Defense budget: cut bombers, retire missiles, close bases |

Defense budget: cut bombers, retire missiles, close bases

WASHINGTON (AP) – The Bush administration asked Congress for an extra $18.4 billion for military spending on Wednesday, at the same time proposing shrinking the Air Force bomber fleet, retiring all 50 Peacekeeper long-range nuclear missiles and planning for more base closings.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told a Pentagon news conference the $18.4 billion would be the biggest increase for any year since the mid-1980s, although he said it would barely begin to transform the American military to meet the security challenges of the 21st century.

The budget as proposed would total $329 billion. That compares to the $310 billion that President Bush proposed in February and $296 billion in the current Defense Department budget. The February proposal was amended to reflect results from a Rumsfeld review of military requirements.

Contrary to the expectations of many in the military and in Congress, the administration’s 2002 budget devotes relatively little to military modernization beyond what the Clinton administration had planned. Rumsfeld said that was because most of the extra $18.4 billion had to be earmarked for improving the living conditions of U.S. troops, which he said had deteriorated badly.

The budget would include $1 billion for pay raises ranging between 5 percent and 10 percent, depending on rank. It also would reduce troops’ out-of-pocket housing costs and provide more health benefits.

Rumsfeld accused the Clinton administration of having cut military investments too sharply.

”They overshot,” he said, adding, ”The coasting went on too long.”

Critics say the Bush administration found itself with little room to afford the scale of defense spending increases that Rumsfeld initially sought, once Bush got his top-priority $1.35 trillion tax cut.

One of the biggest increases in the budget is for missile defense, at $7 billion, compared with $4.7 billion this year.

Rumsfeld was scheduled to defend the 2002 budget before House and Senate appropriations committees on Thursday. Judging from early congressional reaction, it appeared he would face tough questioning.

The amended budget request got a rocky reception from at least one key congressional Republican, Rep. Jim Nussle of Iowa, the House Budget Committee chairman. He threatened to block the proposed $18.4 billion increase until the Pentagon explains how it fits into its long-term budget plans.

”This is getting very close to an irresponsible way to do it,” Nussle said at a committee hearing Wednesday.

Rumsfeld’s plan to close more military bases also is likely to draw strong congressional reaction. At his news conference, he did not mention the subject, but in a follow-up presentation, the Pentagon’s chief financial officer, Dov Zakheim, told reporters Rumsfeld intends to propose base closings in 2003.

Zakheim mentioned no specific bases as candidates for closure. He said Rumsfeld aides are in the midst of developing a plan for how to proceed on this politically sensitive subject. ”We are all across the map on this,” he said, indicating that there was no consensus within the Pentagon on whether there should be a single round of base closings, multiple rounds or other approaches.

Zakheim said experts have told the Pentagon that the military has about 25 percent too many bases. The last round of base closures was in 1997 and since then, Congress has refused to consider closures.

Zakheim stressed that the plan for mothballing 33 of the Air Force’s 93 B-1B long-range bombers and consolidating the remaining fleet at two bases – compared with the current five bases – does not mean the three bases that lose B-1Bs are in danger of closing. He said the Air Force is working on a plan to adjust the missions of those three bases so that the people affected do not lose their jobs.

The decision to cut B-1Bs from the bomber force was the biggest surprise in the budget.

Critics in Congress quickly accused the administration of playing politics, noting that the only two B-1B bases left would be in Bush’s home state of Texas, at Dyess Air Force Base; and at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, the home state of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.

Zakheim said this would save $165 million in 2002, and that the savings would be used by the Air Force to modernize the remaining B-1B bombers, which originally were built in the 1980s to replace the older B-52 bombers for a nuclear attack role. As it turns out, the B-52s are likely to outlive them.

Rumsfeld announced other adjustments to the U.S. nuclear force, although he has yet to complete a congressionally required ”nuclear posture review” to assess all aspects of nuclear weapons policy.

The Pentagon will retire in 2002 all 50 of the Air Force’s most modern and most accurate intercontinental-range nuclear missiles, the LGM-118A, more commonly called the Peacekeeper, Zakheim said. Based at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming, the Peacekeepers were first deployed in 1986. They cost about $70 million apiece and are armed with 10 nuclear warheads each.

That will reduce the U.S. arsenal of land-based long-range nuclear missiles to 500 Minuteman IIIs, each of which is armed with three warheads.

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