As election nears, even some Republicans want defense cuts

Critics continue to reel at the sight of Reagan-designed Pentagon budgets and the bristling arsenal of new weapons that have flown unscathed through the congressional flak.

But through the President's first term, defense spending - actual and projected - has in fact been held well below the administration's requests. Annual Pentagon budget levels are now a year behind what the White House had hoped they would be.

As Washington moves into the 1984 political season, the prospect for an ever more Scrooge-like attitude among lawmakers regarding defense spending seems likely.

The best indicators of future Pentagon squelching are coming from Republicans , especially the conservative senators who are facing reelection with the task of explaining why they have not produced a balanced federal budget as promised.

''We're returning to the electorate saying we missed that balanced budget by Armed Services Committee, who is facing reelection. ''You won't find the proponents of big defense spending you did six years ago.''

''The situation that really threatens the United States today more than anything else is a $200 billion deficit,'' Senator Warner told an American Enterprise Institute audience this week. ''The Congress is well aware of that in an election year.''

Warner and many other Republican members of Congress are saying that there's no way Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger will get the kind of 15-plus percent increase he's looking for in the fiscal year 1985 budget to be revealed next month.

Noting that defense makes up fully two-thirds of that portion of the budget which Congress can do very much about, Senator Warner says the administration will be fortunate to win as much as a 5 percent raise above this year's level.

Even Republicans not facing reelection are prominent among those pestering the Pentagon to improve management and procurement.

Sen. William V. Roth Jr. of Delaware, chairman of the Government Operations Committee, recently complained to Secretary Weinberger that suggested accounting reforms which could save $56 million a month had not been acted on. Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa has led the fight to have Pentagon maverick Franklin Spinney continue with his critical analysis on the future costs of weapons systems.

Other Republicans - including Sen. Paul Laxalt of Nevada, who heads the President's reelection effort - are also urging the White House to be more cooperative with Congress in fashioning a realistic defense budget. House Republican leader Robert H. Michel of Illinois recently expressed concern about this in a letter to President Reagan.

The growing concern about the impact of increased defense spending on the federal deficit also prompts questions about the ''mismatch between strategy and capabilities that clearly exists,'' as Frank Carlucci, former deputy defense secretary under Weinberger, put it this week.

Paul Thayer, who succeeded Mr. Carlucci as the No. 2 man at the Pentagon about a year ago, told a Senate panel last week that the administration feels it can continue its defense buildup ''without serious risk of financial or economic disruption.''

But Mr. Thayer also acknowledged that, because of looming deficits, ''the rate at which spending grows in the future is of obvious concern.''

When the administration took office, the defense budget measured 5.4 percent of the gross national product. Today, Pentagon spending equals 6.5 percent of theGNP, a figure that is projected to rise to about 7.5 percent by the end of the decade. As a portion of federal spending, defense is following the same curve.

Congressional Budget Office Director Rudolph Penner warned the House Task Force on Economic Policy and Growth this week that continued defense increases without additional taxes or budget cuts elsewhere could harm the economic recovery.

Martin Feldstein, controversial chairman of President Reagan's Council of Economic Advisers, in essence made the same point recently when he noted that nondefense programs (except social security and medicare) have experienced ''unprecedented'' decreases since the administration took office.

Some analysts suggest that deficits won't be a major political issue unless interest rates begin to rise. But if they do - and perhaps even if they don't - the Pentagon is likely to be the prime target for budget cutters.

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