Congress now has its annual opportunity to consider carefully what the size and shape of the American military defense ought to be. It is an opportunity that Congress must seize, setting aside partisan politics and local interests.
The US Senate and the House are considering the military authorization bill for the next fiscal year. The proposal in the Senate is for just under $200 billion; the one in the House for nearly $190 billion.
Both proposals are supposed to provide a broad picture of the American defense posture - what new weapons the nation will undertake to develop, how much money will be spent next year on existing weaponry, whether sometimes depleted stockpiles of ammunition will continue their recent rise.
Weeks or months from now Congress may reconsider, piece by piece, elements of the current package when it decides whether actually to provide the money to finance military purchases in the appropriations bills.
But the broad view is available now, and the US needs the broadest possible view of what its strategy and weaponry ought to be.
In considering the current authorization proposal, Congress now scrutinizes the controversial MX missile. It is particularly important that both Senate and House carefully consider whether this expensive system should be authorized, in view of votes by both to authorize funds for the similarly costly and controversial B-1 bomber.
The MX issue likely will be the most hotly debated in the overall package. Members of both houses of Congress need to ask themselves whether it makes military (or economic) sense to spend $20 billion for over 200 MX missiles if they are to be put in silos, albeit strengthened ones, which likely would be vulnerable to Soviet missile strikes. That seems highly questionable, even if the MX is a bargaining chip between Congress and the President, the understanding being that the administration will forge vigorously ahead on arms control efforts.
Congress needs also to look sharply at the budget for waste, a recurring problem. A recent presidential commission said some $92 billion of taxpayers' money could be saved over three years in military costs alone just by trimming unnecessary expenditures.
And Congress should turn a careful eye toward the needlessly high expenses the Defense Department is incurring for some spare parts, according to printed versions of the draft of an audit report by the department's own Inspector General's office.
The Senate this week has taken two regrettable actions in the course of considering this authorization bill:
- Narrow authorization of money to make nerve gas for the first time since 1969. (Last month the House had narrowly defeated this proposal.) Proponents had argued approval was a necessary bargaining chip in negotiating with the Soviets, who administration officials say have used chemical weapons in Southeast Asia and Afghanistan. Opponents had said renewed American production could start a chemical arms race.
- And authorization of $6.2 billion to buy some B-1 bombers. (The House previously had approved the plane.) It is doubtful that sufficient merit exists for building 100 B-1s, a $30 billion program with the persistence of a hardy perennial.
One thing Congress now must guard against in working over the authorization proposal: the past tendency to buy expensive new weaponry systems - then save money by cutting back on ammunition critically needed to operate existing weapons. This specious policy has been reversed in the past two or three years, but stocks for some kinds of ammunition - from bullets to air-to-air missiles - still are insufficient.