Aspin Says Budget 'Cautious' on Arms : Defense: Proposed Administration program seeks to save money for use in domestic priorities while keeping the troops well trained.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Defense Secretary Les Aspin on Saturday called his first cut at Pentagon spending plans "a cautious budget" that seeks to save money for use in domestic priorities while protecting U.S. forces from becoming overmanned and undertrained.

"This is a cautious budget on the weapons side. Very cautious," Aspin told reporters at his first Pentagon news conference, where he formally presented a proposed national defense budget of $263.4 billion for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. "We are maintaining a lot of options . . . treading water on two accounts--research and development and procurement."

Acknowledging that the budget faces criticism from two sides--those who would spend less on defense and those who would spend more--Aspin appealed for time to conduct his promised review of U.S. military needs, which could result in changes to the Clinton Administration's defense plans starting in 1995.

In the meantime, Aspin asked Congress to accept deep cuts--or to make even sharper reductions--in the military's personnel rolls so that funds will be available to keep those who stay in the services well-equipped and trained.

"What we've found is that in this world, we're going to need fewer divisions, but if we need them, we're likely to need them in a big damn hurry. And that means they've got to be ready," said Aspin. "That's going to be an important part of the message . . . to Congress. If you think we ought to do more, let me urge you to cut the force structure and keep the readiness of the units."

Aspin's plan would give the Pentagon $250.7 billion in spending authority and call for another $12.7 billion to be spent at the Energy Department and elsewhere on military programs. The budget would represent a reduction of almost $10 billion, before accounting for inflation, from this year's budget, and would be the ninth Pentagon budget in a row to decline in spending from one year to the next.

The budget would reduce troop strength by 108,000 from its current level of 1,775,000, bringing American troop strength to a level not seen since just before the Korean War. It also would begin a major reduction for the Navy by retiring 28 active warships, including one aircraft carrier, and two reserve vessels. Aspin also proposed to trim the number of active Army divisions from 14 to 12 and reduce Air Force fighter wings from 28 to 24.

Aspin's plan got a cautious nod of approval from Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who has been critical of parts of President Clinton's defense plan.

"I think Secretary Aspin did the prudent thing in waiting until he goes through his major procurement review and then making the changes later on this year," Nunn said in an interview on CNN's "Newsmaker Saturday." At the same time, Nunn said, Aspin's sweeping review of defense needs must identify where unnecessary duplication among the military services can be eliminated--an effort he said has been stymied by the Pentagon to date.

In presenting his department's budget, Aspin took pains to distinguish the Clinton Administration's priorities from those of the George Bush Administration. Bush had proposed spending $12 billion more on defense next year than has Clinton, and $88 billion more than what Clinton has proposed to spend on defense over the next four years. But Aspin said the Clinton Administration's smaller defense budget includes a more aggressive approach to using defense funds to help the civilian economy.

That "different philosophy from the previous Administration" is typified, said Aspin, by a budget proposal providing $1 billion to fund so-called "dual-use" technology programs.

"What we have found in the past is that the United States is very skillful at doing research and development and developing certain techniques and technologies and then weaponizing those technologies," said Aspin. "But what we do less well is then taking that technique and commercializing it--figuring out how to take the R & D that we turned into a weapon and figure out how to turn it into a product that then people would buy. . . . There is concern in this Administration that we do a better job" of that.

Aspin's plan to maintain the readiness levels of U.S. forces even as they shrink includes b oosting beyond last year's levels the operations and maintenance accounts that fund training and flying time and warship deployments for U.S. forces.

The Clinton Administration's much-reported proposal to provide $398 million for humanitarian missions also would help protect funds designed to keep U.S. forces ready for combat, Aspin said. Until now, when U.S. forces were asked to conduct goodwill missions like those in Somalia, they have funded them from the operations and maintenance accounts. As costs mount--as they did in Somalia, which has cost $700 million so far--they "are essentially robbing the training money" that keeps troops ready for combat.

"That may be a little low," said Aspin of the $398 million provided to fund peacekeeping operations. "But at least it's a line item" in place to fund the operations of U.S. troops called to humanitarian duty.

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