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The Federal Budget; More, more, more for defense: Reagan asks for his largest increase

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Two more years. That's how much longer it should take before United States military spending begins to level off. President Reagan's bugle call to rearm America with newer weapons and better-trained soldiers, sailors, and airmen was heard again here Wednesday.

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This time the President asked for the largest Defense Department increase of his four-year term.

The military agenda spelled out by Reagan & Co. remains much the same as it has been since 1981. They want new planes, especially the B-1 bomber. A 600-ship Navy with 15 aircraft carriers. Four restored battleships. Higher military pay. Better training. More flight time for pilots to gain experience. More steaming time for ships. The Peacekeeper (MX) strategic missile. More submarines. A rapid deployment force. Better communications. More research. Space weapons.

This time the President is asking for 13 percent more money - $305 billion in the 1985 fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. That's $16 billion less than the armed services asked for, but it shook some members of Congress.

Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, a key Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said there is no question the budget request would be cut. The only question is ''when and how much it will be reduced.''

After next year's record increase, Mr. Reagan wants another 9.2 percent in 1986. But that would be it. The Reagan military buildup would be largely complete. America's deterrent power would be essentially restored, says Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger.

In later years, Mr. Weinberger promises that increases will be on the order of 3.5 to 3.9 percent - just about enough to keep up with inflation.

The military budget has been a political battlefield since Mr. Reagan took office.

Democrats have zeroed their fire at everything from the B-1 bomber (Walter Mondale would ''terminate'' it) to the rapid-deployment force (John Glenn attacks it as ''not rapid, not deployable, and not a real force''). George McGovern pounces on the military as a ''wasteful, bloated monster.''

But the President has dodged such fire and pressed his offensive.There seems no compromise in his new budget, even though it is an election year.

So far, the American public has supported the President. When Reagan came into office, surveys showed that most Americans felt spending on military affairs was too low.

A 1980 poll by the National Opinion Research Center found that 60 percent of the American people believed the country was spending too little for defense, while only 12 felt that spending was too high.

Most Americans have continued to support the Reagan buildup, even as Democrats have escalated their criticism. The most recent survey by National Opinion Research shows 34 percent now feel the budget is too high, but nearly twice as many voters, 66 percent, still feel the budget is either too low or is now just about right.

What have the American people gotten for all this money?

The budget has risen in real terms (adjusted for inflation) by 11.4 percent in 1981, 12.1 percent in 1982, 8.7 percent in 1983, and a smaller 3.7 percent in 1984.

Is the American military stronger today than it was when Jimmy Carter left office? Analysts in and out of government point to a number of factors that indicate there has been real improvement. Among those:

Readiness. When President Reagan came into office, there were serious problems with planes that wouldn't fly, weapons that didn't work, soldiers who were not getting enough training. Specifically, Pentagon studies show that 25 percent of the Army's combat units were not ready to fight, 40 percent of major combat ships were unfit for combat, and 33 percent of the Navy's aviation squadrons were unprepared.

Billions of dollars have been directed at these problems. And there have been results. Between 1980 and 1983, the number of military units fit for combat rose 39 percent. Today the number of ships failing to be overhauled because of lack of funds has dropped to only two.

Sustainability. Even units that were prepared to fight in 1981 could not have done so for very long.

The Warsaw Pact, by comparison, had built up stockpiles of ammunition, and could have outlasted the allies in a conventional war in Europe. The Navy has been so short of munitions that there wasn't enough to arm every ship in the fleet even once. Spending for munitions has been doubled.

Modernization. In the 1970s, America's strategic programs slowed drastically.

The US deployed its last intercontinental ballistic missile, the Minuteman III, in 1970. Since that time, the Soviets have deployed four new classes of ICBMs and performed seven major modifications to those systems.

The MX missile, now called the Peacekeeper, was the Carter (and later the Reagan) response to this Soviet buildup. Reagan has also pushed production of the B-1 bomber (100 will be built), research on the Stealth (radar-invisible) bomber, and the Trident ballistic-missile submarine.

On the ground, Reagan has gotten higher output (60 per month) of the M-1 Abrams tank, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle (75 a month), and other weapons to meet the Soviet armored threat in Europe.

At sea, the 1985 budget continues the effort for a 600-ship Navy. Reagan inherited 479 ships. That will grow to 525 this year, and 545 in 1985.

In the air, besides the B-1 bomber (34 in the newest budget), emphasis will go toward upgrading US fighters and ground-attack aircraft.

Manpower. What Pentagon officials call their ''greatest success story'' has been the growing quality of manpower in the armed services. Example: In 1980, only 68 percent of military recruits were high school graduates. Today that is up to 91 percent, is well above the national average of 75 percent.