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How many billions?

March 9, 1981

Defense is a difficult, complex subject. But when the President of the United States asks Congress to authorize an astronomical $222 billion for the fiscal 1982 military budget -- at a time of financial squeeze on all other areas of government spending -- the American people ought to take more than a casual interest. In five editorials, which will apear this week, we shall examine some of the issues involved and, we hope, stir discussion.

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Let it be said at the outset that the nation's defense is not an area in which to take risks. The armed forces clearly must be adequate to meet security needs, and we doubt any American would begrudge the funds -- and sacrifice -- required to maintain defense at a demonstratively safe level. That the unceasing Soviet military buildup poses new challenges to the West is a matter of general agreement. The question is exactly what should be done about that challenge.

Our major concern is that the subject receive honest analysis and debate within the government.It would be unfortunate if an exaggerated "Russian menace" became the excuse for bloating the US budget with unnecessary arms programs. The miliary services always want more weapons and the temptation to push for them under an assertively prodefense administration must be strong. The defense industry -- that military-industrial complex which President Eisenhower warned about -- is avidly awaiting huge contracts. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger , even before he has had time to study the complicated problems involved, has called for a $33 billion jump in military appropriations over the Carter budgets for 1981 and 1982. Are these requests based on meticulously thought out plans -- or are they designed in large part to set a national tone of toughness vis-a-vis the Soviet Union? And perhaps for domestic political purposes?

Authorizing money before it is determined what the money is to be for is putting the cart before the horse. The United States needs a sound, long-range military policy. And, as former chairman of the Joint Chiefs Maxwell Taylor notes, the first requirement of such a policy is to know what US foreign-policy and security goals are and, to determine these, what dangers can be expected in the decade or two ahead. Then, says General Taylor, the Pentagon can work out the missions which must be performed and the weapons systems best suited to performing them. "By making task adequacy the standard for force strength," he writes, "our military policy will meet the legitimate requirements of national security without need to resort to a mindless arms race with the Soviets."

Has this precision homework been done? There is not much evidence yet that it has. Instead, much is heard about generalized Soviet arms "superiority" and about the Russians "outspending" the US in defense. Such unqualified statements are misleading. It is hard to conceive that the United States, with more than 9 ,000 strategic H-bombs, is in a position of overall inferiority to the Russians, with their 6,000 some H-bombs. There are areas in which the Russians have an important advantage (most notably in conventional weapons) and areas in which the US has the clear edge (accuracy of warheads). Overall, most military experts, whatever their disputes over detail, appear to agree that the two superpowers at presentm are in rough equilibrium with each other. This is not to deny areas of US vulnerability -- a dated bomber force, a stretched-thin Navy, poor combat readiness, for instance -- which must be addressed. But calm determination of actual need will serve the national interest better than broad overstatement.

In this connection, comparing US outlays with those of the USSR is an unreliable business. Most CIA estimates of Soviet spending are based on what it would cost the US to duplicate the Soviet military effort. Yet such a comparison is often fallacious. The Russians, for instance, pay their military far less than does the US and have a more manpower-in- tensive army. So, as the Center for Defense Information in Washington points out, whenever the US boosts military pay by $1, the Soviet dollar cost increases by almost $2 -- making the Soviet Union appear far more threatening than it is.