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Joint Chiefs Seek More Funds to Update Arms : Military: Memo to defense secretary warns that $60 billion a year is needed by 1998 for modernization. Risk to preparedness is cited.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Reflecting growing concern over recent reductions in defense spending, the nation’s top military leaders have warned that the Pentagon must boost its budget for weapon modernization sooner than planned or risk eroding military preparedness.

In a memo to Defense Secretary William J. Perry, the military service chiefs recommend increasing the modernization budget to $60 billion a year by fiscal 1998, rather than fiscal 2000, as currently anticipated. The budget now stands at $39 billion.

The unusual move by Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the heads of the four individual services, is intended to serve as a warning flag, both to the Clinton Administration and to the top generals and admirals involved in putting together the military budget.

Although President Clinton has promised to restore some of the recent defense spending cuts by fiscal 2000, the services say they are being squeezed and have had to use funds from their modernization and procurement budgets to help maintain military readiness.

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There has been no immediate indication that the Administration would adopt the Joint Chiefs’ recommendation in the fiscal 1997 budget, which is due out early next year. Clinton is already under pressure to hold down spending levels, and an increase of that size would be difficult to grant.

Although Perry pledged in a return memo to Shalikashvili and the other chiefs to “work closely with you to accelerate” the budget increase, officials said the memo has come so late in the budget-preparation process that any serious consideration is likely to have to wait until next year.

Military leaders have been warning for months that many of the weapon systems and types of equipment in need of upgrading or replacement were not being modernized on schedule, but there has been little extra money available.

As a result, all four services have put off purchases of a wide array of new and replacement weapons and equipment, from fighter aircraft and helicopters to ships, tanks and trucks. They also have begun falling behind on maintenance.

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Clinton asserted last winter that the squeeze on modernization would be temporary and pledged to restore much of the earlier cutbacks by the turn of the century. With pressures on overall federal spending mounting daily, however, military leaders have been skeptical that the White House can come through.

In the fiscal 1996 budget that it sent Congress last January, the Administration requested $39 billion for procurement--a drop of 71% from the 1985 peak, after adjustment for inflation. The Republican-controlled Congress raised that to $43 billion, but the House and Senate bills are stalled in a conference committee.

The Administration and the Joint Chiefs want the individual services to provide at least some of the difference by saving money in other areas, such as eliminating unnecessary programs and transferring some jobs to civilian contractors, but the effort is not yielding much.

Senior military officials insisted that the memo, while strongly worded, is not intended to provoke a confrontation with the Administration.

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Critics have been contending for months that the Administration has not been budgeting enough to finance the size of military force that it has said it wants to maintain. The White House insists that it can find the money through savings coming from procurement reforms, but so far those gains have been elusive.


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