Recent Defense Debate Has Echoes of 1991

Posted May 29, 2003 at 4:07pm

When it comes to examining Defense funding debates, an old adage quickly leaps to mind: The more things change, the more they stay the same. That was never more true than during the recent back-and forth over the massive $400 billion Defense authorization measures passed by the House and Senate on May 22.

That debate, echoing the post-Iraq budget discussions of 1991, proved that at least one Capitol Hill argument — whether more dollars spent equals a better-prepared military — never dies.

Twelve years ago, between the liberation of Kuwait and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the Senate Armed Services Committee convened to reflect on the recent war and look at the future military needs of the American global superpower.

Sen. Sam Nunn, the now-retired Georgia Democrat, was the committee’s chairman and Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) was ranking member. Testifying that March day were the heads of each of the armed services. And now, more than a decade after American tanks first rolled across the Iraqi desert, it is evident that what was said during that Senate hearing foreshadowed recent debates and discussions about the nation’s military needs and global strategy.

In budget discussions of years past, military brass often pointed to the lessons of the Korean conflict to demonstrate the necessity for well-rounded Defense appropriations; 1991 was no different.

Army Gen. Carl Vuono reminded Nunn’s panel that after World War II, tensions on the Korean Peninsula caught the United States, and its military, off-guard.

“At the start of the Korean War in June of 1950, the United States Army was undermanned, ill-equipped and poorly prepared, and our nation had clearly lost its vision of a trained and ready Army,” Vuono said.

And the discussion on Capitol Hill — while homeland security and terrorism may dominate the vocabulary — is generally the same today: A well-funded military ensures a more secure nation.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Defense Department quickly called up thousands of reservists for homeland security duties. During a hearing last month of the Senate Appropriation subcommittee on Defense, Dennis Duggan, deputy director of the American Legion’s national security foreign relations division, said that in a post-Sept. 11 world, the nation’s reservists play an even more important role in the nation’s defense, warning that more is needed to be better prepared.

“Mr. Chairman, our armed forces — as effective as they are — are spread thin. And over 220,000 reservists have been activated for homeland security missions and the war on terrorism. Our reserve components are no longer a ‘reserve,’ they are on the front lines,” Duggan said.

Going back to the 1991 hearing, Air Force Gen. Merrill McPeak said although the American military, which had just pushed Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, was dominant on the battlefield, he was uneasy with Defense spending taking a back seat to domestic appropriations.

“I subscribe to the views of my colleagues here. When I joined the Air Force in 1957, which was a peace year par excellence, the Defense budget was 60 percent of the federal budget. I don’t know what it’ll be next year, but it’s like 25 or something like that.”

“Less,” Sen. Bob Smith (R-N.H.) responded.

“Less. So I see no realistic prospect that we’re going to reverse this long-term trend and shift in domestic priorities. But it’s worrisome,” McPeak said, adding a warning.

“A year ago, very few people predicted that we would have to go to the Persian Gulf and fight Iraq, with some honorable exceptions. But in general, it was not a predicted event. Indeed the end of the Cold War had very few folks who said, ‘Hey, tomorrow the Berlin Wall’s going to be torn down,’ so on and so forth. So that it’s an unpredictable place and it makes me a little uneasy to see the Air Force draw down to smaller than it was since before the Korean War — 170,000 in end-strength since our recent peak in 1987. So I’m concerned, and I think all of us are.”

Then-Sen. Malcom Wallop (Wyo.), who was among the first Members to push the Strategic Defense Initiative in the late 1970s, was one Republican disappointed with the defense budget for fiscal 1992-93, and he echoed the warning.

“I thought the budget was ill advised last year, and I think — I’ve seen nothing this year that has changed my opinion of that,” citing Soviet strategic threats and “Third World terror” as continuing world factors to be considered when allocating military dollars.

At that same hearing, Gen. Alfred Gray Jr., then the commandant of the Marine Corps, told the Senate panel: “It’s in the lesser developed regions of the world for the most part where your Marines believe the next conflicts will take place.”

Little did Wallop and Gray know that the rusting Soviet empire would suddenly flake away into the history books that coming September, and that 10 years later U.S. special forces would be cave-hunting for al Qaeda terrorists in the mountains of Afghanistan.

After decreased Defense budgets throughout the 1990s, military spending has increased since 2001, especially after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Now, more than a decade after the first Gulf War and with U.S. forces still on the ground in Iraq, there have been few publicly aired complaints about the military budget, like there were in 1991 by certain GOP Members. Besides a few vocal objections and Democratic complaints over some provisions — particularly the lifting of a ban on nuclear weapons research, rollbacks of certain Defense-related environmental regulations and the proposed overhaul of the civilian work force at the Pentagon — most everyone is content with next year’s military spending proposals.

Measures passed late last month by the House and Senate earmark about $400 billion to fund military programs and related Energy Department security operations. The provisions include a 4.1 percent average pay raise, $9.1 billion for missile defense, continued reductions in nuclear weapons stockpiles and funds for new research and technology.

And while Pentagon officials don’t tend to use overwhelming adjectives to describe their opinions while testifying on the Hill, they have described the recent spending measures with muted, but positive, terminology like “sufficient,” “adequate” and “enhancing.”

Now that operations in Iraq have shifted from fighting to stabilization efforts, officials at the Pentagon and on the Hill are looking ahead to see how budgetary concerns will fit into future military formulas.

“While our forces are engaged all over the globe, [the Defense Department] continues to move forward on improving both joint training and readiness assessment,” Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) said at an April 9 Armed Services hearing. “I applaud these efforts, particularly in light of pressing distractions.”

Like in 1991, the Pentagon hasn’t changed its tune: A well-stocked military budget, like the one passed recently, equals better preparedness. “This proposal allows us to continue to wage an aggressive global campaign against terrorism while supporting transformation of our nation’s military capabilities,” Paul Mayberry, Defense deputy undersecretary for readiness, said in April.

DEFENSE 101: National Defense Authorization Act of 2004

The Senate and House both passed the National Defense Authorization Act of 2004 on May 22, earmarking $400.5 billion for Defense spending. The legislation provides an average 4.1 percent salary increase for military personnel with a 3.7 percent across-the-board pay raise for uniformed personnel and targeted 5.25 percent to 6.25 percent increases for mid-career service members.

The Senate passed its bill 98-1, with Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) being the lone, but vocal, opponent. The House passed its bill in a 361-68 vote.

Among the provisions:

• $9.1 billion for research and development of ballistic missile defense programs;

• about $70 billion for new weapons;

• $10.8 billion for weapons and equipment maintenance;

• more than $6 billion for new housing, child care centers and schools;

• research and development funding for a new “deep strike” bomber;

• a “high deployment allowance” of up to $1,000 per month for compensation for service personnel who are frequently called up, including reservists;

• and funding to decommission additional U.S. stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.

The measure added an additional $400 million to President Bush’s budget request for homeland defense, including funding for chemical and biological defense research and development, as well as money for more weapons of mass destruction civil support teams.