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Cheney Fights to Reform, Nunn Fights for Position

<i> Gregg Easterbrook is a contributing editor to Newsweek</i>

When new Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney embarrassed President George Bush by casually offering an opinion that the Soviet Union’s glasnost experiment might fail, institutional Washington groaned. Everybody had been waiting for Cheney, who leads a politically charmed life, to make his first boner. No way Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, a cautious pro, would have uttered that kind of slip, pundits mused. Too bad Nunn isn’t running the Pentagon, they said.

Yet consider: Cheney’s first months in office show he possesses an admirable grasp of both defense requirements and Defense Department bureaucratic tomfoolery. Cheney has already stuck his neck out with several challenges to Pentagon inertia, making him an intriguing study in contrasts with Nunn, the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman. Hyped by the Washington pundit corps as a power broker in defense affairs, Nunn continues his ultra-safe policy of looking the “thoughtful observer” but abjuring any action that might disturb the Pentagon status quo. Cheney is fighting to reform the Pentagon by saying what he thinks and taking chances; Nunn is fighting to hold his prestige by saying little and doing less.

One of Cheney’s first acts was to cut $10 billion, a serious sum, from the fiscal 1990 defense budget request. He did this not by the time-honored ruse of “stretch outs"--buying weapons over a longer period but at a higher price per unit. Cheney actually named projects to cancel, including the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, the F-14D naval interceptor and the aerospace plane. The latter is a project aimed at creating a sort of cross between a fighter plane and the space shuttle, so expensive it might make the B-2 bomber seem like a K-mart special.

Shortly thereafter, Cheney ordered Pentagon planners to use real numbers in long-term projections. Throughout the Caspar W. Weinberger years, countless Pentagon exercises in unrealism were made possible by budget assumptions--no future inflation or dramatic annual increases in appropriations. The General Accounting Office estimates the current five-year defense spending plan is $93 billion out of whack. Reality-based planning is long overdue.

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Last week Cheney unveiled his plan for procurement reform, fulfilling a Bush campaign pledge. Cheney’s recommendations resemble those of Ronald Reagan’s Packard Commission: a big cut in procurement personnel (on the theory that, at a certain level of overstaffing, bureaucrats devote so much energy to writing each other memos that their purpose gets forgotten); meaningful authority for the procurement undersecretary, and another attempt to form a high-level procurement review committee. Recent iterations of this, with such names as Defense Systems Acquisition Review Council and Defense Resources Board, have been co-opted into glorified rubber stamps.

What has Nunn been up to? He has spent the first six months of the new Congress maneuvering on the MX-Midgetman missile funding controversy, an issue with a high quotient of media sex appeal, but one that may be rendered moot by a strategic arms reduction treaty.

Most Republicans in Congress want to put 50 existing 10-warhead MX missiles on trains for partially mobile basing; most Democrats want a new generation of truly mobile single-warhead Midgetmen. The Democratic Party has a political investment in the latter concept: It was invented by Nunn and Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee so Democrats could vote against the MX while declaring, with full macho, that they had a better missile in mind. Midgetman would have several nuclear-stability advantages over MX, but since single warheads would be carried in single missile-transporter combos, they will also be far more expensive. This is perhaps the first major defense issue in postwar history where conservatives favor the cheaper option.

Nunn has been shuttling to the White House, lecturing Bush and Cheney on the fine points of projected Midgetman appropriations for the mid-1990s, going so far as to warn that any strategic arms reduction treaty won’t pass the Senate unless Bush drops his posture of asking the Soviets to dismantle their mobile ICBMs in return for our agreement to forgo building any. That’s right--Democrats are insisting a Republican President not persuade the Soviets to demolish a nuclear weapon.

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This is the kind of issue Nunn likes: technocratic quibbling, done under the kind of big-deal circumstances that guarantee invitations to Sunday morning talk shows. When it comes to nuts and bolts, Nunn has almost never worked to cancel a bad weapon or cut an overstaffed department. For example, the biggest Pentagon reform since Nunn became chairman of Armed Services--reorganization of the Joint Chiefs of Staff--was championed not by Nunn but by GOP Sen. Barry M. Goldwater of Arizona.

Nunn’s fear of offending the Pentagon where it really hurts, in funding and personnel, stems in part from his representing Georgia, a state of military bases and defense contractors. It may also be in his genes. Nunn’s great-uncle was Rep. Carl Vinson, longtime chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and a man legendary for never saying no to the military. Today there’s a U.S. aircraft carrier Carl Vinson, and not because the military wanted to commemorate its eponym’s war record or statesmanship: Naming a ship after the politician who kept the funds flowing is a way for the Pentagon to send a message that anyone who plays by its rules may someday be remembered. There’ll never be a USS Richard Cheney.

One reason British seamen fight so bravely may be the inspirational names of their ships. They sailed to the Falklands on vessels christened not after committee chairmen but with names such as HMS Brilliant, Invincible and Broadsword. Perhaps future U.S. sailors will ship out on the USS Caspar Weinberger, Spirit of Overruns or Lee Atwater.

How have Cheney’s initiatives fared? Nunn’s committee has not yet acted on them; the House Armed Services Committee, chaired by Rep. Les Aspin of Wisconsin (hmm . . . fine name for a minesweeper) has. Aspin swore, “this time it’s different,” that his committee would resist restoring pork-barrel programs Cheney wanted to cancel. Sure enough, the committee voted to do just that. Days later it voted again--to add nearly $10 billion to the acquisition budget, funding the V-22 and F-14D, among others. It was classic Capitol Hill double talk, allowing congressmen to come down squarely on both sides of an issue.

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What are the merits of Cheney’s proposed cuts? The V-22 project causes a genuine quandary. It calls for construction of an aircraft that could take off vertically, then tilt its propellers to fly like an airplane. The V-22 would perform roles now played by heavy helicopters, but fly farther, faster and be harder to shoot down. The trouble is V-22s are fantastically expensive, about $30 million each--more than twice the costliest helicopter. The V-22 makers, a consortium of Boeing and Bell, assert this high price would hold only at the start; after production got rolling, the price would fall. But we’ve heard that before. Cheney is said to have suspected price-gouging. Congress may be happy to play along.

The F-14 is another story. This aircraft is a nearly 20-year-old design--a huge, hard-to-fly fighter the Navy is phasing out in favor of the modern F-18. Among other things, the F-14 requires more maintenance than any combat aircraft in the current front-line inventory. Continuing F-14 production would be little more than a federal subsidy to Grumann, its manufacturer. During the House committee session, Democratic Rep. George J. Hochbrueckner from Long Island, N.Y.--where Grumann is headquartered--gave a heart-tugging speech about his patriotic commitment to the aircraft while waving plastic models the way kids do. Committee members applauded, then authorized $1 billion for just 12 F-14Ds--an absurdly inefficient production rate. They might as well have voted a special dividend directly to Grumann stockholders.

On the aerospace plane front, funding has been kept alive after the personal intervention of Vice President Dan Quayle, who--as chairman of the new National Space Council--said he was not discouraged by the many technical objections against anything other than general research into aerospace technology. Remember that Spiro T. Agnew, another vice president with a sophisticated grasp of space science, once declared the United States would have men on Mars by 1980.

Finally, Cheney’s proposed changes will be lauded in the abstract but opposed in the specific by Pentagon dead weight and congressmen whose districts might suffer from genuine discipline. Interestingly, Cheney, who wanted a businessman as undersecretary for procurement (“weapons czar”), sounded out more than 20 candidates before he found John A. Betti, an executive in Ford’s technology division, willing to take the job.

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In press reports this has been attributed to distaste with the position’s powerlessness. The opposite is true. People line up around the block for impressive-sounding but powerless Pentagon slots, such as civilian service secretaryships. In these jobs, one may log two years of tedious ceremonial appearances then sashay through the revolving door to a six-figure life of placing a few influence-peddling phone calls as a consultant or vice president of an aerospace concern. If, however, the weapons czar had the power to crack down on contractors, who would shower money on him later? It was Cheney’s desire to make the weapons czar job meaningful that scared people away.


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