Few quarrel with President Reagan's determined efforts to balance the federal budget. Few quarrel with the President's desire to strengthen the nation's military posture. But it is hard to see how these objectives can be reconciled until the administration tackles defense spending with the same eye to costsaving as it has applied to social programs. It does not appear to have done so thus far -- but realities may soon jolt it in this direction.
Fron the Pentagon comes news that the military budget for fiscal 1983 will probably run $2 billion to $10 billion more than estimated. Deputy Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci told the Washington Post that to accommodate expected cost increases in the next few years will require raising the military budget by 9 percent after inflation instead of 7 percent as planned. Even a 7 percent real growth, it seems, would not be enough to obtain everything the President wants -- a new bomber, higher military pay, more ships. Needless to add, raising the military budget even beyond its present high levels imperils the goal of balancing the budget, a point Mr. Carlucci made.
Voices that have been warning the Reagan administration about underestimating defense costs have proven to be right. In recent committee hearings Sen. Mark Hatfield disclosed that the Pentagon had raised the cost estimates for 37 of its 47 major weapons systems by more than $4 billion in a single budget year. To name but a few items: the Army's Patriot missile increased by $285 million, the Navy's F-18 fighter by $607 million, and the Air Force's F-16 by $172 million.
"We are spending more and mor dollars to buy less and less," said Senator Hatfield.
The answer obviously lies in more efficient defense spending -- choosing carefully what weapons are to be purchased (the most sophisticated, for instance , are not necessarily the best in war conditions), improving procurement practices, riding herd on defense industries to stay within cost estimates. Even many conservative economists believe the administration needs to slow down its military planning and take stock before plunging the nation into an unrestrained arms buildup. They note that, although there is slack in the economy at the moment, it will be running closer to capacity in the years ahead and that competition for manpower, supplies, and manufacturing capacity could push up costs and prices -- undermining the effort to revitalize American industry.
This is no argument for short-changing defense. Certainly the American people are prepared to pay whatever cost is required to maintain an adequate military force. But they are skeptical of simply letting the competing services run rampant with their shopping lists and they strongly support arms negotiations with the Soviet Union as a means not only of safeguarding world peace but of keeping costs within reason.
Interestingly, this was the view, too, of a former US president whose life historians are closely scrutinizing these days -- Dwight Eisenhower. Not unlike President Reagan, Ike insisted on holding down budget deficits, but he accomplished this in part by preventing runaway defense spending. He warned of the "military-industrial complex" and of the impact on the economy of an arms race with the Russians. "Someday," he wrote, "there is going to be a man sitting in my present chair who has not been raised in the military services and who will have little understanding of where slashes in their estimates can be made with little or no damage. If that should happen while we still have the state of tension that now exists in the world, I shudder to think of what could happen in this country."
Presidential parallels can only be drawn so far, perhaps. But given the era of both peace and prosperity which the United States enjoyed during the Eisenhower years, it might serve President Reagan well to study these words from a predecessor of good Republican credentials. If Mr. Reagan wants a dynamic, vigorous economy he, like Ike, will have to make sure the US does not put intole rable strains on its economy by producing too many arms.