Early Flak over Bush Defense Plan ; the Strategy Is Still Unofficial, but First Signs Have Critics Charging That It Will Unnecessarily Hike Defense Spending

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The Bush White House promises a ground-breaking revamp of America's military weapons and strategy, but already critics charge that the reforms won't go far enough.

President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have tapped teams of experts to make an urgent reexamination of US military strategy for the 21st century.

The teams - perhaps 20 in all - are working in secret and include dozens of specialists, both inside the Pentagon and outside the government. None of their findings have been released, and some may never be. Even so, critics went on the attack this week.

Theresa Hitchens, a senior adviser at the Center for Defense Information, says the studies are "chaotic" and that the Pentagon has failed to consult with Congress as it maps the future.

Lawrence Korb, who served as assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan military buildup, says the panels are "coming up with contradictory statements."

William Hartung, co-author of "Tangled Web: The Marketing of Missile Defense 1994-2000," says Mr. Bush's move toward a missile- defense system will actually make the US less safe, by prompting China to increase its stockpile of nuclear-tipped missiles.

Like so many things in Washington, the defense debate often comes down to money.

Cindy Williams, a defense analyst at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge says she hears Bush will ask for another $20 billion to $50 billion over current spending.

Although the standoff with the old Soviet Union ended more than a decade ago, critics like Ms. Williams observe that US defense spending today - $325 billion - is still at cold-war levels.

The question is: Why spend so much in peacetime? As Dr. Korb notes, the military position of the US compared with other nations "has never been better."

"We've been in an arms race with ourselves," Korb says. He estimates that the US could slash military spending by 20 percent and still maintain its edge.

Some savings could be won as the Pentagon moves away from a doctrine that calls for the ability to fight two foes simultaneously. But critics say the US has hung onto its multiwar and Eurocentric mentality too long. The result is the wrong weapons, too many of them, and too much spending.

Why maintain thousands of heavy battle tanks? Or 12 aircraft carriers? Or why buy the new F-22 air superiority fighter when current aircraft are better than anything else in the air? …