Washington — 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 today to defend the 2002 budget before House and Senate appropriations committees. Judging from early congressional reaction, it appeared he would face tough questioning.
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.
McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita, Kan., is one of the three bases scheduled to lose its B-1 fleet.