Whatever Happened to Military Restructuring?

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Rumsfeld: A Clintonian defense budget

The taming of George W. Bush continues.

During the campaign — and into February — Bush promised to not only reinvigorate the military but rejigger it. The Pentagon would receive additional budgetary monies only after a total, "top-down" rethinking of the Pentagon's structure, strategies and assumptions about the security challenges of the post-Cold War world.

There was bold talk of "skipping a generation" of military weaponry. Bullet-headed Defense analyst/visionary Andrew Marshall, who has been scaring the calcified Pentagon hierarchy for decades, was put in charge of the review. And the administration's big guns — Bush, Cheney, Powell and once-and-current Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld — had the clout to make bold and necessary changes where Clinton feared to tread.

Now Rumsfeld is set to deliver the Bush administration's 2002 Pentagon budget to Congress today. He's asking for $329 billion, which is $18.4 billion more than Bush had requested earlier this year and a $33 billion increase over President Bill Clinton's final defense budget, making it the largest Pentagon increase since the Reagan years.

As for proposed changes, they seem to be limited to the following: A one-third reduction, from 93 to 60, of the Reagan-era B-1B bomber fleet (a proposal already causing a fuss in Congress because it spares only the planes based in South Dakota, Tom Daschle's home state, and Texas, George W. Bush's). A scrapping of 50 of the U.S.' nuclear-tipped MX "Peacekeeper" missiles as a possible first step toward a unilateral reduction in the nation's nuclear arsenal. And of course a $3 billion increase in spending on missile defense, to $8.3 billion. Total 2002 cost-cuts: $1 billion. Total structural refashioning: Very little.

TIME Pentagon correspondent Mark Thompson explains what the heck happened to the grand design:

TIME.com: So what's your characterization of this year's budget?

Mark Thompson: This is the treading-water addition to the 2001 budget. There's no indication of any radical transformations whatsoever, and for that, the time to seize the moment has clearly passed.

Sure, the month of delayed election results slowed things down, made it more difficult to start setting the agenda on something big like this was going to be. But no benchmarks were laid down early. They were big on rhetoric, not on carrying stuff out. All they kept saying was they were going to study it, but they've been talking about this since the campaign began two years ago.

Even if they had laid down some proposals as a rhetorical tool, as a placeholder, they might have had a chance. But now that composition of the Senate has changed, and the now that the tax cut took so much out of the budget, there's just not enough money left over for anything major, and any changes they do make look like they'll be funded by reducing size of the military.

This is pretty much what Clinton did year after year, because he was so scared of the military — give the Pentagon more money, and don't ruffle too many feathers in Congress. What they're saying is, 'Hey, Clinton didn't do so badly after all.' They're eliminating the two-war requirement, which Clinton did de facto anyway, and it's pretty much the same force, just more fully funded.

The main changes in focus are things like missile defense, and space war fighting. But to say that these things are going to happen during the next few years, during Bush's term, is ludicrous. The Bush administration's reach definitely exceeded its grasp.

What about the B1B reductions?

The B1 was a joke. It was a sop to the right wing by Reagan, a plane that was once downed in collision with a white northern pelican. It did some "dumb" — as opposed to the "smart" SGM bombs — bombing in Kosovo, and that's pretty much that plane's total service to nation. Now, hindsight is 20-20 — back then, the Cold War was hot and heavy, and maybe these planes seemed like a good idea then. But in hindsight, it's iffy.

So it's a good move?

Yeah, but why cut just 33 of them? Why not kill them all? They don't play a vital role in defending the U.S. And the fact that Congress is already squawking over the one-third reduction is a bad sign. If something as obvious as this is going to have trouble getting approved, then anything more significant is pretty much impossible. If they can't do this, what will they be able to do?

Since the Cold War ended, there have been six separate task forces charged with updating the Pentagon's strategic outlook and structure. Is there a culture there that's too resistant to change, officers sitting on their hands because they're too cautious?

The Pentagon is definitely guilty of a wimpy hierarchy, but they do what they're told to do by the Defense secretary and above. This is a lack of civilian leadership. Clinton was terrified of the military, because of the draft and the gays-in-the-military thing. But Bush has that necessary standing, and Cheney, Powell and Rumsfeld have the wherewithal and the knowledge to make big changes.

Rumsfeld plainly wanted to do more — he was hamstrung right from the get-go. So you look at Bush and Cheney, in terms of setting the administration's agenda, and you figure they decided they had bigger fish to fry, starting with the tax cut.

Who knows? They may try this again in a few years. But my guess is the opportunity for anything big is long gone.