Defense cuts -- why the ax is dull

Like a symphonic overture, the opening of the national political debate over defense spending for the coming year is filled with percussion and brass and the promise of excitement to come. Capitol Hill rings with the bipartisan sounds of those who would slow down the Reagan military buildup.

Based on the experience of the first two years of this administration, however, a skeptic might be tempted to think that the players in the congressional orchestra pit will fade out after the initial sound and fury. For 1982 and 1983 they played the Pentagon's tune with very little improvisation.

But this year is different. This is the year when a squad of young, conservative Republicans is calling for a freeze in defense spending. This is the year when the senior Republican senator from very Republican and pro-military Virginia (former Navy Secretary John Warner) suggests reducing the active-duty force by at least 100,000 men and women to save money. This is the year when Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger - at the insistence of Republicans on the Senate Budget Committee - must make a list of items to be cut if the 10 percent growth rate he wants is held to as little as 4 percent.

But this is also the year when making substantial defense cuts will be considerably harder than it would have been last year or the year before. The Pentagon has already started spending for such controversial big-ticket weapons as the B-1 bomber and new aircraft carriers. While Congress may nibble around the edges of major weapons programs, it rarely kills them outright once they move beyond research to production. And with unemployment still over 10 percent and likely to remain high for some time, the jobs that result from military spending look even more attractive than usual.

In his appearances before eight congressional committees this month, Secretary Weinberger is stressing the Soviet threat to which the administration feels it must respond. But he also comes to such hearings fully prepared to counter the economic arguments against defense spending.

When he received his most stinging criticism from Sen. Donald Riegle (D) of Michigan last week, he shot back that military outlays meant 154,000 jobs in the senator's state. When freshmen Republican Rep. John Kasich of Ohio said he was concerned that ''my part of the country is not getting its fair share,'' Weinberger was quick to point out that defense-related jobs in Ohio would be increasing from 232,000 to 255,000 between 1982 and 1984.

Such information has a way of muting if not stifling defense critics. Sen. Alan Cranston (D) of California last week launched his presidential campaign on an antinuclear-war platform. Yet he likes the new B-1 strategic bomber, which is built primarily in his home state. So does fellow liberal Democrat Sen. Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio, where the B-1's engines are built. It is also no accident that thousands of B-1 subcontractors are spread over 48 states.

While Congress was enacting some reductions in defense spending for fiscal 1983, it was also slipping nearly $3 billion back into the Pentagon budget for such things as Boeing-built 747 transport aircraft.

Employment Research Associates of Lansing, Mich., reported this week that every $1 billion spent on weaponry results in a net loss of 18,000 jobs, since ''military industries are considerably more capital intensive than civilian industries,'' employing fewer workers than civilian industries.

But lawmakers generally overlook this ''macro'' view in favor of local interests. For example, frequent defense critic Rep. Joseph Addabbo (D) of New York, chairman of the House defense appropriations subcommittee, has always been more enamored of the A-10 attack aircraft than the Air Force itself. The A-10 is built on Long Island.

A recent internal Air Force report warns that even administration spending proposals won't buy all the planned weaponry. Yet reducing slightly or stretching out the purchase of major weapons (instead of terminating some) only results in less efficient production rates and higher unit costs, according to Air Force analysts. To avoid the political repercussions of eliminating certain programs, Congress has tended to perpetuate this system.

''Many of the ills that we complain about are foisted on you by the Congress, '' William Dickinson of Alabama, the House Armed Services Committee's ranking Republican, told Secretary Weinberger. ''There's not one major weapon system that we've procured at the most economical rate.''

The administration wants to freeze military pay this year to save some $4 billion. But lawmakers are much opposed to this notion, and already a bill to increase service pay has been introduced.

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