- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 15, 2002

Even after eight years of a military "procurement holiday" during which the defense budget plunged to less than 3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), its lowest level since before Pearl Harbor Democratic Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad of North Dakota still didn't get it. Three weeks before more than 3,000 Americans were slaughtered in the worst terrorist attack in history, Mr. Conrad announced his opposition to an $18.4 billion supplemental defense appropriation, complaining that the desperately needed funds "will come right out of the trust funds for Medicare and Social Security." Well, what a difference a war makes. With the Pentagon now preparing to seek an initial fiscal 2003 defense budget increase of $20 billion, which doesn't even include the $2 billion monthly cost of the war in Afghanistan, Mr. Conrad is now on board, waving the flag. "All of us understand that our first obligation is to defend the country," Mr. Conrad, a recent convert to that cause, told the New York Times recently, pledging, "We're going to make certain that the resources are available to do that." Better late than never, Mr. Chairman.

In his position as budget committee chairman, Mr. Conrad has styled himself as his party's defender of the budget surplus at all costs even if, in retrospect, those costs included a woefully underfunded national security budget. One of the reasons for the budget surplus that materialized in the second half of the 1990s was the decline in overall federal spending as a percentage of GDP from 21 percent in 1994 to about 18.5 percent today. The source of this decline was the evisceration of the defense budget.

The fruits of this so-called "peace dividend" are now clear to one and all, including the likes of Mr. Conrad. In the wake of a collapse in military procurement, the national security challenges confronting Messrs. Bush and Rumsfeld and the Pentagon are enormous. Not only must they wage an unremitting war on global terrorism a war whose duration is unknowable, though certain not to be brief. They must also begin the lengthy, costly and necessary military transformation process.

Amazingly, stockpiles of smart weapons e.g., laser- and satellite-guided bombs that the Bush administration inherited were so low that the Navy's arsenal of such weapons was nearly depleted during the relatively low-level war in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, as defense analyst Loren Thompson recently noted, with the reliability of overseas allies becoming highly questionable, the Air Force's inventory of intercontinental B-2 stealth bombers stands at a mere 21. And the number of ships in the Navy is rapidly approaching half the level achieved during the Reagan buildup, while the Army is struggling to replace Vietnam-era helicopters.

If Mr. Conrad and his like-minded liberal Democratic colleagues want to know what happened to the budget surplus, they can begin by looking at the long-term damage their misguided defense budget policies of the past have caused and the costs the nation must now pay as a result.

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