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As Defense Shrinks, SDI May Be Losing Favor With Military

March 31, 1992

WASHINGTON (AP) _ For the first time, the Strategic Defense Initiative has become the Bush administration’s No. 1 priority in the weapons budget. Yet the anti-missile project is not everyone’s favorite at the Pentagon.

SDI is causing considerable resentment in some military circles, for two reasons:

-The ″missile killer″ project is competing with the armed services for shares of the shrinking defense budget. While the services are being forced to cancel weapons projects, lay off soldiers and scale back missions, the civilian-led SDI got a 40 percent budget boost this year and could gain an additional 30 percent in 1993.

-As the project moves closer to actually fielding a system for shooting down ballistic missiles, debate is growing within the military over how to put it together and who would control it - the services or SDI’s civilian bureaucracy.

Unlike nearly all other major weapons research projects, SDI is not run by any of the uniformed services. It is a project of an obscure agency known as the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, within the office of the secretary of defense.

Furthermore, the SDI office is headed by a civilian, Henry Cooper. The most prominent military representative in the office is a two-star general.

As a result of this unusual setup, SDI has to stand on its own in the budget battles. That wasn’t such a strain during the defense buildup of the early- and mid-1980s, or even in the late ’80s when spending was starting to slip.

But now the defense cuts are accelerating and the money fight is fierce.

″The tighter the budget gets there is going to be more resistance by some elements in the Pentagon to having more money going into SDI research and development,″ said Steven Kosiak, senior budget analyst at the Defense Budget Project, a private research organization.

None of the military brass is yet complaining publicly about SDI’s widening piece of the budget pie. Yet subtle signs of discontent are emerging.

Example: At a congressional hearing last week in which he asserted that ″we can’t afford to modernize the Army″ because the budget is shrinking so fast, Steve Conver, head of Army weapons development, was given some pointed advice.

″You can find some money in the Strategic Defense Initiative,″ said Rep. Ronald Dellums, D-Calif., a leading critic of the anti-missile project. He noted that under President Bush’s proposed 1993 defense budget, SDI’s share - $5.4 billion - would equal the entire Army research and development budget.

Conver grinned but didn’t respond.

For most of SDI’s nine-year life, Moscow was its biggest critic. Ironically, now that the Soviet Union has disappeared, it seems possible that the American military establishment could eventually prove to be SDI’s undoing.

Besides money, another emerging argument over SDI is how the project is being shaped and who would control it once it was turned into an actual weapons system. Congress has ordered the Pentagon to field a system by 1996.

The Army’s Strategic Defense Command, which conducts much of SDI’s research, is at odds with Cooper over which pieces of equipment should be included in an anti-missile system and where anti-missile sites should be located.

The Army wants the Pentagon to emphasize the ground-based pieces of SDI: missile interceptors, radar and a probe known as the Ground Surveillance and Tracking System, or GSTS, that would help the interceptors distinguish their targets in flight.

Cooper, however, has dropped GSTS from the anti-missile system planned for deployment in the mid-1990s and has reduced from two to one the types of interceptors to be used. He wants to maintain emphasis on potential space- based weapons.

″There is some conflict between his vision of how that is to be done and some other people’s vision,″ said Jack Merritt, a retired general who keeps close contact with the Army through his position as president of the Association of the U.S. Army, a private group that promotes and supports Army causes.

Frank Gaffney, director of the private Center for Security Policy and a former Pentagon official, said the Army has ″engaged in scarcely concealed guerrilla war″ against Cooper.

″They would be perfectly content to see the whole thing go belly up″ because it does not fit the Army’s view of critical defense missions, Gaffney said.

Also to be determined is who would be in charge once the SDI technology is ready for fielding. On paper, the U.S. Space Command would control the system in time of war. But it’s not yet clear who would call the shots in peacetime.

Cooper has said he has no intention of gaining control of SDI field operations, but even some of SDI’s supporters on Capitol Hill aren’t so sure.

In a letter to Defense Secretary Dick Cheney last December, Sens. Richard Shelby and Howell Heflin, D-Ala., lashed out at Cooper’s SDI office, saying they feared that Cooper had ambitions to ″create a fifth service″ to control SDI.

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