Bush Tours SDI Lab, Attacks Dukakis on Arms

Times Political Writer

The SDI laboratory, terraced into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, is the kind of campaign setting that puts George Bush at ease. And never does he feel so sure-footed as when he is talking about preparing for war in order to keep the peace.

So it was here, in a craggy sandstone canyon southwest of Denver, that Bush chose to open a final three-week drive for the presidency.

Martin Marietta Corp., multimillion-dollar contractor for the space-based Strategic Defense Initiative and builder of Titan missiles, provided the backdrop, and Democrat Michael S. Dukakis the foil. The Republican defense buildup of the last eight years, the proud record. A dangerous world, the incentive.


Behind it all was Bush’s own campaign strategy: to stick with tested themes and not “mess up.”

Posed With Rockets

Posed against the gleaming components of Titan rockets, Bush delivered one of his longest and most detailed speeches on defense.

More directly than before, he conceded that the era of soaring military budgets is over.

“After completing our recent buildup, we are facing important fiscal restraints,” he said. “We do not need major increases in defense spending, nor can we afford major decreases.”

This means, Bush said, that “we need to make choices on defense.”

Bush continued to exasperate his critics, however, by offering not so much as a hint of the choices he would make if elected--which weapons systems he would pursue and how fast, which ones he would reject, which branches of the armed forces would prosper, and so on.

He said only that he would be guided in his choices by a strategy to “invest in military systems that play to our strengths, not Soviet strengths.”

Points of Argument

And the vice president spelled out, sometimes in a mocking tone, the stakes he sees in the upcoming election:

--Conventional armed forces: Bush was critical of the emphasis Dukakis places on modernizing conventional forces.

“He’s viscerally uncomfortable with anything related to our nuclear arsenal,” Bush said.

And, Bush added, Dukakis’ “excessive focus on conventional defense” ignores the budgetary “reality that conventional forces are by far the most costly part of the defense budget.”

--Modernizing land-based nuclear missiles: Bush said it was time to resolve the competition for a new land-based missile by settling upon a “possible mix” using the multiple-warhead, railroad-based MX and the smaller, single-warhead mobile Midgetman.

He ridiculed Dukakis for suggesting that he would work with Congress to find some new way to modernize the ICBMs of today.

“Wake up, Governor. We’ve done all that,” Bush said. “It would take a decade to develop another new weapons system, leaving our land-based missiles increasingly vulnerable and obsolete.”

--Weapons testing: Dukakis has said he favors banning ballistic missile flight-testing.

“Well, Governor . . . how in the world are we going to develop new weapons? . . . We need to modernize. We need to test. We can’t defend America with blueprints.”

--SDI, or ‘Star Wars’: Dukakis has called this idea of a space-based shield against enemy missiles a costly “fantasy” and a wrong-headed budget priority, but, more recently, the Democratic candidate has also said he would approve of spending $1 billion a year to continue SDI research, less than a third the current amount.

Bush called that level of spending “just a waste of money,” and he taunted Dukakis: “Why spend a dime if you feel SDI is a fantasy?”

--Naval buildup: Dukakis has said the United States cannot afford the huge cost of adding two new aircraft carrier battle groups to the fleet.

Bush argued as if this was the same as a cutback in the Navy. “The governor does not propose to cut our naval commitments, only our forces.”

Bush also defended the Reagan Administration against the criticism that it has spent too much on exotic weapons and not enough on basic combat-readiness. He implied that it was unpatriotic for Dukakis to make such a charge.

“Governor,” he said, “it’s time to stop running down our defenses.”

Cites Readiness Rating

Bush insisted that U.S. forces are, in fact, better trained and more battle-ready than they were eight years ago.

Most knowledgeable analysts of both parties agree with that general claim--but there is substantial dispute over whether enough of the Pentagon budget increases of recent years have been devoted to combat-readiness.

The vice president was introduced to the 3,100 Martin Marietta workers by former Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger, who declared that “the presidency is no place for on-the-job-training.”

Schlesinger described Dukakis as part of the “anti-defense wing of the Democratic Party.”

Before his speech, Bush toured some of the SDI laser-weapons research facilities on the grounds.

From Denver he flew to Illinois for another favorite political event--one in which he could express his interest in the concerns of a voter bloc, in this case Jewish voters in Skokie.

The town, home to thousands of Holocaust survivors and their families, is where the American Nazi Party 10 years ago fought for and won court backing of its right to stage a white-supremacy march.

A drenching downpour, however, forced Bush to shorten his remarks in Skokie and kept down the size of the crowd that turned out to hear him in Holocaust Park.