A Credible Defense

THE 1980s defense buildup, along with the deep tax cuts in '81, helped dig the fiscal hole that the United States is still trying to climb out of - which makes recent reports of Pentagon sleight-of-hand regarding the Strategic Defense Initiative ("star wars") and efforts to modernize the US nuclear arsenal all the more frustrating. These are projects that taxpayers and foreign investors (financing the deficit) underwrote to the tune of $380 billion.

This week reports surfaced that the Pentagon evolved a program of deception around SDI that, while originally designed to mislead the Soviet Union, did the same to many in Congress who wrote the checks for the program. One of the most egregious examples was the alleged rigging of a test in June 1984. After three failures, which never look good when Congress is considering appropriations, an interceptor warhead hit an incoming dummy warhead from a missile launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Califor nia. This fourth attempt was hailed as the first time a warhead had been intercepted.

Yet what actually happened? Researchers reportedly put a receiver in the interceptor and a beacon in the warhead - something the Soviets would not have been so considerate as to provide.

Sen. David Pryor (D) of Arkansas has asked the Comptroller General to look into allegations that the Pentagon intentionally misled Congress about SDI's progress.

This comes on the heels of a package of General Accounting Office reports in June that charged the Pentagon with misleading Congress about the cost, performance, and need for some of the most expensive weapons systems developed during strategic modernization. Did the military buildup of the '80s help push the Soviet Union into a defense-spending frenzy that it couldn't sustain? Undoubtedly. Nor do we doubt the need for a strong national defense or expect the military to bare classified information to potential adversaries. But overselling to Congress - especially by intent and with rigged data - the contributions that weapons systems can make to that defense distorts economic priorities, induces a false sense of security, and shows a disdain for the legislative process that undercuts the Pentagon's credibility and that of government in general.

As defense budgets continue to shrink, missions are redefined, and new weapons to meet those missions sought, the Pentagon would do well not to repeat the mistakes of the '80s.

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