How many billions?

Defense is a difficult, complex subject. But when the President of the United States asks Congress to authorize an astronomical $222 billion for the fiscal 1982 military budget -- at a time of financial squeeze on all other areas of government spending -- the American people ought to take more than a casual interest. In five editorials, which will apear this week, we shall examine some of the issues involved and, we hope, stir discussion.

Let it be said at the outset that the nation's defense is not an area in which to take risks. The armed forces clearly must be adequate to meet security needs, and we doubt any American would begrudge the funds -- and sacrifice -- required to maintain defense at a demonstratively safe level. That the unceasing Soviet military buildup poses new challenges to the West is a matter of general agreement. The question is exactly what should be done about that challenge.

Our major concern is that the subject receive honest analysis and debate within the government.It would be unfortunate if an exaggerated "Russian menace" became the excuse for bloating the US budget with unnecessary arms programs. The miliary services always want more weapons and the temptation to push for them under an assertively prodefense administration must be strong. The defense industry -- that military-industrial complex which President Eisenhower warned about -- is avidly awaiting huge contracts. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger , even before he has had time to study the complicated problems involved, has called for a $33 billion jump in military appropriations over the Carter budgets for 1981 and 1982. Are these requests based on meticulously thought out plans -- or are they designed in large part to set a national tone of toughness vis-a-vis the Soviet Union? And perhaps for domestic political purposes?

Authorizing money before it is determined what the money is to be for is putting the cart before the horse. The United States needs a sound, long-range military policy. And, as former chairman of the Joint Chiefs Maxwell Taylor notes, the first requirement of such a policy is to know what US foreign-policy and security goals are and, to determine these, what dangers can be expected in the decade or two ahead. Then, says General Taylor, the Pentagon can work out the missions which must be performed and the weapons systems best suited to performing them. "By making task adequacy the standard for force strength," he writes, "our military policy will meet the legitimate requirements of national security without need to resort to a mindless arms race with the Soviets."

Has this precision homework been done? There is not much evidence yet that it has. Instead, much is heard about generalized Soviet arms "superiority" and about the Russians "outspending" the US in defense. Such unqualified statements are misleading. It is hard to conceive that the United States, with more than 9 ,000 strategic H-bombs, is in a position of overall inferiority to the Russians, with their 6,000 some H-bombs. There are areas in which the Russians have an important advantage (most notably in conventional weapons) and areas in which the US has the clear edge (accuracy of warheads). Overall, most military experts, whatever their disputes over detail, appear to agree that the two superpowers at presentm are in rough equilibrium with each other. This is not to deny areas of US vulnerability -- a dated bomber force, a stretched-thin Navy, poor combat readiness, for instance -- which must be addressed. But calm determination of actual need will serve the national interest better than broad overstatement.

In this connection, comparing US outlays with those of the USSR is an unreliable business. Most CIA estimates of Soviet spending are based on what it would cost the US to duplicate the Soviet military effort. Yet such a comparison is often fallacious. The Russians, for instance, pay their military far less than does the US and have a more manpower-in- tensive army. So, as the Center for Defense Information in Washington points out, whenever the US boosts military pay by $1, the Soviet dollar cost increases by almost $2 -- making the Soviet Union appear far more threatening than it is.

Furthermore, even if CIA estimates are taken as a guide, the picture is not complete wihtout comparing NATO and Warsaw Pact spending, and here NATO is the undisputed leader. Figures put out by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies show the Atlantic alliance considerably outspending the Eastern bloc. NATO also has more men under arms.

However, the basic point is not how much is spent, but how efficiently and effectively it is spent -- whether the arms and personnel at hand are sufficient to their mission. Here attention must be given not only to the state of current weapons systems and manpower but to Western defense strategy itself -- to organization and doctrine as well as equipment.

One innovative concept heard there days comes from a group of defense analysts who say that, with new strategies, the US could have a much stronger defense -- and without big increases in spending. These specialists, led by retired Air Force colonel John Boyd, argue that the US armed forces are weighed down by a cumbersome, expensive strategy based on overwhelming an enemy by superior numbers of soldiers and weapons. They favor instead "maneuver warfare, " a strategy based on defeating an enemy by agile attacks at its weak points with smaller, more cohesive divisions and with smaller, cheaper, and less sophisticated planes, tanks, and ships. Ironically, this is the strategy of the Soviet Union, which maintains large numbers of lean divisions for swiftly overpowering the adversary in intense but short campaigns.

This is not to accept the Boyd group's call for institutional reform at face value. It may not be valid and we are in no position to judge its merit. But it does raise intelligent questions, and it is therefore hoped that Mr. Weinberger and his aides are looking at this and other analyses as they consult with NATO allies and work out a long-term military policy. Challenging conventional thinking could open up fresh ideas and approaches.

One other major item concerns us: moving forward as quickly as possible on SALT. We appreciate that Mr. Reagan needs time to review the whole platter of arms control issues before starting talks with Moscow. But, meanwhile, it is disquieting to hear voices calling for scrapping of the 1972 ABM treaty and other changes. The years ahead are likely to be marked by a higher level of US-Soviet military competition and tension, which would make nuclear arms control even more crucial if the superpowers are to preserve a balance and contain the risks of nuclear war. Both sides are developing new systems, such as counter-silo capabilities. Both are scurrying to keep up with new vulnerabilities. This spiral, driven by military institutions on both sides, needs to be broken.

Economics alone should bring both sides to the negotiation table. It is hard to imagine the Reagan administration will not be eager to pursue arms control -- and to scale down its budget projections -- when it realizes the impact on the US economy of rising defense costs. Few believe the President will be able to balance the budget and cut taxes without also curbing arms outlays.

Otehr issues could be touched upon, including the massive defense-budget waste which the outgoing US comptroller general says runs into billions of dollars annually. Subsequent editorials will deal with the MX, bombers, naval strategy, and the draft. But the main point we would make today is that US security cannot be bought by throwing dollars at the very real problem of Soviet military growth. Americans want to be assured that the White House and Congress are applying standards of cost-effectiveness, efficiency, and legitimate purpose as they seek to put the nation's defenses in pro per order.

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