President Reagan is wisely giving himself plenty of time at his ranch in California to think about such matters as his military procurement program and its relation to his budgets for the rest of his term in office.
It is wise and prudent because and decisions he must make about weapons may shape his whole administration and determine whether his economic policies will succeed or fail.
He has learned in recent days that the deficit for the next fiscal year could run up to $20 billion above the expectations on which his economic program is based. He has been told by his budget expert, David Stockman, that he can save those extra billions only by cutting back on either social security or the military program. And his political advisers tell him that cutting back on social security is politically intolerable.
So, does he cut back on military spending, or risk having the American economy slip back into the old inflationary spiral?
The military program he has been studying over the past week with his military and foreign-policy advisers calls for spending perhaps as much as $1.5 trillion over the next five years. The exact amount will be largely determined by the decisions that are before him right now over choice of weapons.
Is he going to choose the latest Pentagon version of the MX missile to be mounted in cargo planes and launched from the air, as Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger proposes? Or will he take the advise of Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., who wants to launch the MX from the ground?
In either case the cost would run anywhere from $50 to $100 billion. At $100 billion over five years that would come to $20 billion a year, which is precisely the amount Mr. Stockman wants to cut out of the next military budget.
Then there is the B-1 bomber and "Stealth." The Pentagon currently proposes a program for the two costing about $50-to-$60 billion over the next five or so years. Both are manned bombers. The idea of both is that a manned bomber will be able to penetrate Soviet airspace more effectively and accurately even 10 years from now than could an unmanned (and very much cheaper) cruise missile.
Other pending decisions, also expensive but not quite so expensive as either the MX or the manned bomber of the future, include a choice between types of ships from the Navy. Does ti get more of the big, nuclear-powerd carriers, or give higher priority to smaller types of ships designed especially for protecting the sea lanes from Soviet submarine attack?
The President of the United States faces a painful dilemma in shaping his weapons program. His campaign rhetoric set up a set of foreign-policy premises: The Soviet Union is aggressive and expansionist. It is bent on achieving military superiority over the US. It could dominate the world if it did obtain that superiority. Hence the US must spend whatever it takes to regain decisive US military superiority.
But to operate on the basis of this premise is almost certainly to wreck the economic program, which at the moment seems to be doing so well. The inflation rate is coming down. Industrial activity is improving. Employment is holding up remarkably well considering the tightness of money supply and the high interest rates. Congress has passed both his civilian budget cuts and his tax-cutting bills. All the important nonmilitary pieces of Mr. Reagan's economic program are now in place.
But if he puts down on top of that structure the weight of a massive military program, things could go wrong -- very fast. A budget out of balance $20 billion over what was originally planned would mean still heavier federal borrowing. That means interest rates would remain high and less money would be available for industrial modernization and innovation. The civilian economy would be slowd down, weakening the tax base and further expanding the deficit.
Mr. Reagan has a hard set of choices. His own rhetoric requires a massive increase in US military power.His assumptions about the aggressivenesss of the Soviet Union leave him no logical alternative. Yet his primary goal during his term in office so far has been to seek the health of the domestic economy.
There is only one visible way out of his dilemma. He must either risk ruining his economic program by a defense program that could (many think undoubtedly would) put the US economy back where it was, in stagflatin. Or he must get himself a new set of premises about the Soviet Union.
Moscow has been expansionist and agressive in the past. It still has military advisers and mercenary Cuban troops under those advisers in Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, and South Yemen. It has troops and advisers in Cuba and allegedly is supplying weapons to insurgent movements in Central America. Some 80,000 Soviet troops are deployed in an attempt, which is not yet successful, to subdue and pacify Afghanistan. It is supporting the Vietnamese military occupation of Cambodia.
But the Soviet Union is in trouble in Afghanistan. It is believed to be searching for a face-saving way of getting out. Angola is said to be getting tired of those Soviet advisers. Cuba and Vietnam are expensive luxuries that burden the Soviet economy. Moscow has not yet felt that dared to do to Poland what in an earlier time it did to Czechoslovakia and Hungary. And two of its most important former associates, China and Egypt, have broken clear and have joined up instead with Washington.
It could be aruged that Moscow has passed the peak of its imperial position in the world and is on the downgrade. It is theoretical possibility that Moscow needs relief from the burdens of the arms race and of imperial pretensions even more than does the US.It might be worth trying out the possibilities of negotiation with Moscow.
Such a set of new premises about the state of things in the world would lead to resumption of serious talks between President Reagan and Moscow's Leonid Brezhnev.
So far, there is no sign from the ranch above Santa Barbara in California that President Reagan has yet decided that the time has come to talk to Mr. Brezhnev. So far, there has been no change in the Reagan set of premises upon which is change in foreign policy might be based. But on Aug. 11 his secretary of state did make a speech outlining what amounted to an opening negotiating position for talks with Moscow.
Will events push Mr. Reagan toward redrawing his premises about the men in Moscow? He was certainly busy up there on the ranch over this past week listening to reasons why the old set of premises are expensive and may indeed turn out to be intolerably expensive.