Pentagon's Soviet primer

To know one's adversary is essential. So to the extent that the Pentagon's just-released study on the Soviet Union's military buildup provides fresh information, it may prove helpful in the national security debate. But it would be unfortunate if the American people were left with the impression that the Western alliance is now under a monstrous threat and in a position of military inferiority. The public should beware such a conclusion when the study does not make a thorough comparison of Soviet and American forces.

Without such a complete comparison, a toting up of numbers of one side is meaningless. Rational discussion of America's and NATO's security requirements is possible only on the basis of a comprehensive, objective view of the strengths and weaknesses on both sides. In weighing these, the public should be alert to other sources of information, such as the authoritative study done annually by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Its recent analysis -- which doesm look in detail at both sides -- also shows a worrisome buildup in Soviet conventional and strategic arsenals but concludes that would make it extremely risky for the Russians to engage in military aggression.

That is not cause for complacency, certainly, but it does help keep a perspective on the Pentagon analysis. Clearly there are political factors involved in the way the study, packaged in a slick booklet, has been put together as well as in its release at this time. The administration says it is designed primarily to reach European public opinion. But its publication comes at a convenient time for the campaign to persuade Congress and the country that the Soviet buildup necessitates massive increases in US defense spending.

Many will see gaps and some misleading comparisons in it, however. For example, the study says that in the past 25 years the Soviet Union has devoted on average a much higher percentage of its gross national product to the military than the United States (12-14 percent as against 7 percent). It does not point out the relevant fact that in this period the American GNP has been at least twice that of the Soviet Union, thus evening out military expenditures. Nor that, when Warsaw Pact and NATO defense spending are compared, NATO has the decided edge. (One could also ask whether how much is spent is as important as how it is spent.)

Will the Western allies buy the American effort to paint as dire a picture of the Soviet military buildup as possible? Washington has been trying to convince NATO of a growing threat from the East. Yet what is concerning some members of NATO is less the alleged East-West "imbalance" than the absence of a strong signal from the US that it is pursuing its own buildup in tandem with an arms control effort. Indeed it can be argued that, with both superpowers spending huge sums on defense -- and both wrestling with economic problems at home -- it is high time to get back to serious negotiations.

We would not gloss over the military challenge. There patently are American weaknesses needing to be addressed, especially in conventional arms -- manpower deficiencies, inadequate naval forces, shortages of spare parts. The poor defense preparedness in general is a national disgrace, and the Reagan administration's determination to rectify the situation is to be applauded. But , that said, it would not serve US or allied security to go off on a spending spree based on an exaggerated perception of the Soviet military threat.Only a dispassionate, fair assessment of Warsaw Pact and NATO capabilities can provide the basis for sound defense planning -- and spending.

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