RUMSFELD defends B-1 cuts, base closings, hears support for budget

Tuesday, July 17th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, facing resistance from lawmakers protecting local military programs, argued Monday for closing bases and slashing the B-1 bomber force to save money.

``We're going to come at you,'' Rumsfeld told lawmakers, saying failure to reduce Cold War-era bombers and close bases would ``send a damaging signal'' as the military looks for savings. ``We have simply got to turn waste into weapons.''

Members of the House Appropriations Committee's defense panel offered a lot of support for the proposed defense budget of $328.9 billion for fiscal 2002, which begins Oct. 1, an increase of $22.8 billion over current spending.

But Rumsfeld bridled at criticism that President Bush's White House let him down, despite his acknowledgment that the Pentagon really needs $347 billion next year just to keep up with current costs plus inflation. The proposed budget, he said, ``only makes a good dent in the shortfall we're facing.''

Rep. Norman Dicks, D-Wash., encouraged Rumsfeld ``to tell the American people ... what we need to have.''

``I think you've tried to do your best to go down to the White House and ask for the money that's necessary to get this job done, but you've been turned down,'' Dicks said. ``We're told you asked for like $38 billion,'' but got only $18 billion, he said, referring to the administration's late June increase in its original $310 billion Defense Department spending request.

Rumsfeld rejected the invitation to blame his boss, saying, ``The country has known that we've been underfunding the defense budget year after year after year. This is nothing new. ... There is no way on the face of the earth we're going to dig out of the hole we're in in one year. It will take a series of years.''

One way to save money, he said, is through reducing the size of the B-1 force, arguing that the planes are 20 years old, not stealthy, intended for a fight the nation is no longer fighting and ``not viable in a conflict today: They are too vulnerable.''

His plan to reduce the force from 93 planes to 60, upgrade those remaining and close three of the five B-1 bases reflects ``the kind of efficiency we owe the taxpayers,'' he said.

Lawmakers from Kansas, Georgia and Idaho have loudly protested the loss of B-1 bases in their states, and Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., pursued that Monday, saying the Air National Guard wing at McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas is the nation's ``top performing B-1 wing.''

While agreeing with Rumsfeld's criticism of the current B-1s and saying 60 planes and two bases may be the right numbers, he contended one of those two ought to be a guard base.

``What message are we sending to the Air National Guard when the premier B-1 unit, with the top performance of the entire nation, has its mission yanked away from them?'' he asked.

Replied Rumsfeld: ``There's no message that's in any way negative to the guard. There's no question but that the B-1 team in Kansas, at McConnell, has done a great job.''

But then he returned to the bottom line, saying, ``It is going to save enough money to pay for the modernization and upgrading'' of the remaining planes.

For the same cost-saving reasons, he called for another round of base closings, saying, ``As little stomach as I have for it, we're going to come at you.''

``I sure wish that members of Congress would offer up bases rather than me having go find them,'' Rumsfeld said later.

``I've already given you three,'' said Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., the subcommittee chairman.