BRIGHT public spotlights are being thrown on what has to be one of the most private buildings -- and institutions -- in official Washington, the Pentagon. The result, assuming defense reformers have their way, should be a United States military establishment that is leaner and tougher, better equipped, and, most important, better able to plan ahead for future defense contingencies. It should not come as a surprise that a number of inquiries into Pentagon spending and defense requirements are under way -- by Senate and House military committees, as well as a blue-ribbon presidential commission headed up by former Deputy Defense Secretary David Packard. The American defense buildup has been gathering force since the late 1970s, starting under President Carter, before reaching full march under President Reagan. During the first four years of the Reagan administration alone Congress appropriated some $1 trillion for the nation's defense.
What is now being rightly asked in Washington is how well defense dollars are being spent.
To ask this is to take a sensible, businesslike approach to the management of one of the most costly segments of the US government. One of the criticisms leveled at the large outlays for social programs during the Great Society programs of the 1960s was that there was no hard scrutiny of such programs while they were under way. Had there been such scrutiny, the programs might have been more effective.
One of the reasons that defense programs were relatively well managed, and certainly effective, during World War II was because of the tireless work of the Truman committee, which sought to curb abuses in defense contracts and military construction programs.
Three steps now appear appropriate in the defense area:
Funding: The Pentagon should continue efforts already under way to tighten procurement practices. Competitive bidding must be improved. Unnecessary cost overruns must be penalized. Shoddy or substandard manufacturing must be absolutely unacceptable. Americans in uniform should not be required to use weapons or technologies that could injure them more than any potential enemy.
Congress: The new 650-page report by the Senate Armed Services Committee is correct in contending that Congress warrants criticism for its proclivity to focus on each and every weapons program that may or may not affect particular legislative districts, rather than concentrate on larger questions of defense strategy.
What needs to be squarely faced up to, of course, is the self-interest of what President Eisenhower called the ``military-industrial complex.'' Defense programs should be based on national needs, national strategy, not the economic considerations of legislative districts or particular unions, chambers of commerce, or defense manufacturers. The challenge is that the defense budget is revving up the economy at a time when civilian consumer spending is starting to fall -- and thus, takes on a special momen tum of its own. The standard must nonetheless be maintained, namely, that defense programs should be based on actual strategic need, not political concerns.
Command: Serious consideration should be given to the aim of restructuring the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as called for in the Senate report. Interservice rivalry has gone on far too long, leading to costly duplications. Senator Goldwater, hardly an enemy of the Pentagon, is on target when he wonders why the US maintains not just one, but four, air forces.
The American public deserves an adequate and sound defense. That in part means a cost-effective defense.