $3.5 billion to roughly $1 billion yearly.

Dukakis also has called for scrapping the proposed single-warhead Midgetman missile and canceling the Reagan Administration’s plan to build another 50 of the 10-warhead MX missiles and deploy them on railroad cars so they could avoid a Soviet missile attack.

Sacrificing those two missile systems, which carry a combined price tag of $42 billion to complete, promises big savings in future defense budgets. But budget experts say that what Dukakis would do instead--bolstering non-nuclear arms--could cost even more.

Presidents who have been faced with tight defense budgets in past years have increased their reliance on nuclear forces to deter enemy attacks. Dukakis’ conventional force initiative would reverse that formula so that the United States and its European allies would no longer need to rely on the terrible threat of nuclear weapons to deter aggression by the Soviet Union.

That is a goal to which Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci recently attached a price tag of at least $30 billion a year “for years to come.”

Dukakis defense aide Robert J. Murray conceded recently that the governor’s earlier $3-billion cost estimate covered only a small part of the candidate’s conventional defense initiative. At the same time, however, he said Dukakis would make far less than $30 billion available for beefing up non-nuclear forces.

Carefully Hedges Stand

Even Dukakis’ rejection of the proposed Midgetman and rail-based MX missile programs is carefully--and expensively--hedged. The Massachusetts governor, pressed by such Democrats as Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), chairmen of the Senate and House Armed Services committees, has said he would “work with Congress to find a safe, affordable” program to modernize the nation’s land-based missile force.

In the face of such promises, Dukakis’ hope of cutting defense spending rests on a pair of uncertain prospects.

First, his plans assume that the Soviet Union and its allies will agree to negotiated reductions in the two sides’ non-nuclear forces in Europe--an achievement that has eluded negotiators in Vienna for more than a decade.

Experts believe an accord could take years of hard bargaining to accomplish and even then could require costly U.S. investments to implement. Withdrawing forces from Europe would also probably mean building more bases in the United States and expanding America’s ability to send them back to Europe quickly if they were needed.

Hinges on Allies’ Help

Dukakis’ leaner defense budget plans also anticipate that Japan and Western Europe, which have resisted entreaties to boost their defense budgets in recent years, will ante up a greater share of their national wealth to the common defense. But critics argue that the prospects are slim that the allies will spend more so that the United States can spend less.

“Can you squeeze blood from granite?” asked Richard N. Perle, a former assistant secretary of defense for Reagan. “It isn’t going to happen in the kind of volume that could make any difference.”

This much can be said about the defense savings proposals of both presidential nominees: As hardy perennials of election-year politics, they fall well short of making up the difference between the candidates’ defense wish lists and the budget constraints they are likely to face.

“All these are perfectly fine ideas, but almost all of them either don’t give you savings quickly or involve actual costs up-front,” said R. James Woolsey, a Navy undersecretary under President Jimmy Carter. “They’re worthwhile doing, but to achieve savings for fiscal year 1990, forget it.”