Washington — President Carter's last defense budget, which calls on Congress to appropriate a record $196.4 billion for fiscal 1982, is largely designed to meet what US Defense Secretary Harold Brown calls "in many ways the most dangerous challenge" facing the United States: "The massive and continuing growth of Soviet power" and "demonstrated Soviet willingness to use that power."
The whopping appropriation request, which traditionally exceeds proposed expenditure, represents an increase of 5.3 percent (after adjustment for inflation) over a total of $171.2 billion for fiscal 1981. Still this might not be as much as incoming president Ronald Reagan wants to bolster US defenses.
In terms of actual spending, the budget Mr. Carter sent Congress last week calls for $180 billion for widely assorted Pentagon programs -- an increase of $ 22.4 billion over estimates for last year. "At this level," notes the Defense Department, "defense represents 23.4 percent of the federal budget and 5.6 percent of the gross national product."
Discussing the budget at a Pentagon briefing Jan. 15, Secretary Brown said the Carter administration had decided to make military readiness its top priority, improving pay for experienced personnel; increasing expenditure for operation and maintenance (O&M) and spare parts; and adding "lift" capability to move forces to distant trouble spots.
O&M funds, which keep the armed forces training and their equipment functioning, account for the biggest increase in the fiscal 1982 budget, receiving a real growth boost of $3.8 billion. In terms of funding priorities, research and development ranks second in the new budget. Weapons systems procurement, always popular with Congress, which appreciates something tangible for the money it votes, comes in fourth.
With an eye on the ever-crucial Persian Gulf, the Carter administration has set aside $375.1 million in this biggest-ever defense budget for initial development of the long- range, wide-bodied CX transport, which can carry the M- 60 tank and land on softer, shorter runways than current transports can.
"Also high in our priorities, but not as high as readiness," noted Brown at the news briefing, "is modernization both of our general purpose forces and of our strategic forces." Improving survivability and penetrability, he said, was the "keystone" of improving the latter.
The new budget accords $2.4 billion to the MX missile program, besides providing substantial funding increases for the development and production of air- launched cruise missiles (ALCMs); the adaptation of B-52 bombers to carry them; and development of the improved Trident II missile for the Trident sub, which gets $243 million.
The budget also seeks to improve the ability of US forces to mobilize quickly and, with NATO forces, fight effectively to defend Europe. It is seeking funds for the additional prepositioning of equipment in Europe and the modernization of armored fighting vehicles, helicopters, and air-defense systems.
In addition, 14 new warships are requested for the Navy, including another Trident ballistic submarine. The Carter administration had earlier called for 19 new ships. Funding also is allocated for the "Stealth" bomber, the development program for which Brown called "very substantial." A pay raise of 9. 1 percent for military personnel, effective in October 1981, also is included in the budget.
Analysts expect the Reagan administration to increase defense spending, particularly as this budget gives new hardware a low priority. In an attempt to attain a 600-ship Navy, warship acquisition might well be stepped up, they say. But such added spending will mean a substantial deficit and necessitate cuts in other programs, they caution.