Which guns?

The Reagan administration has promised to increase the armed strength of the United States, but do not be surprised if this takes time to arrange. One reason is that there are sharp differences inside the various armed services themselves over just which weapons or programs to push ahead and which to put aside.

For example, the main reason the Navy lagged on shipbuilding during the Carter administration was an internal Navy dispute over which kind of ships were most needed. In effect, the Carter White House told the Navy, "Get your act together." The disagreement was between the "big carrier" admirals vs. those who believe that the day of the big carrier is past and that first priority should go to much smaller types of ships useful for controlling and protectng the sea lanes which link the US with its allies.

The Army has its own internal problems over what type of tank to build. Do they want emphasis on the big tanks which would be wanted in the event of a great tank battle in Central Europe?Or is the need greater for lighter tanks which could be airlifted more easily to the oil fields of the Middle East?

In order to make a decision on tanks one must first estimate where a crisis situation is most likely to develop. During the past 30 years US strategic thinking has stressed the importance of the European theater. The greatest danger to peace was presumed to be the danger of a massive Soviet offensive aimed at breaking the NATO front and bringing all of Western Europe into the Soviet orbit.

But is that scenario any longer realistic? Is there a greater danger elsewhere? One clue to the answer is the fact that two US carrier task forces have been pulled out of the Mediterranean and sent to the Indian Ocean instead. There is so much anxiety now about the Middle East that the latest Pentagon talk is about setting up an independent command there.

The reason is obvious.iran and Iraq are at war. Syria, an Arab country, backs non-Arab Iran and is also in a state of bristling antagonism toward Jordan. Pakistan is in a state of incipient political fragmentation. israel is taking more land from Arabs in the occupied territories instead of making peace with those Arabs. The whole area is seething with war, strain, tension, and political uncertainty. In other words, opportunities for Soviet intervention are plentiful.

And Moscow has a motive to move southward. Its need for oil continues to grow, but its internal sources of supply are believed to be at or near peak capacity now. The Soviets are expected to need outside oil supplies by the middle of the decade.

Hence, where is the greater danger of trouble between the US and the USSR? It is still Europe, or has the danger point moved to the Middle East? If so, what does this mean to weaponry, size of units, type of units, etc.?

It will not be easy for the professionals in the Pentagon to reach agreement on what type of new weapons will best serve the national interests of the US. And while the admirals and generals are trying to work out their priorities another element will enter the equation.

The "industrial" side of "the military-industrial complex" (which President Eisenhower warned against in his farewell address) inevitably will be working on the side of the weapons which will return the highest dividends to stockholders. These are not always the weapons most wanted by the admirals and generals.

Before World War II the steel lobby supported the battleship admirals against the carrier admirals. Right now the highway lobby would obviously prefer the expensive MX program over using mobile cruise missiles at sea or from the air as a less expensive substitute. The aircraft industry is interested in getting the B-1 bomber back on a high priority list. The B-1 bomber and the MX are the two most expensive weapons systems ever dreamed up or proposed. It is estimated that industries in all 50 states would profit from a revived B-1 program.

Balancing the conflicts within the services, and the pressures from industry, will take time, wisdom, and political courage. It cannot be done overnight. It would be easier if there were no budget limits. But President Reagan insists that he is going to balance the budget. If he is serious about that then he is going to have to disappoint some segments of the armed services and large segments of the military-industrial complex.

Don't expect any quantum leap in US military strength within the next year. If Mr. Reagan can raise the strength perceptibly by 1984, he will be doing well.

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