Democrats stake out defense spending goals. Front-runners fight charges of being `soft'

Jesse Jackson is fond of saying that the United States has many guided missiles but few guided minds. If elected, he promises to cut the military budget, make Western Europe pay more for NATO defense, and scrap all new nuclear weapons - including such long-planned systems as the B-2 Stealth bomber.

Michael Dukakis talks of defense as a management problem. He wants stronger conventional armies and less inter-service rivalry - though he is vague on the cost of the first goal and how to accomplish the second.

Both these leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination support arms control measures, such as a ban on testing of ballistic missiles, that go beyond previous party positions.

And both make many in their own party worry that the Democratic nominee will be vulnerable to a ``soft on defense'' charge in the November election.

On security issues ``it's going to be awful hard to sell either one to the country,'' says a leading Democratic politician involved in defense policy.

Defense might not be a major issue in the fall campaign. But if it is, it could play to the advantage of likely GOP nominee George Bush, the Democratic military expert worries.

Already the Rev. Mr. Jackson has had to defend himself on TV talk shows against charges raised by conservatives that he espouses unilateral disarmament.

The issue's political effect would likely depend on which military problem voters judge more important - strength or waste.

Fifty-two percent of respondents to a recent poll by the Daniel Yankelovich Group judged the GOP the party best equipped to maintain a robust national defense. Twenty-six percent picked the Democrats as the party of strength. But half of those polled felt Democrats do a better job of weeding out Pentagon waste. Only 26 percent felt the GOP was more economy minded.

The current third-place runner in the Democratic race, Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee, has presented himself as a tougher alternative to Jackson and Governor Dukakis. So far this image has won Mr. Gore few delegates outside the South.

Specific defense stands taken so far by the top two Democratic nominees include:

Dukakis. In position papers, Governor Dukakis maintains that if elected his top national-security priority would be strengthening conventional US forces.

The price tag of such an effort is only vaguely discussed. Among other things, Dukakis says he wants to improve NATO forces through ``more coordinated planning.'' But a position paper does say that ``some targeted new investments are necessary'' for such things as stockpiling artillery shells and trucks.

Dukakis says he opposes the unilateral withdrawal of US troops from Europe. But he says US allies must do more to bear their ``fair share'' of NATO defense costs - a code phrase that Europeans, rightly or wrongly, often interpret as a threat to bring US soldiers home.

Dukakis would scrap two planned new supercarrier task forces and use money saved for more antisubmarine-warfare weapons and sealift ships.

On nuclear weapons, Dukakis would not revive the dormant Midgetman single-warhead missile. He opposes purchase of more MX missiles. He would continue research on the Stealth bomber and Trident 2 sub-launched missile, but he says he would reserve judgment as to whether to deploy them.

He would reduce ``star wars'' funding to its 1983 level, returning the program to the status of basic research.

He is for a comprehensive test-ban treaty, and a moratorium on flight tests of ballistic missiles pending a negotiated stop to such research. These arms control efforts, while popular with peace activists, are not all popular with a number of arms control activists. ``I don't think a ban on missile flight tests is a good idea,'' says Jack Mendelsohn, deputy director of the Arms Control Association.

Jackson. Jesse Jackson would freeze defense spending at current levels for five years. With rising inflation, this would represent a real reduction in defense costs, and might mean a savings of as much as $200 billion from what otherwise would be spent on the armed forces.

He would kill outright the Midgetman and MX missiles, two aircraft carrier groups, and the Stealth bomber.

His position papers say that he agrees with Henry Kissinger that ``Western Europe should be responsible for its own conventional defense,'' though he implies that US troops would come home as a result of US-Soviet joint reductions.

Jackson says he would stop arms race modernization by an immediate moratorium on nuclear testing and missile flight tests. No new nuclear weapons would be built. Dismantling ``star wars'' would be one of his first acts as president, he says.

Many defense analysts say some nuclear modernization is a good thing, as it can make the nuclear balance more stable. ``I can't imagine why anybody is really against Stealth,'' Mr. Mendelsohn says.

Conservatives says Jackson would be a defense disaster. ``His policy is unilateral disarmament,'' says James Hackett, military analyst for the Heritage Foundation.

But Jackson advisers retort that staying with the forces left after President Reagan's buildup does not constitute disarmament.

And some old-hand Democrats point out that national security is an area where candidates for president often become more conservative after election day.

Jimmy Carter took office promising to cut $5 billion from the Pentagon and ended up beginning a military buildup, former Democratic Party chairman John White points out.

Second of four articles on the Democratic front-runners and the issues. Tomorrow: foreign policy.

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