Chairman John G. Tower (R-Tex.) of the Senate Armed Services Committee unveiled his defense budget strategy here today, declaring he will insist on matching any money cuts with corresponding reductions in the size of the Army, Navy and Air Force.
Standing on a podium constructed in the cavernous hangar deck of the nuclear aircraft carrier Carl Vinson commissioned today, Tower fairly shouted at the crowd of 7,000 that Congress "cannot have it both ways.
"If Congress insists on these cuts," Tower said, "Congress must be able to identify which commitments we will no longer be able to honor."
Tower, chairman of one of the committees that will set ceilings on Pentagon money for fiscal 1983, vowed that "if reductions in defense spending are forced upon us, I will attempt to cut force structure--namely, Army divisions, aircraft wings, battle groups and the like--in lieu of reducing our readiness, sustainability and force-modernization accounts.
"I would much prefer to have a smaller and yet well-equipped and well-trained military force," Tower continued, "than to send our boys to the field with obsolete weaponry because Congress failed to modernize our military forces properly."
Congress in the past often has preferred to impose a general percentage cut on the total Pentagon budget and then leave it to defense leaders to figure the specific savings. Another frequent practice has been to reduce the accounts for training, spare parts and overhauling ships and vehicles. These operation and maintenance activities have few heavyweight contractors to defend them against cuts.
Tower said that this year neither he nor anyone else in Congress appears willing to chop those accounts which keep American forces ready to fight. For the would-be budget cutters, this leaves procurement, personnel and research as the big targets.
In this year's $258 billion Pentagon budget, $89.6 billion is earmarked for procurement, $47.9 billion for personnel and $24.3 billion for research.
Within that procurement account, the most inviting target for many would-be cutters is $6.8 billion President Reagan has requested to build two more nuclear-powered aircraft carriers like the Vinson which joined the fleet today.
The central question hanging over those two new carriers is whether they could survive the modern weapons that the Soviet Union is expected to have in the 1990s when those carriers go into service. Already the Soviets have cruise missiles deployed on their planes, submarines and surface ships, threatening American carriers already at sea.
Critics say big carriers would be sitting ducks for cruise missiles, which can be fired accurately from dozens of miles away. The 93,000-ton Vinson, for example, is 24 stories high and has a hangar deck covering 4 1/2 acres.
Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.), a leading congressional opponent of building more giant carriers like the Vinson, will renew his argument in Senate Armed Services subcommittee hearings next week. He contends that carriers are vulnerable to Soviet submarines, that it would make more sense to deploy a larger number of smaller carriers for the same amount of money, and that the carriers siphon off much of the Navy's strength because so many escort ships must be assigned to protect them.
Navy leaders made clear today that they realize they have another big carrier fight on their hands. Adm. Thomas B. Hayward, chief of naval operations, made an especially hard-hitting defense of nuclear aircraft carriers.
Hayward credited the wisdom of congressional leaders with insisting that the Navy build great warships like the Vinson despite the protests about costs and vulnerability of aircraft carriers in the missile age. He also said "the resoluteness of uniformed naval leaders" who had the vision of a maritime strategy "has proven time and again as being consistently right even though it has been consistently criticized."
Once again, Hayward continued, the Navy is putting into service a ship that some will "continue to ridicule as a monument to gold-plated appetites of the Navy brass--the ultimate in sitting ducks.
"It's pathetic," Hayward told the pro-Navy crowd at the ceremony in the gray light of the hangar deck, "that kind of logic, when in fact it is the power and the capability of an aircraft carrier which we have and they don't have which constitutes the real difference, the real advantage the United States Navy possesses today over the Soviet Union.
"So I say to those critics of nuclear power, those critics of 90,000-ton aircraft carriers: thank God for the sitting ducks. My only regret is that we have so few of them."
The Vinson gives the Navy 13 carriers, not counting one used for training, to serve as the heart of warship task forces. The administration plans to form 15 battle groups, each centered around an aircraft carrier.
Of the 13 carriers now in service, four are nuclear powered: the Enterprise, commissioned in 1961; the Nimitz, 1975; the Eisenhower, 1977, and the Vinson. The keel for a fifth nuclear carrier of the Nimitz class, the Theodore Roosevelt, was laid last year at the yard of Newport News Shipbuilding. The Virginia company hopes to have the Roosevelt completed by 1986 under an accelerated schedule.
The giant carrier commissioned today is named for Carl Vinson (D-Ga.), long-time chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, who died last June. His nephew, Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, participated in today's ceremony, as did the late lawmaker's long-time nurse and companion, Amalia Margaret (Molly) Steman.
She said Vinson was overjoyed to witness his carrier's launching here in 1980, when he was 96 years old. He had said, his nurse told the assemblage here:
"Molly, I want nothing more in this world than to go see that ship, my ship, in the water." Vinson is described as the only American to have lived to see the launching of a Navy ship named after him.