President-elect Ronald Reagan will inherit on Jan. 20 a whopping $196.4 billion request to finance America's defenses during fiscal 1982. The military spending proposal, made by President Carter, constitutes the largest such request in peacetime history.
Well over half the sum is earmarked for food and housing for personnel and for purchasing spare parts, shortages of which seriously impair the country's war-fighting capability in the view of defense analysts.
The amount that Mr. Carter is asking for defense in the fiscal year beginning next Oct. 1 is $25 billion more than that budgeted for the current fiscal year. That is a 4.6 percent rise after adjustment for inflation. The record budget also includes funds for air-launched cruise missiles, the MX missile, XM-1 Abrams tanks, and laser weapons.
But the budget is unlikely to satisfy those among the President-elect's defense advisers, particularly senior adviser William Van Cleave, who want to spend tens of billions of dollars to correct what they perceive as a strategic imbalance vis-a-vis the Soviet Union.
Apart from campaigning against SALT II and for the canceled B-1 bomber, Mr. Reagan has remained largely silent about his plans for invigorating the nation's defenses. He will come under pressure to allocate funds to improve US conventional and strategic forces; but resources simply may not be available for both, say congressional defense analysts.
The President-elect has been quoted as saying that he will spend 6 or 7 percent of the gross national product on defense, though some of his advisers have taken issue with the accuracy of such reports.
If a Reagan administration increased defense spending by more than 7 percent a year beyond the rate of inflation, as Dr. Van Cleave has said it will, a $200 billion budget for fiscal 1982 would grow to $376 billion in 1986.
Although there may not be money for all the strategic and conventional programs that require attention, Reagan is expected to submit to Congress a five-year defense plan (and, by some accounts, an eight-year one) that will call for increased warship construction, a new manned bomber, increased Minuteman missile silos, and larger pay raises for the armed services.
Former Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger claims to have detected indications that the defense budget may actually be cut, rather than increased -- extraordinary as that might seem, given Reagan's commitment to national defense. Writing in the Washington Post recently, he warned that the temptation would be "catastrophic. . . . Security is the prerequisite for everything else -- political rights, standard of living, economic progress, economic stability."
Former Defense Secretary Melvin R. Laird, who has said that the nation's armed forces are so poorly trained, manned, and equipped that they would be hard put to deter a war, has urged the President-elect to avoid "a defense spending binge that will create economic havoc at home and confusion abroad and that cannot be dealt with wisely by the Pentagon."
He proposes that the defense budget be allowed to rise from 5.3 percent of gross national product to some 6 percent of GNP by fiscal 1984. The defense budget then should "remain at that level until our depleted military capability is restored."
Defense Secretary-designate Caspar Weinberger is not thought to be planning anything like a defense spending binge. It is more likely that any additions to the $196.4 billion request will depend on whether Mr. Weinberger can be persuaded that the added dollars spent will result in tangible defense benefits for the country.