Washington — Caspar Weinberger, in just three hours of quietly assertive testimony, apparently convinced even the Democrats on the Senate Armed Forces Committee that Ronald Reagan is putting the Pentagon in good hands.
The Secretary of Defense-designate told the committee Jan. 6, "It is absolutely essential that we first improve all aspects of the readiness of the forces that we now have, and I think simultaneously we have to begin to improve the strategic balance between ourselves and the Soviet Union."
Clutching two sharpened pencils and speaking in a clear, commanding voice in the cavernous hearing as the panel's new chairman, Sen. John Tower (R) of Texas, listened appreciatively, Mr. Weinberger declared: "I think there has been a gap opened, and I think that gap has to be closed."
Listening intently were, among others, veteran Senate defense watchdogs Barry Goldwater (R) of Arizona, Henry Jackson (D) of Washington, and John Stennis (D) of Mississippi.
In a cordial, almost back-slapping atmosphere Weinberger told the committee that it would be "a good six months" before the administration would be ready to begin new talks on strategic arms limitation with the Soviet Union.
He expressed doubt that the US currently has the strength to deploy and supply a large force for action in the Persian Gulf.President Carter's commitment to defend US "vital interests" in the Gulf, he added, had been made without consulting the nation's allies and countries in the region. Weinberger termed this "extraordinarily clumsy and ill- advised."
Turning to the vexed question of keeping personnel in the armed forces, Weinberger said he thought improved compensation and benefits would have an important part to play in solving the problem. "It takes a long time and a lot of effort to train people, and to lose them too quickly -- certainly before they're ready to go or sometimes because they can't afford to stay -- is a great waste," he said.
Questioned on the draft, he declared that he would "like to see if some of the improved inducements to remain in the service would not work a little better."
Describing the controversial MX missile as "very useful," Weinberger observed that he wants to examine "a wide number of options" before deciding on a deployment mode for the system.
One of the ways of improving US strategic posture and readiness, he added, would be to increase naval strength. "IT's still vital to the nation's security that control of the sea and freedom of the sea for American forces should be maintained."
As the hearing progressed and Weinberger's confirmation seemed more and more of a formality, the waste-cutting penchant that won him the sobriquet "Cap the Knife" in a previous administration began to emerge: "My preliminary impression is that in any organization that has $160 billion there has to be some opportunity for savings. I would want to try to find those."
Critics of Weinberger's appointment have said he knows too little about defense. But Sen. Alan Cranston (D) of Califfornia pointed out that as director of the Office of Management and Budget in the past Weinberger had to "familiarize himself with . . . the national defense budget." He added that while Weinberger "may lack experience in the policy matters relating to national defense and national security, I am absolutely confident that . . . he will soon have . . . a very, very full understanding" of national defense policy.