President Reagan will soon have to make a crucial decision involving the extent of US defense spending for the fiscal year that begins next October - just a month before the 1984 presidential election. The question is whether to increase defense spending a hefty 22 percent - 17 percent or so adjusted for inflation - as sought by the Pentagon. Some White House advisers are currently urging the President to substantially slash that amount.
How Mr. Reagan responds to the military budget request will powerfully affect his relationship with Congress, the course of the election, and the economic recovery's duration.
There are compelling reasons for Mr. Reagan to give special heed to the arguments of those aides privately calling for reductions in the Pentagon's preliminary proposal. The point is not to so trim Pentagon spending as to endanger US national security. Rather, it is to see how the administration's commitment to a long-range defense buildup can be spread out over time - in other words, prorated - to hold down the rate of increase in defense expenditures.
Such a careful prorating makes sense economically (by holding down the size of the deficit and thus not threatening the recovery), productively (by ensuring better weapons, free of the defects that often accompany crash production programs), and internationally (since some new weapons systems might even be cut back in future years, if arms control agreements are reached).
Calling for a defense hike of 22 percent for fiscal year 1985 is unrealistic at a time of budget austerity for social programs. It seems unlikely that Congress would buy such a package.
The political element in all this is understandable. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger is playing his hand in the best way possible. Seek the most. Then, expect cuts. And, of course, the administration is concerned that its broader defense posture remain strong to reinforce all parts of administration policy - involving NATO, Central America, arms control, etc.
Congress, however, held the increase in defense spending this year to 5 percent, after the administration had requested 14 percent.
Surely unwise for next year would be a bruising fight between Congress and the White House over defense spending, as happened last year. Far more prudent for the White House would be to propose a balanced, modest increase around which there can be a general political pact. Those White House insiders pressing this very course on the President are on sound ground.