Washington — They're burning the midnight oil at the Pentagon these days. Stacks of computer printouts are rising, and some officers have brought sleeping bags from home for more comfortable catnaps during their round-the-clock cram. The cause of all this overtime? The defense budget -- for 1987.
While the public and Congress are focusing on proposed military spending for fiscal year 1986 (which won't begin for another eight months), many strategists, policymakers, and numbers-crunchers at the Pentagon are looking 20 months ahead to 1987. And they're already bumping up against deadlines.
The 1987 defense-budget cycle actually began more than four months ago. And the way the process works -- or doesn't work -- is getting more attention than at any time in the past 20 years. A growing number of former senior defense officials, retired military officers, academics, and politicians (conservative as well as liberal) say the present system for producing Pentagon budgets wastes money and may harm national security.
Former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman David Jones charges that among many ``serious deficiencies'' in the defense establishment is a ``lack of discipline in the budget process [that] prevents making the very tough choices of deciding what to do and what not to do.'' The result, the former Air Force general wrote shortly after he retired as the nation's top military man, is ``bewildering internal disputes over resources and turf.''
Robert Komer, the former head of policy in the Defense Department, estimates that such interservice rivalry adds up to $50 billion a year to military spending.
The Pentagon's Planning, Programming, and Budgeting System (PPBS), fashioned by former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara in the 1960s, was designed to reduce the costliness of this service competition. In stripped-down form, it works like this:
About a year and a half before a president sends his budget to Capitol Hill, the Joint Chiefs of Staff issue their Joint Strategic Planning Document, an assessment of threats to US national security and a list of everything needed to counter them. The defense secretary prepares the ``defense guidance,'' a five-year outline for the armed services to use in making their force-structure and strategic plans.
Next, the Army, Navy, and Air Force write their Program Objectives Memoranda. These outline what the services think they need to carry out the goals of the defense guidance. These are now being written for 1987. These memorandums then pass back through the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) to the defense secretary, who incorporates budget-ceiling estimates and issues Program Decision Memoranda. The service budgets are then adjusted and sent back to the top Pentagon civilians for submission to the president.
In practice, the long process is far less tidy than it appears on a flow chart, according to many who have taken part in it or observed it closely. In fact, it may result in needlessly bloated defense budgets.
``Many of Secretary McNamara's problems are still prevalent after 20 years of PPBS,'' Marine Corps Reserve Maj. Mark Cancian wrote in a recent issue of Naval Institute Proceedings. ``Unfortunately, the services are unavoidably parochial and tend to meet challenges in the most familiar and comfortable way.''
``The driving force of the military budgeting process is advocacy,'' economist J. A. Stockfisch observed in a study for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative public-policy research group that favors more defense spending. ``Given a changing technology that may upset the status quo between the various specialized military functions, each service presses to obtain development funds for new weapons that will fortify its future role. Weapons also justify units -- divisions, air wings, and fleets -- and thus provide a rationale as well for funding manpower resources.''
Critics say Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger has exacerbated the situation by giving more authority to the armed services.
At the same time, Mr. Weinberger resists changes to the Joint Chiefs structure, changes advocates say might help control interservice rivalry, reduce wasteful duplication, and provide better military advice to the president and other senior civilians.
``What we need is a strong secretary of defense and a strong Joint Chiefs, and we've never had that,'' says Kenneth Cooper, a retired Army lieutenant general.
Many analysts say the JCS chairman should be given more power to control the competing services. The other JCS members also head their service branches. Thus, they are not impartial parties when deciding with their colleagues what to spend and where to spend it.
Those advocating JCS reform also say the joint staff should be strengthened and made more attractive duty.
``For 40 years we've been having amateur's night on the joint staff, and it's time to change that,'' said John Kester, who was a top assistant to Harold Brown, defense secretary during the Carter administration.
For the past two years, military reformers on Capitol Hill have pushed legislation that would change the top military staff organization. Supporters say the result could be less interservice rivalry, tighter budgets, and a more effective fighting force.
Whether the present alarm over federal deficits and calls for reduced defense spending translate into support for such change remains to be seen. -- 30 --