America's military-industrial complex is still reeling from Defense Secretary Dick Cheney's axing of the Navy's $57 billion A-12 attack plane program.

Cheney says McDonnell Douglas and General Dynamics defaulted by failing to "design, develop, fabricate, assemble and test the A-12 . . . within the contract schedule." This is a bit like dropping a 100-megaton nuke on the contractors, not to mention a couple of cities.General Dynamics began laying off 4,000 people in Fort Worth and Tulsa. McDonnell will lose 5,000 in St. Louis.

The A-12 was to be a carrier-based Stealth radar-evading warplane. The program was 18 months behind schedule and $2.7 billion over costs. Last summer the Pentagon canceled a Lockheed contract to build a submarine-hunting plane, the P-7A, as the result of sharp increases in development costs.

Cheney clearly is fed up with ever-rising costs and delays.

He said the program couldn't be saved "unless I ask Congress for more money and bail the contractors out." He said no one could tell him how much more it was going to cost to keep it going.

A bailout, he said, wasn't in the national interest. "If we cannot spend the taxpayers' money wisely, we will not spend it."

Last month the problems led to the early retirement and transfer of two admirals and another officer. A Navy probe found they had not informed top Pentagon officials of delays and cost overruns. Soon afterward, the Pentagon's procurement chief, John A. Betti, resigned.

Cost overruns on multibillion-dollar projects have been the order of the day for many years. An example several years ago was cancellation of the $39 billion Sergeant York anti-aircraft gun contract. A total of $1.8 billion was spent on development of the weapon and manufacture of 65 of the weapons. They were dismantled and sold for scrap.

The normally soft-spoken Cheney has sent a clear message to military and contractors alike that the good old days are at an end as far as defense contracting is concerned.

It's about time.

Thirty years ago, in his farewell address, President Eisenhower warned America of the dangers in the "conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry." He recognized the "imperative need for this development," but warned of its "grave implications."

Eisenhower added: "In the councils of government we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence . . . by the military-industrial complex. The potential exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes . . ."

Cheney made it clear with his A-12 action that he's trying to stop the age-old Pentagon system of bailing out programs in trouble that the military insists it needs.

The defense secretary also seems to be telling Pentagon as well as the arms industry the end of the Cold War has brought substantial change to the nation's need for costly weapons systems.

Clearly, the system in use to develop weapons systems isn't working as it should. Besides huge cost overruns and delays, some systems need too-frequent repair after being delivered to the services.

Defense Secretary Cheney is on the right track. Let's hope he succeeds in bringing this combination of military and industry under control.