Let the Defense Debate Out of the Bag : Military: Bush's business-as-usual crowd needs to acknowledge that our needs are changing and Gorbachev-driven.

Les Aspin (D-Wis.) is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

The debate concluded this fall over the fiscal 1990 defense budget was the last of its kind. It was driven by the federal deficit, by pressure to increase spending in other areas and by President Bush's vow--"read my lips"--of no new taxes.

These arguments had little to do with what is happening in the Soviet Union. But we've entered a new era, the Mikhail Gorbachev era. The next defense budget will be Gorbachev-driven, and the next debate will reflect that; in fact, it's already begun.

Who could watch news footage of the destruction of the Berlin Wall and fail to realize that something momentous was under way? These events are going to have a tremendous psychological and political impact in this country. And you can bet that the impact will not generate support for increasing defense budgets.

Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, at least, is beginning to get the message. And that's a start.

Elsewhere, however, the Bush Administration has proved less than a model of farsightedness. Some elements in the Administration and some of its supporters have seemed reluctant to admit that there has been any change at all that might affect our defense budget.

With mixed signals like these from the Administration, any resemblance to a rational defense debate is purely accidental.

Figuring out what's happening with the Soviet Union's defense budget isn't easy under any circumstances. But from the indicators we can measure--tank production, for instance--Soviet defense spending does seem to have tipped over into decline. And, according to press accounts, the CIA has concluded that the Soviet defense budget for 1989 is smaller than the one for 1988.

Another important element in the debate is the military situation in Eastern Europe. Gorbachev announced last December at the United Nations that the Soviet Union would make significant force withdrawals from Eastern Europe: six divisions, 50,000 men and 5,300 tanks.

Experts who accompanied the House Armed Services Committee during a trip to East Germany and the Soviet Union last August concluded that these withdrawals and the restructuring of units left behind would reduce the aggregate combat power of Warsaw Pact forces by as much as 20% to 25%. This, in turn, would significantly reduce the ability of these forces to mount large-scale offensive actions.

Other barometers are strategic nuclear weaponry and regional conflicts. The Soviets continue their across-the-board strategic modernization program, but at a reduced pace. This does not mean, however, that Soviet spending on strategic forces is up, as Vice President Dan Quayle has said.

In regional conflicts, the overall record today is a mixed bag at best. Soviet troops are out of Afghanistan. But some advisers probably remain and military assistance is way up. Vietnamese forces appear to have left Cambodia. But Soviet assistance has doubled. About half of the Cuban forces have left Angola. But Soviet military advisers remain and aid is undiminished.

In this hemisphere, Gorbachev has apparently cut direct shipments of lethal weapons to Nicaragua. But shipments from other Soviet Bloc countries are up.

In short, Soviet means--especially the use of troops and surrogate forces--appear to have changed, but it is not at all clear that Soviet ends have changed.

No one said that dealing with this was going to be easy. Still, we should be doing it with a smile. After all, it may mean that peace has broken out. The President should now do these things:

--He should tell the business-as-usual crowd in his Administration to put a lid on it if they can't bring themselves to discuss what's really going on. If he doesn't, he'll squander what credibility he has.

--He should trust the American people to make the correct decision, when given correct information.

--He should uncork the intelligence bottleneck and provide that information to the American people.

It can be done without compromising intelligence sources and methods. The information concerning Soviet defense objectives and our response is already coming out, but in a piecemeal way that defies understanding. That's folly. Let's start leveling with the American people. Then we can begin to set sensible defense priorities.

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