"We are now in a pro-military fad in Washington," says David T. Johnson, research director of the Center for Defense Information in Washington. President Reagan claims that his victory in last year's election indicated public endorsement of a huge military buildup. A stupefied Congress, including most Democrat members, is giving him a free ride on an $80 billion increase in defense spending over two years. Many congressment seem frightened to speak critically in the defense area. With much ado and discomfort, Congress is cutting some $40 billion from civilian programs. The defense budget is sailing through almost without a harsh word.
But fads fade. The pendulum could well swing in the other direction. Indeed , the massive buildup would prove counterproductive, should it produce such military waste and economic harm that public disenchantment prevented a needed but more steady refurbishment of America's military might.
Mr. Johnson maintains that this rapid military buildup "can't be supported by Congress and the American people for more than a couple of years. Things could be quite different next year."
Of course, should the Soviet Union invade Poland, he adds, the Reagan administration coud get what its wants militarily and more.
To military critics such as the Center for Defense Information, however, the Reagan budget goes overboad on defense spending Mr. Johnson figures "certain moderate increases in military spending are probably reasonable" as part of a carefully sustained, thought-out program.
A new report by the center cautions: "No relationship has been established between the level of military spending and measurable calculations of national defense, or victory in battle, or deterrence of conflict. Military budgets are the product of many factors that have little to do with military capabilities and are often not closely related to a carefully balanced allocation of limited resources to the broad spectrum of national defense needs.
"The vagaries of public opinion, political interest, and media attention have more to do with budgets than strictly military considerations."
In other words, throwing big bucks at the Pentagon does not automatically increase the nation's defense capabilities. But it may satisfy the latest mood of the electorate or the politicians.
In looking at defense needs, the study poins out that Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger likes to note that US defense outlays have fallen behind the estimated dollar cost of Soviet defense program, and that the Reagan plan will boost American military spending to nearly the Soviet level by 1986.
Mr. Weinberger's predecessor, Harold Brown, published a chart (see above) which shows that NATO spending, even under the more modest defense spending increases planned by President Carter, is larger than and growing faster than Warsaw Pact military costs. So the center is less alarmed than President Reagan about the nation's defense situation.
Moreover, that chart does not deal with the worry for the Soviet Union which is posed by China's huge armies, or the question of the reliability of Moscow's military allies, such as Poland.
The center regards the critical issue as one of sustainability of defense spending. "Overstatements of problems usually lead to overreactions and most frequently to 'solutions' that offer no real solution," the center report notes. "What usually happens is taht a few years of very expensive spending occur to create the impression of visible hustle, and then we are onto the next obsession or fad."
The center expresses three worries in this regard:
* The economy may not be able to support the massive defense buildup.
"Many components of defense industry are already operating near capacity, and the infusion of massive amounts of money will only tend to drive up prices, with little additional military capability resulting. . . . If widespread waste, mismanagement, or evidence of profiteering develops as a result of the unprecedented expansion of military spending in peacetime, the repercussions in the country may be serious and lasting."
Further, the report charges, "Secretary of Defense Weinberger does not appear to be aware of the potential conflict between the revitalization of the American economy and his ambitious plans for revitalization of the Department of Defense. Growing discontent with the across-the- board cuts in federal nonmilitary programs coupled with failure to turn the economy around could in a few years' time attract the hostility of many Americans to the increased military spending."
* There is an increasing likelihood that US military allies in Western Europe and Japan will not go along with big increases in military spending, regarding the US program as "overdoing it." As the gap between the US's spending levels and those of its allies grows, "increasing numbers of Americans will question the wisdom of US policy."
* To sustain support over the long term, the Pentagon's first priority must be a reduction in military waste and fat. Many authoritative agencies have identified numerous soft spots in the military budget.
The center recommends the appointment of an independent blue ribbon panel of distinguished Americans to examine the need for and effects of the proposed military programs. "This is particularly important now if the country is to get beyond the simplistic rhetoric of last year's election and ensure that peace if presumed in the years ahead and waste in military procurement prevented."