Though congressional committees want the Pentagon to slice a billion or two from its $159 billion budget for 1981 in the interest of the overall balanced budget, a new Brookings Institution study says the United States probably should spend more for conventional forces than that budget contains.
The main danger facing the United States now, says William W. Kaufmann, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) political scientist and consultant to the Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, lies in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean, where the Soviet military is far better positioned than the forces of the US and its allies.
Mr. Kaufmann points out in the Brookings study (entitled "Setting National Priorities: Agenda for the 1980s" and released March 24) that the Iran and Afghanistan crises lie outside the area where strategic nuclear weapons are of any use.
Therefore, he adds, the US should "drop the pretense that nuclear weapons will somehow extricate the United States from the confrontations and hazards of the future. They will not. Only adequate nonnuclear capabilities will."
Congressional and White House budget-snippers, however, are eyeing both nuclear and conventional programs, determined that the Defense Department cannot be spared (as was hoped before President Carter's recent directives to balance the entire federal budget).
So far, actual cuts done by congressional committees have been only a fraction of those originally recommended by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). Pentagon analysts say the continued Iran-Afghanistan crisis is the reason for this. It has cost at least $600 million from last November until now to maintain a two-aircraft-carrier US Navy and Marine Corps task force in the area.
First at the congressional cutting table has been House Budget Committee chairman Robert N. Giaimo (D) of Connecticut. He has reduced to about $1 billion suggestions for multibillion-dollar slashes submitted by CBO director Alice M. Rivlin. The Giamo cuts include a $100 million reduction in space research funding.
The CBO suggestions, in response to Representative Giaimo's request, originally called for cutting five out of 11 US Navy Aegis cruisers (carrying an advanced antiaircraft and missile system). They would have terminated the MX missile program, now under fire in the two states (Utah and Nevada) where the Carter administration wants to deploy it, and spend the savings on Trident 2 missiles and Trident submarines.
The CBO also would have dropped procurement of all 14 McDonnell Douglas KC-10 tankers and wiped out a large chunk of foreign aid in the Military Assistance Program. Over a five-year period, these proposals would have saved something like $20 billion.
Chairman Giaimo's committee, seeking ways to avoid such drastic slicing, has proposed instead saving about $3.5 billion by charging user fees for nonmilitary or semi-military federal facilities, like airports, airways, and US Army Corps of Engineers waterways.
Taking their cue from recommendations by top Pentagon officials, the House Armed Services Committee was to consider March 25 the revival of the Rockwell International B-1 bomber program, which President Carter turned down in 1977. The US Air Force is anxious to revive the program.
The Western alliance seems to be on the verge of putting too much stress on strategic nuclear forces and not enough on conventional forces in meeting the Soviet missile threat to Western Europe, Mr. Kaufmann says in his study for Brookings.
The US, despite airlift and sealift problems the Pentagon is trying quickly to remedy, currently does have combat forces able to deal simultaneously with one major and one minor contingency without using nuclear weapons, Mr. Kaufmann adds.
Mr. Kaufmann adds that the United States faces the serious prospect of three simultaneous crises: the Persian Gulf, Asia or the Caribbean, and Europe. Only a division of labor in which Europeans would increase their own efforts in order to release US troops for non-NATO deployments could hold the answer, he says.