Washington — A triumph for Caspar Weinberger: That's the verdict many observers here are passing on the $13 billion defense cut President Reagan announced at the weekend.
Budget Director David A. Stockman had wanted a $30 billion reduction by 1984, but the defense secretary presented the President with such a persuasive case for a modest trim that all counterarguments proved unavailing, these observers say.
"Mr. Weinberger has really proven himself in this encounter," declares Edward Luttwak, a leading Washington defense consultant. "This is a triumph for him."
Observing that one of the defense secretary's strongest points is his ability to present a case, Mr. Luttwak asserts that his victory over Budget Director Stockman has greatly heightened his prestige and authority in the Pentagon. "Weinberger's standing there had been uncertain," he says. "This has really established it."
Luttwak, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., maintains that had the defense secretary been compelled to impose savage cuts on the Pentagon his ability to lead it successfully would have been gravely impaired. Mr. Reagan, an old friend of Weinberger's who has staked much of his political fortune on rearming the United States in the shortest possible time, undoubtedly took note of this, say observers.
Luttwak, like other analysts, views a defense cut of $13 billion over the next three fiscal years as "painful but tolerable." But he warns that even cutting "the most harmless-looking things" will be had.
He is clearly dismayed by reported plans to reduce the stockpiling of US ammunition abroad, pointing out that it is already at an "appallingly" low level.
Although it might not admit it, the Pentagon has been breathing a long and almost audible sign of relief since the size of the defense cut was revealed Sept. 12. It had been bracing itself for a far more severe cut. Though it is clearly loath to lose $13 billion, defense analysts maintain that its war-fighting capability will not be significantly affected by such a budget reduction.
"It could have been a lot worse," says Michael moodie, a naval expert at Georgetown's Center for Strategic and International Studies. He believes it is unlikely that additional Nimitzclass aircraft carriers will be affected by the budget trimming, "given the secretary of the Navy's orientation toward big carriers."
In fact, Mr. Moodie doubts that the Navy will be overly affected by the cuts it will have to absorb, pointing out that judicious pruning -- "one from that class here and one from that class there" -- will reduce the overall impact building cut-backs would have.
"They'll try to finesse it," he says. "A little bit here and a little bit there." In his view, while the Navy may cut back on ships involving "innovative technologies," such as Hovercraft, as well as prepositioned vessels (which support the Rapid Deployment Force) and amphibious assault ships, it is "unlikely to touch warships that contribute directly to the US combat mission in the North Atlantic."
Moodie adds that when he saw Navy Secretary John Lehman recently the secretary "did not seem to be too upset" by the cuts he would have to make. "He was pretty sanguine," he recalls, asserting that Secretary Lehman is "going to do everything he can" to ensure that the US Navy can field a fleet of 600 vessels.
Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R) of New Mexico, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, believes defense cuts should be in the neighborhood of $30 billion rather than $13 billion. "I believe that a majority of my committee and a majority of the Congress are looking for larger cuts than that," he declared Sept. 13. Appearing on the CBS television program "Face the Nation," Senator Domenici said the MX missile and B-1 bomber programs might have to be delayed and other procurements "stretched out."
Senate Democratic leader Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia charged yesterday that the President's decision to cut the defense budget brings into question "our long-term defense effort and the credibility of American staying power." He said the proposed cuts "are purely and simply dictated by budgetary expediency," and added: "I do not believe the Senate should endorse somersaults in military spending without the assurance that a carefully developed and effective defense policy will be put into place."
The Reagan decision to cut $13 billion from the defense budget in fiscal years 1982, 1983, and 1984 will reduce it to $639.3 billion. Of that total, $2 billion is being cut from what had been the proposed 1982 outlay of $183.8 billion.
Reagan insists there was "complete agreement" between himself, Weinberger, and Stockman "that these outlays could be reduced by this amount without setting us back militarily."