The best arms for the job

The United States has an opportunity to make the record new military appropriations bill the last of its kind. By this we mean the last to address the nation's defense requirements with a shotgun instead of a rifle. To meet these requirements in a time of economic stringency, the US more than ever has to develop a clearly focused approach. It has to develop a policy that rationally provides not just numbers and ratios but the precise military capability to meet the needs of present and future US foreign policy. The country has never had such a military policy, says retired Gen. Maxwell Taylor, who saw the process from the inside as Army chief of staff and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

One way to put the basis for this kind of decisionmaking is not "more is better," as the hawks say, or "less is better," as the doves say -- but "better is better." In other words, define the need and maintain or create the specific military means to take care of it.

The Reagan administration and the incoming Congress cannot reshape military policy overnight. But the first budget and appropriations they are responsible for could begin the process in the spirit of the new-broom mandate they have been given. Mr. Reagan's concern for US strength need not be translated into simply quantitative terms, as some of the rhetoric surrounding him may suggest. Such a top defense adviser as William Van Cleave has indicated as much in several ways, including this comment on the armed services:

"It is as if they believe that $30 billion programs are intrinsically more effective and justifiable than many $2 billion programs. That may not be the case, especially if major programs turn out to be as vulnerable as they have been recently. Instead of one costly major service program, perhaps more consideration should be given to a larger number of less costly and less time-consuming improvements or fixes, both to meet urgent threats and because these may turn out to be the most likely to survive budgetary, environmental, and other political pressures."

When it comes to specific choices based on such an outlook, not everyone might agree with Mr. Van Cleave. For example, he suggests not waiting for the enormously expensive MX system to come on line but to get going faster and cheaper by turning existing land-based missiles into a mobile force using a "shell game" arrayof vertical shelters. In any event, the philosophy of going for effectiveness rather than expensiveness is something to be held to by the new team. And the whole question of the MX and whether it would truly meet a genuine need is ripe for review amid all the current controversy.

Also demanding thoughful review in terms of means and ends is whether the US, with its large stocks of chemical weapons, needs to proceed with the first facilities in a decade to produce more. Insufficient public debate preceded the House's decision to appropriate $19 million to start building a nervegas plant. These funds were omitted from the military appropriations bill passed by the Senate last week, though it totaled more tan the House bill and far more than White House recommendations. I would be wise for the conference committee to support this omission so that the matter can be fuly gone into before another decision is made.

Here is where military decisions could be clarified by testing them against their appropriateness for supporting plainly defined foreign policy objectives. As the new administra tion will find, the latter include not only security in Europe, the Middle East, and every other point of possible East-West conflict. They also include, for example, the whole matter of dealing with the third world in ways to reduce rather than heighten tensions. And there is the question of which US military policies will serve the interests shared with America's European and Japanese industrial allies without either damaging their interests in relations with the Soviet Union and China or discouraging them from contributing their proper part of the defense effort.

A clear sense of foreign policy priorities would help, for instance, in reducing the current differences between the House, Senate, and White House on allocating funds between additional procurement of present weapons and research and development on new ones. A reading onwhat Moscow is likelym to do in terms of aggression against the US -- as well as what it is capablem of doing -- would help to decide such questions as whether the US should place more weight on bolstering its land-based missiles or shifting emphasis to its less vulnerable sea-based missiles.

The next arms bill may not be immediately able to reflect the realism of the rational military policy advocated by General Taylor and others. But now, as Washington moves into the hands of people determined to be both strong and smart , the chance to make the new beginning a rational one should not be missed.

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