As Congress moves ahead with a huge new defense bill, lawmakers are making only modest changes in the Pentagon's plans to spend well over $1 trillion in the next decade on an arsenal of futuristic planes, ships and weapons with little direct connection to the Iraq war or the global war on terrorism.
House and Senate versions of the 2005 defense authorization measure contain a record $68 billion for research and development -- 20 percent above the peak levels of President Ronald Reagan's historic defense buildup. Tens of billions more out of a proposed $76 billion hardware account will go for big-ticket weapons systems to combat some as-yet-unknown adversary comparable to the former Soviet Union.
On the Pentagon's wish list are such revolutionary weapons as a fighter plane that can land on an aircraft carrier or descend vertically to the ground; a radar-evading destroyer that can wallow low in the waves like a submarine while aiming precise rounds at enemy targets 200 miles inland; and a compact "isomer" weapon that could tap the metallic chemical element hafnium to release 10,000 times as much energy per gram as TNT.
So far this year, the debate in Congress over the defense bill has largely skirted the budgetary or strategic implications of this buildup, largely because Republican and Democratic politicians are unwilling to appear weak on defense after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"In the public mind there is clearly a present danger, so we can't trim back the defense budget in any manner even though counterterrorism spending only accounts for a small part of it," said Carl Conetta, co-director of the Project on Defense Alternatives.
But as Congress comes under new pressures to fund the war in Iraq, provide better physical protection for troops in the field, help financially strapped military families and defend U.S. shores, some lawmakers in both parties say Congress and the Pentagon must begin to choose among competing defense priorities.
"We are in a massive train wreck financially," Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) recently told members of the House Armed Services subcommittee on tactical air and land forces, which he chairs. "The time has come to be tough about the way we are spending money on programs that we cannot see the ability to fund" in later years.
War costs and modernization are expected to drive defense spending to nearly $500 billion in 2005, above the inflation-adjusted Cold War average, and $50 billion above 2004. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the long-term price tag for all the planes, ships and weapons the military services want will be at least $770 billion above what the Bush administration's long-term defense plan calls for.
In a major speech last week, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, called for cutting back funding for a national missile defense system -- a priority of the Bush administration -- to pay for increasing the size of the active-duty Army.
Other lawmakers are concerned that a defense budget that gives the Pentagon the resources to challenge adversaries in the air, sea and on land throughout the world for the next half-century will inevitably further skew the nation's foreign policy toward military intervention.
The current defense budget, said Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), "is consistent with the Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz view of the world that we will essentially abandon 'soft' power -- diplomacy and the use of international institutions -- and will concentrate on 'hard' power -- military strength that we exercise alone."
He was characterizing the strategic defense policies of Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz.
The defense budget before Congress looks far different from the one Rumsfeld envisioned when he first came to office. At that time, he was pushing the armed forces toward a "transformation" creating lighter, faster, electronically networked and smaller forces. That approach already has resulted in plans for the Army's Future Combat Systems and the Navy's proposed Littoral Combat Ship.
Rumsfeld canceled the Army's heavy Crusader artillery system and made clear he was skeptical of other costly advanced weapons systems championed by the military chiefs and defense contractors.
But the Sept. 11 attacks and the combat that followed diverted Rumsfeld from his transformation initiatives and also increased the Pentagon's respect for more orthodox existing weapons that they once considered phasing out. These included the Air Force's slow-flying but reliable A-10, which supports ground forces, and the Army's M-1 tank.
"Afghanistan and Iraq have injected a long-overdue sense of realism in the decisions at DOD about how much you can foresee the future," retired Army Col. Richard H. Sinnreich said. "After 9/11, a whole bunch of things changed."
After the terrorist attacks, the Pentagon continued to move ahead with "essentially all of the major acquisitions included in the Clinton administration defense plan," according to a recent report of the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
The view was echoed in a March report drafted by a panel of defense experts and retired military and Pentagon officials at the request of two prominent think tanks, the Center for Defense Information and Foreign Policy in Focus. It concluded that "the Bush military budget is being spent on a force structure that does not match today's security challenges because it is designed for a cold war style large-scale conventional challenge that we no longer face."
Some changes and cutbacks are being made around the edges of the budget.
In February, the Army canceled development of its future helicopter, the Comanche, to free more funds for immediate wartime needs.
Congress last year cut planned purchases of the Navy's new Virginia-class nuclear attack submarines from seven to five through 2008.
This year, the Senate Armed Services Committee, citing production delays, proposed reducing procurement of the Air Force's F/A-22 Raptor from 24 to 22 planes. The House-passed defense authorization bill reduces funding for developing the Littoral Combat Ship and the next-generation DD(X) destroyer.
But whether any of those cuts will survive the coming negotiations between the House and Senate, or will pass muster with the appropriations committees that make the final decisions, is highly questionable, if Congress's performance on previous defense bills is any indication.
The cost of the stealthy F-22 air-to-air fighter in the 2005 budget is $5 billion, and that of a second combat aircraft in the development stage, the Joint Strike Fighter, is $4.5 billion. Lockheed Martin Corp. is prime contractor for both planes, as well as for the Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS), a satellite network that is supposed to be a key part of a defense against missile attack.
Envisioned in the 1980s as a radar-evading plane that could take on Soviet fighters deep over Russia, the F-22's future role now is more ambiguous because no country is developing an aircraft with anything near its capabilities.
"We haven't faced an enemy with an Air Force to speak of since 1945, except for a few MiGs in North Korea and Vietnam," said Winslow Wheeler, a former Senate Republican aide who is author of a forthcoming book on Congress and defense.
The combined cost of the F-22 and the Joint Strike Fighter in 2005 will equal about a fifth of federal aid to education and half of the budget for all foreign aid and military assistance.
But about 1,000 contractors in 43 states work on the F-22, and they are well-connected in Congress.
Six members of the Senate Armed Services Committee have urged reconsideration of the cut even though they acknowledged that producing even 22 planes a year "exceeds the contractor's current capability to produce aircraft."
Senior military officials and defense industry representatives argue that pinching pennies on security is a serious mistake in uncertain times. Advanced weapons such as the F-22, they say, provide such a wide technological "gap" that they deter potential enemies such as China from trying to catch up.
"If we're to maintain our power and leadership in the world, we have to be able to maintain these capabilities. . . . It's an insurance policy for our country," said Tom Jurkowsky, spokesman for Lockheed Martin.