What new weapons -- and what for?

The Reagan-Weinberger Pentagon is beginning to look at the industrial base necessary to support not only its projected increases in the defense budget but also a protracted World War II type conflict which might take one half the gross national product.

That is about the proportion which World War II too out of a much smaller pie. Currently, one half of the gross national product approximates one and a half trillion -- repeat, trillion dollars. That is $1,500,000,000,000.

The implications boggle the mind, and spelling out those implications might be a good reason to do the studies: the results might give pause even to the Reagan administration.

One question is whether there are going to be any more wars of the scale and duration of World War II. It cannot be answered with certainty, though the prospect seems unlikely. So many nations have so many weaspons of quick mass destruction that the temptation to use them and get it over would probably be irresistible, especially on the part of the side that was losing.

Still, one cannot be sure. The kind of strategic thinking that is popular in Washington these days reasons that if one cannot be sure something won't happen, one had better get ready for it. The result may be that in trying to prepare for everything, we will in the end not be ready for anything. and that is about the worst possible position to be in.

This brings into focus one of the problems which has bedeviled American defense planning ever since World War II. That is the question of what to plan for.

The history of this period shows that what we needed to plan for were two substantial, but still limited, wars (Korea and Vietnam) plus assorted interventions and show-the-flag operations in such diverse places as Lebanon, the Domican Republic, and Berlin. Plus, of course, the defense of Japan and Western Europe which has been thought to require the presence of large numbers of American troops.

In fact, Korea and Vietnam were not planned for. Only months before the outbreak of the Korean war, the Truman administration reduced the defense budget to its lowest level since before World War II.The economy is still paying the price of the Johnson administration policy of fighting the Vietnam war without raising taxes and of simultaneously increasing government spending on the domestic programs of the Great Society.

During all of this time, the United States has never had a well-settled doctrine (or at least one which stayed settled for very long) over what national defense requirements the military establishment ought to be prepared for. At various times, the planners have been told to get ready for two wars (a la World War III) or for two and half wars (that is, two big ones plus a brushfire of unspecified proportions or for one and a half wars. As often as not, the critical determinant in what to plan for was not the threat but the budget. If it seemed too expensive to plan for a big threat, then we planned for a little one.

The budget is, of course, a legitimate, indeed a necessary, consideration in defense planning. A budget, whether of a household, a corporation, or a government, is not just a plan for spending money; it is the mechanism by which resources are allocated. It is, or ought to be, the place where competing dedemands are balanced and priorities are established. If there is no competition between demands, then there are no priorities and there is at best a misallocation, and at worst a waste, of resources.

There is no magic in pulling a figure out of the air and saying we are going to spend 7 percent more on defense (after inflation next year than this year and 7 percent again the year after that.(Why not 6 or 8 percent?)

Similarly, there is no magic in procuring a new weapons system just because it is thought to be technically feasible and because it will give the United States a capability it does not now have. The question which ought to be asked, but isn't very often, is, What task is foreseen which will require this new capability? In other words, what are we going to do with the weapon after we get it (assuming it works, which several of them don't)?

There may be more of this kind of questioning going on in the Pentagon thatn meets the eye, but there is little public indication of it. On the contrary, the weight of the evidence suggests an emerging Reagan national security doctrine so all-embracing as to be insupportable. People are willing to sacrifice for national defense, but his willingness has as yet determined limits. At least as important are the physical limitations on the availability of resources (oil, steel, etc.) and industrial capacity.

The recurring nightmare of military planners is the simulataneous occurrence of big or little wars in widely scattered spots on the globe. The analogy with fire departments is appropriate. No city tries to support a fire department capable of dealing with a large number of fires simultaneously. If cities did, they woudl be even worse off than they are.

If Reagan and Weinberger run the Defense Department on that basis, the country will be wo rse off still.

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