WASHINGTON -- President Bush yesterday approved a record $401.3 billion for defense next year, signing a bill that administration officials and lawmakers from both parties contend will help transform the armed forces to meet new security threats, such as global terrorism.
But some members of Congress and defense specialists pointed out that much of the budget will pay for such traditional items as pay raises, compensation, and big-ticket weapon systems conceived during the Cold War. The legislation bears striking resemblance to defense budgets of the past, the critics contended, and will do little to break the tradition of buying unneeded ships, tanks, airplanes, and other conventional weapons.
"They are still trying to rip off the taxpayers," Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona and a longtime critic of wasteful spending, told Globe reporters and editors last week, blaming the White House and many of his colleagues.
"Dwight David Eisenhower must be spinning in his grave," McCain said, alluding to the former president who warned in his farewell address of the growing influence of the so-called military-industrial complex. "This incestuous relationship between the contractors and the Pentagon and the lawmakers is just the worst," McCain said.
The 2004 National Defense Authorization Act provides for at least a 3.7 percent pay increase for military personnel, while extending hazardous duty pay of $250 per month for troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is also gives Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld greater freedom to reassign the department's 700,000 civilians to new tasks and cut through bureaucratic obstacles, officials said.
"In this new kind of war, our military needs to be fast and smart and agile," Bush said at a Pentagon signing ceremony yesterday. "The bill I sign today authorizes $400 billion over the next fiscal year to prepare our military for all that lies ahead." The president campaigned for office on a promise to transform the military.
Congress has historically been disposed to give the White House what it wants in military spending during wartime. The Bush administration has successfully increased defense spending by an estimated 20 percent since taking office, not including the cost of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, which are funded separately.
However, the spending increases have done little to transform the military from its Cold War roots, lawmakers and specialists contend.
"We are still buying virtually everything that was in the Clinton administration budget," said Loren B. Thompson, a defense specialist at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va. "We just added a handful of new initiatives. We are still buying three [different] fighter planes, destroyers and cruisers, and armored vehicles."
But Steve Kosiak, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, said there are some areas of the defense budget that can be considered "transformational." He cited greater investments in pilotless aircraft that can gather intelligence, more money for communications and information technologies, and increased funding for smart weapons. "On the other hand, the vast majority of the funding is going to traditional programs, rather than transformational ones," Kosiak said.
McCain singled out the $9.1 billion authorized in the defense bill for missile defense programs. "We have poured untold billions into it, and you still have not seen operational capability,"
The senator also questioned the need for another fighter aircraft. "What is the real requirement for additional submarines as well?" he asked. "There needs to be more scrutiny of where all this money is going."
One Democratic congressional aide who asked not to be identified said the fact that the Pentagon's research and development funding has not met the stated goal of 3 percent of total defense spending demonstrated how reform remains hostage to special interests. "They are not pushing the future," the aide said. "They are buying the same kind of things."
Thompson said the major hurdle to making more progress in breaking the Cold War paradigm is institutional. Defense companies "don't make a lot of money by going after terrorists," he said. "They make money on big ticket items."