Washington — Three formidable tasks will confront John Tower, incoming secretary of defense in the Bush administration: Devising a coherent United States national defense strategy to meet military requirements in the decade ahead.
Managing a defense organization whose costs are spiraling out of control and today vastly exceed income.
Cleaning up the weapons-procurement process, which has resulted in billions of dollars of waste every year.
After the head-long $2 trillion rearmament under President Reagan, defense experts say that the biggest challenge facing the new administration will be to bring the military in line with fiscal realities. The defense budget is running on the order of $300 billion a year. But because of earlier authorizations for new weapons, many experts warn, the defense program actually totals more like $450 billion a year.
``We've got a weapons-procurement program that is 20 percent too large for what we can finance,'' says John Steinbruner, an arms specialist at the Brookings Institution. ``This problem has been tossed forward for a couple of years and now it has to be dealt with.''
This means that as the new Bush team shapes national security policy, every decision will be influenced in part by budget considerations. Current Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci III, who has already made some cuts, is seeking annual budget increases of 2 percent after inflation for the five-year period beginning in fiscal 1990. But many Democratic lawmakers are talking of defense budgets with zero growth.
President-elect George Bush's appointment of John Tower, a former senator from Texas and chairman of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, to be the new head of the Defense Department has elicited a mixed reaction. Many conservatives are relieved that the post has gone to an advocate of a strong defense. But even some Republicans who want to see the procurement system cleaned up, and a more rational defense posture, are concerned that the nomination of Tower, who has close links with defense contractors, sends the wrong signal.
Sen. Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa says that, in light of budget constraints, the new administration will have to redefine its defense obligations around the world, which may entail major pullbacks abroad, including Europe. It will also have to adopt more competent bidding on weapons and more planning within the Defense Department, he adds.
George Bush, the senator says, will have to take the lead.
``A key factor is the extent to which President-elect Bush is going to be the real commander in chief and actually run the military and the Defense Department, instead of doing what President Reagan did, which is leave it to the secretary of defense,'' Senator Grassley says. ``He's got to send a signal that it's not going to be business as usual anymore.''
Reaching a consensus within the Bush administration on strategic policy will be no easy task, for the added reason that there are differences of view among the various players, including the President-elect himself, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, national security adviser-to-be Brent Scowcroft, and Senator Tower. These involve conventional as well as strategic nuclear forces and will affect future arms control talks with the Soviet Union.
One of key questions still to be decided, for instance, is which new mobile land-based missile to develop and deploy. Mr. Carlucci has favored building 50 MX missiles (each with 10 warheads) and deploying them on railroad cars. General Scowcroft has long advocated development of the single-warhead Midgetman missile, along with basing of the MX in Minuteman 3 silos. If a choice came between the rail-garrisoned MX or Midgetman, he favors the latter.
Still another question is how fast and far to go with Mr. Reagan's ``star wars'' program, or Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Congress has already pared the program to about $4 billion a year, much lower than the present administration sought. President-elect Bush as well as General Scowcroft indicate that a further scaling back of the controversial program may be in order. Senator Tower was a strong supporter of SDI as US negotiator in the Geneva arms talks.
In this connection, there are likely to remain divergent views of how to interpret the Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which prohibits the testing of space-based weapons systems such as SDI. The Reagan administration adopted a looser interpretation of the pact which would permit the testing of SDI systems. But General Scowcroft favors the traditional, or strict, reading of ABM, and regards the treaty as a major arms accomplishment.
As a matter of fact, Scowcroft has voiced concern that Reagan's obsession with eliminating nuclear weapons by deploying a space-based missile defense system risks eroding public support for maintaining a strong nuclear deterrent.
This is also why he has criticized the START (strategic arms reduction) negotiations, arguing that making steep cuts in strategic arsenals when the defense budget is under fire could create an unstable situation with respect to nuclear deterrence.
Conventional systems will also face close scrutiny. Many defense experts in and outside the government question the Reagan administration's goal of a 600-ship Navy, which the present building program is not expected to reach. There is sentiment, for instance, for sticking to a 13-carrier force vs. the 15-carrier Navy to which Reagan was committed.
Controversy has also arisen over such dazzling new weapons as the B-2 ``Stealth'' bomber, which will be the most expensive military plane in history (an estimated $68 billion for 132 planes), and the B-1 bomber, which cannot perform its ``penetrating'' function because of a faulty electronics system.