NOTHING has done more to bring President Reagan's defense buildup to a stop than the growing mountain of evidence that little or nothing was done during at least his first five years in office to correct even the most blatant examples of military waste. Now, tired of being goaded with examples of such waste, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger has nominated for closing or drastic reduction military bases in the home districts of three of his most persistent (Democratic) critics. It is a sad thing when public policy involving many millions of dollars and the livelihood of thousands of people is reduced to the level of a schoolyard prank. Nevertheless, if Mr. Weinberger is at last ready to do something about this area of extensive waste, we should take advantage of the opportunity.
Right under the noses -- literally -- of both Mr. Weinberger and his chief is the most blatant of all public symbols of self-serving military bureaucracy and the enormous waste it generates. I refer to the 2,200-member honor guard kept in Washington for no other reason than to serve as a prop for Rose Garden ceremonies. Why 2,200? Because all of the military services insist on being represented every time the President gets his picture taken welcoming a foreign dignitary.
Early in the Reagan administration I asked the Department of Defense why, since the Marine Corps represents our armed forces at every embassy in the world, we couldn't we let 100 or so marines represent all the armed forces in the Rose Garden. That, a department spokesman said, would be ``inappropriate.'' Yet both the Air Force and the Navy say they are many thousands short in terms of the people needed to operate the weapons Weinberger is buying.
In direct line of sight out of Weinberger's office window is another symbol of military waste -- Fort McNair, occupied principally by a nine-hole golf course, tennis courts, and homes for senior officers which, considering the value of the real estate they occupy, must be some of the most expensive housing on earth. Interestingly, when that also was challenged, one of the justifications cited for retaining Fort McNair was that it is needed as a place to keep part of the 2,200-member honor guard.
Literally staring Mr. Weinberger in the face from Fort McNair is the granddaddy of all symbols of a dream of post-World War II armed forces ``unification'' that has disintegrated into wasteful rivalries exceeding anything imagined in the 1930s. I refer to the ``National Defense University'' housed in an antique old pile at Fort McNair, once the home of the Army War College.
That ``university'' is really the National War College, grown somewhat too much. The National War College was established by Gens. George C. Marshall and Dwight D. Eisenhower to supplant the service war colleges that they felt had been the finishing schools in the 1930s for self-defeating service rivalries. It didn't work. The National War College became something of a rest home for Washington bureaucrats who needed a year off the job, but who didn't want to get too far away from the ``flagpole.'' Meantime, the services kept or reestablished their own war colleges: Now we have four at six locations. Most of the real estate at those six locations is devoted to golf courses. The cost of the real estate, however, pales next to the mountain of waste being generated by competing electronic war games.
The cost of the war-game facilities is in the neighborhood of $100 million, conservatively estimated. The cost of the software, at about $100 per coded line, is much higher when it is considered that a single simulated fighter engagement can run to 15,000 lines. All that is next to nothing, however, compared with the competing ``national'' strategies that these systems generate to suit the bureaucratic, that is budgetary, objectives of each service staff.
If Mr. Weinberger can go as far as Boston, Philadelphia, and Denver in search of economies, why can't he do something about the flagrant examples of military waste that he looks at every day?
William V. Kennedy, co-author of ``US War Machine,'' served on the faculty of the Army War College from 1967 to 1984.