US defense: new scrutiny

THROUGHOUT their history, Americans have had mixed feelings about their military. In times of peace, they have tended to severely restrict defense spending, often to the detriment of national interests. During periods of conflict, or ``cold war,'' by contrast, they have often opened up the spending floodgates for defense. Neither approach - parsimony or excessiveness - is satisfactory. The better approach is to provide those funds that are absolutely necessary to ``provide for the common defense,'' as the requirement is spelled out in the Constitution, but to reject forthrightly programs that add little more than display.

For just such reasons, we think the Reagan administration is realistic in seeking, as it reportedly will during the weeks ahead, the smallest increase in defense spending since it took office. The White House is expected to call for ``baseline,'' that is, basic, defense spending of about $308 billion to $309 billion for the fiscal year that begins next October. And just getting that amount, which would be up slightly from this year, must be considered iffy. Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia says it will be ``miraculous'' if Congress approves an increase of just 1 percent in real growth.

The goal for the new year, given the enormous buildup in defense under Mr. Reagan, should be consolidation and pruning: ensuring that current programs are on schedule and that new systems work. This is not the moment for costly new weapons programs.

The new Democratic-led Congress that will assume office in January is expected to take a hard look at existing defense programs. That is overdue. Such an examination is not ``antidefense.'' Look at who will likely be at the forefront of the inquiries in the congressional defense committees: Senator Nunn in the Senate and Rep. Les Aspin in the House. Neither man has proved himself any adversary of Pentagon requests.

We will discuss specific weapons systems in subsequent editorials. For now, suffice it to note that the larger issue is making certain that defense funds are being well spent. No serviceman or servicewoman should have to be assigned to a defense system that is unsafe or fails to do the job.

Finally, one plan being considered warrants quick scrutiny. Does it make sense to consider a new railroad basing mode for the MX missile? We thought that idea had finally been laid to rest early in the 1980s. Would most Americans really want these missiles chugging around their countryside on the backs of specially designed boxcars? We doubt it. It is this type of oddity on defense that works against, rather than builds needed support for, the Pentagon.

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