Realities of Defense Spending

CALLS for realism are being heard in the debate over US military spending, but what does the term mean? From the Pentagon's perspective, the fundamental reality remains the Soviets' huge ``nuclear-delivery capability,'' as one top Defense Department official told Monitor editors this week.

In his view, the first need of the United States is still to deter the Kremlin from ever pushing that button. Few would argue with the prudence of keeping the Soviet nuclear arsenal clearly in sight. But many observers question whether confrontation with Moscow should continue to dominate - and perhaps distort - US strategic thinking.

Among these is Sen. Sam Nunn, who recently argued on the floor of the Senate for more attention to ``today's realities.'' The US can't allow old habits of thought about the defense of Europe to blind it to opportunities at hand to participate in the transformation of Europe, the senator suggested. He called for deeper cuts in American forces in Europe.

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Mix the Pentagon's stand for deterrence with the type of thinking in Mr. Nunn's speech, and you get a political chemicalization that may yet result in policies that balance the need for vigilance with the need to move beyond cold-war military doctrines - and to retool the military-industrial dynamo those doctrines fueled.

That process of change is under way. Defense Secretary Cheney wants the services to cut their strategic weapons spending plans by 3 to 5 percent. Battles will flare over what should be sliced - the Stealth bomber, mobile missiles? In every case, military planners will have to show how their weapon of choice fits into a changed world order. And members of Congress will have to hold off the pork-barrel impulse to defend projects that create jobs back home.

Before year's end, the strategic arms reduction (START) treaty will be signed. It will significantly reduce the world's population of large, intercontinental missiles, and set up extensive inspections of US and Soviet installations.

But the treaty is also expected to leave ample room for added bombers, cruise missiles, and mobile missiles. Critics are already saying it's time to restart START for more meaningful arms reduction.

Changing the course of a lumbering political-military-industrial machine won't be easy. And if it's hard in Washington, where the political gears are at least firmly in place, it may be doubly hard in Moscow.

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