Do we detect the burgeonings of a new realism in Washington on the subject of defence? President Reagan, even while he has slashed away at social programs, has fervently stood by his proposed massive increases in military outlays. Now there are signs that the administration is beginning to face up to warnings that the administration's economic recovery program could be jeopardized if defense spending is not brought under control.
The White House aim is to balance the budget by 1984. But it is clear that with the biggest tax cuts in 50 years and no certainty that unemployment, inflation, and high interest rates will be brought down quickly, the deficits in the years ahead could well be much higher than the targets call for. Already the administration talks about the need to wring some $80 billion more out of the federal budget in 1983 and 1984. Where are the cuts to come from? One potential area is social security and medicare. But given the severe political and social risks attached to tampering with these programs, there is little choice but to look again at defense -- to which the administration has assigned a staggering 1.3 trillion over five years.
It is not surprising that the Reagan administration has come around to doing just this. Presidential counselor Edwin Meese III says all government programs might have their budgets slashed in fiscal 1983 and that "the Pentagon will contribute a great deal" to the cost-cutting effort. According to a report in the New York Times, all the military services have been instructed to prepare 5 percent cuts in their proposed budgets for that year. More realistic inflation rates are being applied to each large military program rather than across the board, and efficiencies are being sought in military tactics and operations and in manpower recruitment and training.
It is only "waste and inefficiency" in the Pentagon that needs correcting -- and there is much of that. Defense experts point out that enormous savings could be obtained by closing down US military bases that are no longer needed. Efforts to do this go back many years now, but base closings encounter so much local resistance and are so politically sensitive that little has been done. The word from Washington, however, is that Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger -- along with looking at maladministration, cost overruns, poor contract procedures -- intends to zero in on obsolete bases.
This general turn of events was not unforeseeable. Many have thought all along that President Reagan, having made his strong point about the need for a defense buildup, would be forced to tighten up his military budget once confronted with the economic realities. His early call for a 7 percent annual real increase in defense spending seemed predicated less on a well-thought-out military program -- there was not yet time to conceive one -- than on a general determination to be seen doing more than the Carter administration. Having added hefty defense increases for 1983 and 1984, however, and having factored these into his overall budget calculations, he should now be in the fortunate position of being able to trim back. Mr. Weinberger in fact hints the 7 percent figure is no longer sacrosanct.
This is not a matter of shortchanging the national defense effort. IT is a matter of applying the same stringent standards of efficiency, utility, and need to military programs as have been so vigorously applied to other parts of the federal budget. Mr. Reagan has shown how tough he can be on the civilian front. Will he also ride herd on the Pentagon? The success of his audacious economic expe riment may depend on it.