Cap Weinberger's controversial legacy

DEFENSE Secretary Frank Carlucci III, Caspar Weinberger's successor, inherits an almost unmanageable set of problems, the results of extraordinary neglect of our military establishment over the past seven years. Paradoxically, the man who has been the most strident advocate of unlimited military spending failed to make the kind of leadership choices that are essential to mold the military establishment into an effective instrument of national security. The first responsibility of the secretary of defense is to choose from a fantastic menu of technological opportunities presented to him regularly by the military services. The secretary can advise the commander in chief only on issues of war and peace. But he can be the decisive voice in choosing the weapons that will be available to carry out the commander in chief's policies.

The importance of the secretary's choices is underlined by a story that Charlie Hitch, Robert McNamara's Defense Department comptroller, used to tell about the bronze spears and the iron spears: It seems that the king whose nation learned to smelt bronze decided to equip his warriors with the superior bronze spear. But the bronze spears were so much more expensive to produce than the old iron spears that the king could only afford to provide a spear for every 10th warrior. The nation that stuck to the old iron spears, one for every warrior, won the battle and the war.

In the first two decades of the postwar era, the secretary of defense lacked the resources needed to make those choices independently of the military services. The first secretary, James V. Forrestal, was allowed only a handful of staff assistants. The National Security Act of 1947 gave him only ``general authority, direction, and control'' of the military departments, which were to continue to be ``separately organized and administered'' by the service secretaries who retained Cabinet rank along with their putative chief. Over the succeeding decades, the secretary's staff was expanded, and his powers increased. Mr. McNamara was the first secretary of defense to exercise the full authority of the office. Louis Johnson and Charlie Wilson reigned, with a good deal of bluster, but they did not rule. Yet even McNamara had to make critical decisions.

McNamara's successors continued to exercise the powers of the office in pursuit of differing strategic objectives. When Mr. Weinberger arrived, with the aura of his close ties to President Reagan, many thought he would resume the ``Cap the Knife'' role he had played as director of the budget under President Nixon. Instead, he opened the floodgates to service demands:

He resurrected the B-1 bomber that the Carter administration had canceled, even as the Pentagon continued development of two new versions of air-launched cruise missiles, improvement in the existing B-52 bombers, and development of the new Stealth bomber.

He carried on with the MX missile, but in the same vulnerable basing mode as earlier Minuteman missiles.

He continued development of the C-17 cargo aircraft but added new production of older C-5 airlifters.

He launched a vast naval building program.

The secretary's reluctance to exercise his power to choose was less visible in the first Reagan administration. But even then it contrasted sharply with the actions of Secretary McNamara in the early '60s, when the defense budget also grew substantially, but there were major cutbacks and abandonments of unnecessary or unpromising weapon systems. In an era of expanding military budgets, it is even more important for the secretary of defense to be selective, because the military establishment will have to bear the heaviest cost of new systems in the next phase of the budget cycle when - inevitably - it will be contracting.

Weinberger's departure from the Washington scene will remove the most vociferous advocate for the President's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), and the most intransigent opponent of arms control agreements. His successor will be able to take a more skeptical view of SDI and a more positive approach toward arms control; but equally important, he can and must exert a restraining influence on duplicate and wasteful development and production of elaborate new weapons systems; most of all, he must make choices.

Adam Yarmolinsky is provost of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and chairman of the Committee for National Security. He is a former special assistant to Robert McNamara, secretary of defense during the Johnson and Kennedy administrations.

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