Great Decisions '82; America's defense: what price security?

Reagan has pledged to rearm the US to counter the growing Soviet military machine. He plans to spend some $1.5 trillion over the next five years. The debate this outlay has sparked is not just one of 'guns vs. butter.' It reaches into the merits of building a 600-ship Navy, and whether some of the new hardware is so sophisticated it amounts to 'gold plating.' This article is the first in a series done in conjunction with the Foreign Policy Association's 'Great Decisions '82' program.

Over the next five years United States defense spending will total nearly $7, 000 for every man, woman, and child in America. It's a buildup in weaponry and warriors that will total a staggering $1.5 trillion.

To use the Reagan administration's rhetoric, the 1980s will be a ''dangerous decade'' in which a ''window of vulnerability'' must be closed and a ''margin of safety'' constructed.

Judging by public-opinion polls, most citizens apparently still favor this ''rearm America'' effort, although markedly less so than a year ago. But after one year in office, President Reagan also finds himself confronted with serious questions about the economic and political cost, strategic wisdom, and international impact of beefing up the military to this degree.

Here at home, the key issues have to do with ''guns vs. butter'' and the nation's economy. Domestic programs have been deeply cut. The ''social safety net'' is seriously rent. The estimated federal deficit bounds upward. Even some of the staunchest Pentagon defenders on Capitol Hill say the military will have to assume a greater share of budget trimming.

A growing number of military reformers among lawmakers of every political stripe as well as defense intellectuals raise doubts about the way money for arms and personnel is to be spent. They are concerned about the continued emphasis on firepower and attrition over maneuverability in tactical planning and preparation. They question the increasing reliance on ''gold plated'' guns, tanks, and planes that are highly sophisticated but may be too complex when thrown into the heat of battle. They worry about the shift from ''leadership'' to ''management'' among the armed services.

As a candidate, Ronald Reagan promised to improve relations with the US allies. But his comments about a limited European nuclear exchange, decision to produce the neutron warhead, actions on Poland, and strong commitment to increased defense spending have made many Europeans anxious.

What does this portend for the administration's desired strategic buildup?

Speaking of this difference among Western allies, NATO Secretary-General Joseph Luns said: ''There is no denying the newly reassertive spirit in America, with its emphasis on bold foreign policy initiatives and heavy defense expenditures, finds much popular sentiment in Europe moving in very different or , in some cases, wholly opposite directions.''

To those who fear his military buildup, Mr. Reagan says, ''I hope and pray with all my might that the weapons won't be used.''

''I also happen to believe that that is the purpose,'' he said at his most recent press conference. ''If military defense is well done, it doesn't have to be used. We've never gotten into a war because we were too strong.''

The underlying question, of course, is: Will the United States be more secure five years from now? The President argues that the United States must become relatively stronger before meaningful arms reduction can be negotiated.

Former President Jimmy Carter agreed that US military power needed to be increased. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (which he said had made a ''dramatic change in (his) opinion of what the Soviets' ultimate goals are''), he began planning a defense buildup that was only 10 or 15 percent less than what Reagan ultimately proposed.

Such differences on how much should be spent for national security are related to the size and nature of the perceived threat.

In a slick and detailed pamphlet titled ''Soviet Military Power,'' the administration last fall described ''the threat to Western strategic interests posed by the growth and power projection of the Soviet armed forces.''

''In the past decade,'' the Pentagon booklet warned, ''Moscow's increasing boldness can be linked directly to the growing capabilities and utility of its military forces.

''Opinions vary widely about relative US-USSR strength in nuclear and conventional arms and personnel. When the comparisons are broadened to include NATO and Warsaw Pact forces, when the Soviet Union's geographic size and Chinese opponent to the east are taken into account, when the use of Soviet armed forces for some nonmilitary purposes is considered, the West retains the advantage in many key areas.

Still, the Soviet Union over the past two decades has pulled closer to - and in some important areas surpassed - the United States, most analysts agree.

In its most recent annual study, ''The Military Balance 1981-1982,'' the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London reports: ''The numerical (conventional forces) balance over the past 20 years has slowly but steadily moved in favor of the East. At the same time the West has largely lost the technological edge which allowed NATO to believe that quality could substitute for numbers. One cannot necessarily conclude from this that NATO would suffer defeat in war, but one can conclude that there has been sufficient danger in the trend to require urgent remedies.

''While overall military expenditures are roughly equivalent, the USSR spends twice as much of its gross national product on defense. It is also not afraid to use it.

Noting the continued presence of 85,000 Soviet troops in Afghanistan, US Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger says: ''There is nothing hypothetical about the Soviet military machine. Its expansion, modernization, and contribution to projection of power beyond Soviet boundaries are obvious.''

Concern for the Persian Gulf region underlies much of the current buildup and strategic planning. The administration is increasing the Rapid Deployment Force that was initiated by President Carter. Reagan has broadened the US commitment to ensure stability in the region by promising not to allow Saudi Arabia ''to be an Iran.''

A growing realization that the Soviet threat extends far beyond Europe underlies the administration's push to strengthen the US Navy. Achieving global superiority at sea, in the Pentagon's view, means increasing the number of ships to 600, including 15 carrier battle groups (there are currently 12) and more nuclear submarines. The White House reportedly wants to double the shipbuilding budget to more than $18 billion in the coming fiscal year.

Building a 600-ship Navy, warns Herschel Kanter of the Institute for Defense Analysis in Washington, would cost $15 billion to $20 billion each year for the next 10 years. A growing number of lawmakers (including such well-known defense supporters as Sens. John C. Stennis (D) of Mississippi and Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia) raise doubts about whether the US can afford to pay for such a massive shipbuilding effort.

The question of this naval buildup is one that is also addressed by the so-called ''military reform caucus'' on Capitol Hill, of which Mr. Nunn is a member. This loose-knit group of Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and moderates, agrees that the United States must have strong -- in some areas stronger -- defense capabilities.

But, says a self-described ''realistic hawk,'' Rep. Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia, ''It doesn't matter how much money you spend if you spend it badly.''

''We are worried that our military can no longer win, and we have doubts as to whether the American people will continue to support high and increasing budgets for a nonwinning military,'' says Rep. G. William Whitehurst (R) of Virginia, another caucus member. ''We believe that this situation can be reversed, but only if some fundamental changes are made in how the defenders of our country utilize its people, strategy and tactics, and hardware.

''Among other things, caucus members are pushing the Pentagon to acquire weapons that are simpler in design, more reliable and easier to maintain in combat, and inexpensive enough so that larger numbers can be afforded. Sen. Gary Hart (D) of Colorado urges smaller carriers and diesel submarines over nuclear models.

''I don't think anybody here is out to slash the defense budget,'' Sen. William S. Cohen (R) of Maine told reporters at a caucus briefing. ''This group is not opposed to high technology. What we want is a better mix . . . to get more numbers for fewer dollars.''

Even more important than military hardware, this group contends, is the need to reverse the trend toward centralization and bureaucratic management that has marked the armed forces in recent years.

''Our centralized command structures and ponderous organizations lead directly to low agility, that is, the inability to react, shift, and move faster than the enemy,'' says Representative Whitehurst. ''And, of course, centralization stifles the initiative of junior commanders, further impeding our ability to react and innovate.

In this regard, Mr. Whitehurst notes the ''unprecedented number of Army colonels refusing command positions, (and) fighter pilot retention at a nearly record low.''

Others note the need for changes in military tactical planning and policy as well.

''The Soviets have progressed remarkably in recent years in being able to project power into the third world,'' former Central Intelligence Director Stansfield Turner told reporters over breakfast recently. ''I believe it is here that the US is most deficient in its military power and the challenge is most probable.''

''That is what we should be emphasizing, not the MX, B-1, theater nuclear forces, tanks, and large aircraft carriers,'' said Mr. Turner, a retired Navy admiral. ''We must return to the concept of the military as an expeditionary force that can get us wherever the US has a problem.

''In looking at the Reagan defense budget for 1982-84, the conservative and generally friendly Heritage Foundation lauded the increase in funding. But, it reported, ''This initial step was not followed by the development of an overall defense strategy to bolster US foreign policy, or to provide a framework to justify the priorities given to the funding of various programs and to the entire defense effort.''

In a recent interview, Deputy Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci bristled at the suggestion that the administration was simply throwing more money at the military.

''That's just not accurate,'' he said. ''Is the M-1 tank a Carter program? We put more money into it to get a more economical rate of production. Certainly we've moved ahead very vigorously in the personnel area (with salary increases), and the results are beginning to show in recruiting and retention. We embarked on a very substantial shipbuilding program. We doubled the money for the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force. We're going to put substantial effort into air mobility.

But more significantly, we've probably spent more time on the strategy question than any other single issue.''But it is the expenditure of money, not time, that will be the key defense issue in this election year. As promised, the administration in its 1983 budget is asking for a ''real'' increase of 7 percent (15 percent with inflation factored in) for the Pentagon. The federal deficit is expected to soar above $100 billion, and the administration wants to cut another trimmed.

''When budget deficits reach levels now projected, some dramatic and large cutbacks in spending must be implemented,'' Alexander B. Trowbridge Jr., president of the National Association of Manufacturers, said recently. ''The areas available for review are quickly narrowed down to defense and the entitlements programs. In political terms, reducing the growth in defense spending will probably be the easier choice.''

Especially, it should be added, if projected defense costs grow even more. In looking ahead at their five-year spending plans, Pentagon officials reportedly estimate that the $1.5 trillion figure could well grow by many billions of dollars if program changes are not made.

Sen. Barry Goldwater (R) of Arizona says the Defense Department ''is in a position to effect major savings without in any way sacrificing military muscle.''Citing such military budget items as $45 million for public relations specialists, Sen. Mark O. Hatfield (R) of Oregon, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, says, ''Such questionable expenditures actually hurt the national defense by sapping money from critical national priorities, and surrounding the muscle of our military strength with layer upon layer of useless fat.''

In his candid interview with The Atlantic Monthly last month, White House Budget Director David Stockman said, ''. . . there's a kind of swamp of $10 to $ 20 to $30 billion worth of waste that can be ferreted out if you really push hard.''

Defense Secretary Weinberger disagrees with the Stockman assessment, but he is pushing management reform. Particularly in the area of weapons acquisition (which makes up more than half the defense budget), the administration knows it must make progress if it is to retain political support for more military spending.

It must stem the infamous cost overruns that continue to draw criticism. The General Accounting Office reported that the 14 new weapons systems that make up about half the Army's procurement budget jumped 30 percent in price from 1980 to 1981.

Mr. Carlucci recently put together a 32-point program for improving the efficiency of weapons acquisition. But he acknowledges that ''this plan will not succeed without a well-planned, intensive, high-visibility, relentless implementation phase.''

As the Reagan administration moves into the second year of what will be the greatest US defense buildup in years, that is the least it will have to do. Beyond this, events in Poland, Afghanistan, Central America, and other trouble spots may well determine whether the move to ''rearm America'' proceeds

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