A Cold War Budget Without a Cold War?

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The fog of war sure isn't going to lift this week.

On Tuesday, Lawrence Korb — assistant secretary of defense for manpower and logistics during Reagan's first term — will explain how he believes the U.S. military can slash its budget by 20 percent and retain its undisputed title as world champion. The next day, Pentagon sources say, the Joint Chiefs will troop to Capitol Hill to tell the Senate Armed Services Committee there's no way they can keep today's military humming without boosting defense spending.

Korb, now with the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, is viewed by some as a professional Pentagon crank. He says that if the nation eliminated its need to wage and win two wars at once, and scaled back on its purchases of Cold War–era arms, it could safely cut defense spending some $62 billion from its current $290 billion level. "Since the end of the Cold War the U.S. military has continued its Cold War practice of rushing new generations of weapons systems into production to stay ahead of its putative rival," Korb says. "But, since the collapse of the Soviet Union there is no competing superpower, and, as in the other areas of military capability, the U.S. is in an arms race with itself."

Korb also would trim the overall U.S. force slightly, as well as cutting forward-deployed forces in Europe and East Asia. He'd unilaterally shrink the U.S. nuclear arsenal from 6,000 to 1,000 warheads. "This number," Korb insists, "is more than enough to destroy any possible targets and deter any nation contemplating the use of weapons of mass destruction." (Read the full Korb report here, which also features a nifty ever-rising tally showing how much money the Pentagon is spending every second you spend at the site.)

The chiefs will most certainly not be in the trenches with Korb. After all, General James Jones, the commandant of the Marines, has suggested the nation needs to think about dedicating 4 percent of its gross domestic product to the military. Given that its current share is 3 percent, that would be tantamount to a 33 percent increase in military spending, or an annual boost of some $100 billion. The chiefs know that both Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore and GOP nominee George W. Bush have called for increased spending on the military. Gore wants to spend $10 billion more a year than Clinton has planned, while Bush is seeking a more modest $4.5 billion annual hike. So they're not going to say things are hunky-dory with those promised added dollars on the horizon.

It's a safe bet that Jones' 4 percent call is simply the chiefs' opening ante in a very costly poker game. It's also a safe bet, given the tenor of the military debate thus far in this election year, that the amount of money the nation will allocate for the military in the coming years is going to be more than Clinton has proposed, but short of Jones' bid. And that could lead to a profoundly bizarre outcome. "The annual defense budget could be back to its Cold War average of $320 billion early in the next century," Korb says. "In essence, this nation would have a Cold War budget without a Cold War."

No clearing in the fog yet.