The House Armed Services Committee yesterday voted to kill the B-2 "stealth" bomber and both mobile strategic nuclear missiles requested by the Bush administration, a move that sets up a confrontation with the Senate on where to set the floor for the biggest decline in U.S. defense spending in decades.
The committee also adopted recommendations of its subcommittees in cutting the president's $4.9 billion request for research into ballistic missile defenses by nearly $2 billion. The "Star Wars" program launched during the Reagan administration was cut $1 billion by the Senate Armed Services Committee.
In almost across-the-board fashion, the House committee voted to delay or scale back most of the next generation of advanced weapon systems that were conceived and ordered by the Pentagon during years of intense U.S.-Soviet competition and robust U.S. defense budgets.
"The administration has asked for more costly weapons than can possibly fit in the years of declining defense budgets ahead," said committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.). "Killing the B-2 was a decisive move," he added, "to bring the defense budget in step with fiscal reality."
The committee voted to delay full-scale development of the Advanced Tactical Fighter and the Army's new light helicopter. It slowed the Seawolf attack submarine program to one ship per year and voted for a pause in development of the Navy's classified A-12 attack plane designed to replace the aging carrier-based attack planes.
In addition, the House bill calls for a reduction of 129,500 members of the armed forces during the fiscal year that begins in October, steeper than the 100,000 decline passed by the Senate panel.
The House bill, adopted on a 40 to 12 vote, overall cuts $24 billion from the $306.9 billion request submitted by President Bush in January, while the Senate proposal would cut $18 billion. Even this smaller cut, which a Pentagon spokesman deemed "prudent," represents a steep decline in spending and prompted Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, to call it "the most sweeeping degree of change we've seen in a defense bill . . . since I've been in the Senate."
The House cuts are closely aligned with reductions proposed by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Jim Sasser (D-Tenn.) and it remains unclear whether Nunn can sustain the votes for his higher level of spending on the Senate floor. Referring to the earlier Senate action, Rep. Dave McCurdy (D-Okla.) said, "They took some hostages and we reciprocated."
Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney has warned that cuts in defense as deep as those proposed by the House would wreak havoc on the military. But the House panel led by Aspin, backed by House Democratic leaders, has moved forward with drastic cuts to meet fiscal targets imposed by the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit-reduction law.
In a decisive 34 to 20 vote yesterday, the committee rejected an attempt led by Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) to reinstate the B-2 after a procurement subcommittee recommended killing the program upon completion of the 15 planes now under construction by Northrop Corp.
"That was a big historic vote for this committee, which has never, never voted to kill a major weapons system," said one staff member.
Skelton said he was not embarrassed by the defeat. "Honestly, this is going to be decided on in conference." The Senate and House bills will go to floor votes and any differences will be worked out between conferees later this year.
Aspin, who supported the controversial bomber last year, joined the opposition to the plane last week, saying it was not clear the bat-winged aircraft was needed at the cost of tens of billions of dollars.
The Bush administration last January asked for a fleet of 132 stealth bombers to penetrate Soviet airspace well into the next century to seek out and destroy Soviet mobile targets after both sides had exchanged nuclear salvos. The planes use special materials allowing them to slip past enemy radars undetected.
In May, Cheney revised the administration request to 75 bombers, which effectively drove up the cost of each plane to $865 million.
The House language calls for completion of the B-2 research and development phase, then terminates the program. The Senate Armed Services Committee earlier approved a B-2 funding plan that would require additional testing but maintained the basic commitment to build all 75 planes.
The full House committee also adopted the recommendations of its research and development panel to terminate the Pentagon's plan to put its MX missile force on railroad cars and to build a mobile single-warhead Midgetman missile to protect the U.S. land-based nuclear forces from a surprise Soviet attack.
Instead, the committee called on the Bush administration to come up with a new plan for one land-based missile. The members left $640 million in research and development funds for a single land-based missile plan.
McCurdy said the House action was justified because the Bush administration is planning in the second round of strategic arms talks with the Soviets "to move away from" mobile missiles with multiple warheads toward single-warhead missiles based in silos. During a recent meeting at the White House with Cheney and national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, McCurdy said he got the impression the administration was willing to trade the current MX missile force for the Soviet force of SS-24 mobile missiles.
The Senate voted to continue research and development funds for the MX and Midgetman, but it denied procurement funds.
In a surprise move, the House panel also reinstated the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft after Cheney last year won congressional approval to terminate the program.