Washington — Deep in the low-rent district of the Pentagon sits a worried Navy lieutenant. Usual anxieties - the fate of the Redskins, whether the captain likes his redesign of the corridor bulletin board - have been set aside today in favor of an acute unease that is sweeping the building. Even in this buried office, where the best window opens on an air shaft, talk is of the same topic that weighs on the minds of high generals and admirals: the budget reductions recently ordered by new Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci.
``How about those cuts, heh,'' says the lieutenant, by way of a greeting. ``Pretty big stuff. Don't know where they can find them.''
As 1988 begins, it is clear to all levels of the United States armed forces that there is a new sense of limits in regard to military spending. One legacy of the past seven years is a more muscular attitude toward the actual use of military force. The US fleet swaggering about the Persian Gulf is evidence of that.
But Caspar Weinberger, the defense secretary who bitterly fought every congressional cut in his budget request as damaging to national security, has retired to Maine. In his place is Mr. Carlucci, who has ordered the services to slash about 10 percent from their 1989 budgets so that inevitable reductions can be managed intelligently.
On his first morning in office Secretary Carlucci announced his goal was to ``recalculate the glide path'' of military spending plans. To officers the choice of words was ominous. An aircraft on a glide path is descending.
Of course, the defense budget has been sinking for some time - it peaked in 1985 at $323 billion and, after three years of cuts, will be about $290 billion in 1988.
But the defense secretary has now acknowledged that the cornucopia years of the early '80s are not soon returning, and the services must now readjust long-term budget plans that were unrealistically high by tens of billions of dollars.
One positive note for the Pentagon in 1987 was that stories ridiculing the defense procurement process subsided. No new overpriced spare part comparable to the $100 hammers and $1,000 coffee pots of previous years received widespread publicity. Whether this was due to real reform in purchase practices or satiation of news editors everywhere is debatable, but in any case even much-maligned defense contractors took few new hits.
General Dynamics, for instance, a company that in the past has had the image of the J.R. Ewing of defense firms, managed to make it through 12 months with no major scandals. Two days before Christmas it won a coveted contract (in conjunction with McDonnell Douglas) for the next-generation Navy attack plane. Most criticized weapon of 1987 was probably the B-1B bomber, with the Bradley Fighting Vehicle fading early in competition for this dubious award and the MX missile coming on at the end of the year.
Though the bomber became operational last fall, its defensive electronics won't be bug-free for years. In a series of reports, the General Accounting Office (GAO) in recent months has pointed out shortfalls in B1-B parts stocks, training, and maintenance, and said that Air Force cost estimates for deploying the plane will be exceeded.
The weirdest GAO report of the year surely was the one examining cost of recruit haircuts at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. Competition between contractors, GAO found, had shaved the price of the cuts from a projected $2.05 to 95 cents each.
This year's defense authorization bill contained at least one equally strange provision, which rescinded a prohibition on Defense Department purchase of typewriters that contain parts made in the East bloc.
People remain one of the military's prime success stories. David Armor, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for force management, says 1987 was ``another banner year'' for recruiting and retention of quality personnel.
For fiscal '87, 93 percent of the 316,800 new recruits had high school diplomas, up one percentage point from the previous year. Reenlistment rates of career service personnel went up slightly.
It was the year of the Persian Gulf for the Navy. How long the US tanker escort service in the region will last, and in what form, is a question that much preoccupies the Pentagon hierarchy today. Defense officials do not want the operation to become analogous to the ill-fated deployment of marines to Lebanon, where political considerations tied their hands and eventually made their position untenable.
Persian Gulf action began with the tragic mistaken attack on the patrolling USS Stark by an Iraqi jet fighter. Human negligence - on the part of both the Iraqi pilot and Stark officers - apparently caused the accident; the Stark's captain and two other officers were relieved of duty, though not court-martialed.
In an article in the latest issue of the journal of the Naval Institute, a private organization, John Byron, a Navy captain on active duty, says what happened to the Stark could have happened to any number of US ships. Training and readiness in the surface navy, claims Captain Byron, are significantly worse than in the submarine fleet and naval aviation.
Two days after the Stark attack, on May 19, the US agreed to plant the stars and stripes on Kuwaiti tankers and escort them through the Gulf. Since then, Iran has nibbled at US forces by small strikes where defense - and policy - is weakest. Before the US brought in mine-sweeping equipment, mines holed one tanker. Iranian gunboats have attacked tankers that were not reflagged, and thus not officially protected.
In June, a Navy admiral swore that little more than the normal US Persian Gulf patrol could handle the job, and an expensive Aegis cruiser was not needed. But to prevent another Stark-like accident, US civilian officials called for a large and gaudy force, and soon an Aegis was standing guard at the Strait of Hormuz. A battleship followed.
Currently, the policy is to protect only US-flagged ships. A ``point defense'' in military lingo, this is a relatively focused mission. But some officers worry the mission could expand - to protecting all tankers against Iranian attack, perhaps - and thus become less focused and more difficult. More ships would be required, in turn creating more targets, leading to perhaps a more volatile political situation.
The US thus faces a delicate task in balancing the need to show strength in the Gulf with the necessity of avoiding a bog of endless commitment.
Navy officials, meanwhile, are grumbling that their Gulf responsibilities are expensive, and that they should therefore not have to cut their budget as much as the Army and Air Force. As this shows, the defense budget battle has now shifted from being the Pentagon vs. Congress to being service vs. service, as officers battle for their share of limited funds.
Next: US economy's rough '87 ride