Recent debate on a deficit bill has highlighted an inescapable fact about the defense budget: It is armored against easy cuts. If Gramm-Rudman provisions are invoked and United States spending is reduced across-the-board, the effect on the military is likely to be far reaching. With few quick cuts in sight, Pentagon planners might have to make drastic changes, reshaping forces for years.
In such a situation ``we don't know what the impact on defense will be. We do know it is likely to be severe,'' complained Defense Department spokesman Robert Sims on Tuesday.
In a way the US military is now in trouble because of its past fund-raising success. Under President Reagan, the Pentagon has enjoyed six straight years of budgets increasing faster than inflation. Its annual appropriation has doubled since the beginning of the decade.
Defense spending makes up 28 percent of the whole US budget. The Gramm-Rudman deficit-cutting machinery would hit the Pentagon hard simply because the Pentagon is a big target.
The way military outlays are structured, however, makes them inherently difficult to reduce quickly. For one thing, large portions of each year's spending are payments required by contracts signed in previous years.
Of fiscal 1985's $254 billion in defense outlays, some $96 billion was mandated by prior-year contracts, according to Pentagon estimates.
These signed-and-sealed obligations are not exempt from the Gramm-Rudman scalpel, according to a source with detailed knowledge of the legislation. But neither would they be required to be cut, and the lawsuits and general mess involved in backing out of contracts would likely force the military to look elsewhere for reductions, this source says.
But ``elsewhere'' for the Pentagon is not likely to be very attractive either. In many instances, the Pentagon might have to cut a lot to save a little, at least right away. Money for weapons is generally authorized by Congress in large chunks, then banked by the military and spent slowly. For each $1 in trims required by Gramm-Rudman, Pentagon planners say they would actually have to cut $3 from the cash going into their bank account. The other $2 wouldn't count as savings until later years.
Gramm-Rudman cuts would also likely force on the military brass something they dread -- troop reductions. Almost a third of defense outlays goes to pay people, and the bill prohibits salary cuts. Military layoffs may be the only answer. Uniformed personnel can be exempted from the bill's effects in fiscal 1986, but if they are, savings must be found elsewhere.
For 1986 Gramm-Rudman would require a $10 billion to $18 billion military spending cut, varying according to whom you talk. These cuts would have to be made in all budget ``accounts'' -- including relatively broad categories, such as ``tracked vehicles, Army.'' ``It's not Armageddon,'' said a senior congressional source who asked not to be named.
But after 1986, the bill would really put the budgetary screws to the Pentagon, as its targets became more stringent, this source says. The military's flexibility in making mandated cuts would be reduced, too: Uniformed personnel would be included, and the affected category would narrow to ``program,'' such as ``M-1 Tank'' or ``aircraft carriers.''
The bill's supporters, however, point out that it is designed to be a threat, not necessarily something that will be invoked. Congress should make the budget cuts necessary, they say, to avoid use of Gramm-Rudman.