How many guns does Uncle Sam need?

The Reagan administration is all tangled up over how many guns it is going to be buying during the next three years. Foreign diplomats watch with fascination the daily back and forth maneuvering among the Department of Dfense, which wants all it can get, and David Stockman at the Office of Management and the Budget, who wants as few as possible, and the Congress.

The Congress is being pulled back and forth by those who cry doom unless it doubles the number, those who see economic backruptcy if the hawks have their way, and those politicians who think feeding children and paying pensions to the middle classes should take priority over guns.

The administration has proposed a massive program of defense spending which would total about $1.5 trillion over a five-year period. Mr. Stockman proposed cutting these programs back by about $30 billion over three years. After a round of discussion at the White House these proposals were softened to a tentative cutback of about $13 billion.

That cutback is not enough to salvage the prospect of a balanced federal budget for the year 1984. It might be enough to take a little heat out of the defense industry where any sudden rise in military spending would have a super inflationary effect. It is a modest gain for Mr. Stockman, but also for Caspar Weinberger at the Pentagon who keeps his programs intact. All he has to do (so far) is to slow down the proposed building programs.

But all of this is tentative because it has yet to pass through the mills of Congress where political calculations about 1982 are soon to take over decisions which can be proposed at the White House but are going to be disposed of on Capitol Hill.

So, how much of the great plans of the Pentagon will ever the converted into actual missiles, planes, tanks, guns, and ships?

The truth of the matter is that no man is wise enough to be able to foresee how all of this will sort itself out. Much depends on such things as whether the men of Moscow continue to play their hand quietly. They did not turn their latest maneuvers in the Baltic into any massive military move into Poland. Their propaganda is geared to stressing the alleged "militarism" of the Reagan administration.

The Soviets are lying low right now for their own advantage. The picture the rest of the world sees is the contrast between the military rhetoric of Washington and the lack of new Soviet adventures. West Berlin is a city which exists because of American weapons. It would disappear into the Soviet maw overnight if the United States military umbrella were withdrawn. It could also disappear if US weaponry ceased to be credible as a force i n Central Europe. Yet last Saturday thousands of West Berlin students took to the streets to demonstrate against what they call "American militarism."

The number was impressive. The students themselves claimed 80,000. The police estimated 30,000. It was a lot of students, especially for the city most dependent in all the world on American guns. It is one measure of an propaganda loss sufferred by the US because of all the maneuvering and talking in Washington about a massive US military buildup.

The demonstrations will not influence the outcome in Congress, but they are symptomatic of increasing emotional tension between the European members of the NATO alliance and Washington. The ties that bind the allies together are like an old rubber band. Sudden strain could expose a loss of elasticity. No one knows how much strain they could stand today.

Under these circumtances it would be well for Americans and their representatives in Congress to consider thoughtfully just how much military power they really need, bearing in mind that not even double or quadruple the buildup proposed by the Pentagon could make up for the loss of the NATO alliance. That is America's most valuable weapons system of all. Add that a buildup which bankrupted the American economy would be a poor bargain.

In considering what is truly needed it might be well to bear in mind one condition which makes American thinking on this subject particularly difficult. Twice in its history the US has known more security than any other country in all history.

During most of the last century America rested safe from all external enemies or danger. It sheltered behind the British Navy, at no cost to the US. And briefly, from 1945 to about 1955, it had such an effective monopoly on nuclear weapons that it again enjoyed virtual total security.

But such total security was an historical accident in both cases. It is not a normal condition. Not even the US with all its wealth could afford the cost of trying to regain that kind of total security.

It is the human condition of nations to have to make do as best they can with inadequate defenses. The Soviets have more tanks on the central front in Europe than do the NATO armies. But the attacker must always have more than the defender. It is natural to want total security. But the US could survive without it, provided its policies are wise and prudent and provided it can keep its alliances.

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