President Carter's record defense budget for 1981, reflecting nearly 5.5 percent in real growth, by no means represents total US defense spending at home and overseas in this year of crisis, top administration officials say.
They warn that supplemental 1980 budget expenditures for fuel price increases and other items and probable fiscal 1981 increases in some weapons programs, as well as foreign military aid not included in the defense budget, are likely to raise spending well above the nearly $160 billion the defense budget is expected to authorize.
This means that the budget Defense Secretary Harold Brown sends to Congress Jan. 28 is only a cautious estimate of the cost of the present international crisis to the US taxpayer.
By announcing nearly $1 billion in defense sales to US friends in the Middle East and further loosening controls on such sales to China, the Carter administration seeks to reassure these countries that the record 1981 defense budget, which deals only with US and NATO needs, does not mean the US is neglecting other friends in crisis areas.
Little-noticed here amid the bustle of preparing the defense budget for presentation by Secretary Brown were plans for arms aid that Congress was notified of four days earlier. They provide for nearly $843 million in defense supplies to Israel, Morocco, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. the Pentagon also put the Soviet Union on notice that it was prepared to sell nonlethal equipment, including warning radar, trucks, and communications gear, to China.
The US defense budget, however, does not have to pay for easy-credit military sales to any of these countries, including a highly sophisticated new television-guided bomb to Israel. Like nearly $5 billion congress has either appropriated or will be asked for over the next three years for Israel and Egypt to reinforce their peace treaty, the money for these is budgeted under international aid funds.
Saudi Arabia is making things easier for the US taxpayer by paying the full bill for it own purchases (as it already has for about $15 billion in defense services and supplies over the past decade) and for a major Moroccan purchase of US aircraft and helicopters.
This same help, administration officials will argue before legislators questioning some Saudi purchases of large numbers of US cluster bombs, air-to-air missiles, and other munitions opposed by Israel's friends, eases the strain on American defense resources created by the crisis arising from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The administration obviously has leaned further toward still-tabooed arms sales to China in its new offer to study Chinese requests for nondeadly defense equipment.
If credit were available and if US controls did not exist or were relaxed, sources on both sides say, China probably would expand its present purchases to include jet combat aircraft, armor, and warships as well as computers and the industrial know-how it wants to manufacture its own civilian and military equipment.
The sale of Israel of 100 GBU-15 guided bombs for an estimated $35.1 million, US analysts say, is unlikely to be passed over in silence by Israel's Arab neighbors. One administration official said it might be interpreted as a further breach of President Carter's own 1977 rules against introducing new weapons systems into a theater.
However, the 2,000-pound bomb, guided to its target by an air crew watching a kind of television screen and only recently accepted as operational by the US Air Force after many tests, "has previously been provided to Israel," a Pentagon memorandum says. It "will be part of the war reserves of the Israeli Air Force to be used in time of war against concentrated, high-value targets. . . . There will be no impact on US defense readiness."
The $232.5 million Moroccan purchases (the ones financed by the Saudis) include a generous number of the type of combat aircraft that country wants for its war against Algerian-backed guerrillas in the Western Sahara -- and promised last year by President Carter.