In crucial meetings in Los Angeles this week the Reagan administration is finding itself face-to-face with the hard realities of the federal budget. That is, that to meet the President's avowed goal of balancing the budget by 1984 it will be increasingly necessary to make reductions in defense spending. To shun defense-related reductions raises not only questions about the unfairness of confining cuts to social programs alone -- which directly affect millions of lower- and middle-income Americans -- but also more troubling questions about the extent to which the administration is truly thinking through its long-range defense program.
To urge greater realism on defense spending is not to suggest that the genuine needs of the military be slighted. Rather, it is to be hoped that the administration would bring to the defense budget the same type of hard-headed managerial and business acumen that it has already brought to a consideration of the social budget. Nor need Mr. Reagan feel a necessity to be locked into repeated commitments of increasing military spending 7 percent a year after inflation if in fact a careful review proves that earlier formulation was too high. The American people perceive Mr. Reagan will be boosting defense programs above levels sought by his predecessor. There would surely be little public opprobrium for revising the 7 percent commitment.
In this regard, it is perhaps instructive to note the recent comments of Colorado Sen. Gary Hart after touring a number of military units in the Indian Ocean. "We've created a permanent military presence halfway around the world," the senator said, "without a permanent logistics supply base."
In other words, the senator was implying, the US Indian Ocean presence suggests underlying problems in the currentm military structure. The senator and a number of other lawmakers, including several conservatives, have formed what they call a "military reform caucus" to help shift the defense debate from issues about the quantity of weapons to issues of quality. Mr. Hart, for his part, would have the Pentagon first tackle "people" issues, including the cohesiveness and esprit of units now in the field, followed by discussions about strategy and tactics. Only after that would he raise considerations of new equipment or weapons, stressing the kinds of systems needed rather than sheer numbers.
This type of analysis has much to be said for it and touches directly on the discussions now underway within the administration, which is considering bringing total defense spending to $1.5 trillion over the next five years. Budget director David Stockman, for example, is reported to have made suggestions involving management reforms and base cuts that would prune $10 billion to $20 billion annually from defense outlays. Not possible? Anyone who has ever been in the military recognizes the waste and indulgence that are part of an institution as massive as the Pentagon. Meantime, the administration must take a hard look at the current readiness of America's defense forces -- such as ensuring that appropriate logistical supply lines are in place and there are no serious skilled manpower shortages -- before undertaking huge new weapons programs.
The administration has amply proven its courage and managerial skill in its recent budget victories. Now, if only it would prove that there truly are no "sacred cows" in the federal apparatus -- including the Pentagon