Bush, Dukakis, and defense

THE campaign arguments on national defense have often bobbled between the snide and the silly. But a serious comparison of the two candidates' positions can be made. George Bush is running on President Reagan's record. Last week at Georgetown University, Michael Dukakis began to ink in his own national security plans. Where do the candidates differ? Start with world view:

Mr. Bush holds a traditional postwar view that the Soviet Union remains the dominant threat to US interests. He views regional conflicts as part of the East-West struggle. He would continue to rely heavily on nuclear weapons to deter conflict. He also holds that US military strength, built up during the Reagan years, has induced the Soviets to negotiate arms agreements with the United States; events within the Soviet Union are secondary. Conventional forces should be upgraded, but nuclear forces have priority. Bush would commit US forces to regional trouble spots, unilaterally if need be.

Mr. Dukakis is also wary of the Soviet Union. But he views national security more broadly, touching on the domestic economy, drugs, trade, and other factors. East and West may exploit regional conflicts, but their solution is better achieved through negotiation than through armed intervention, he feels. Dukakis thus looks to multinational organizations to help solve conflicts. He also pays more attention to conventional forces than does Bush, though he notes the need for a credible nuclear deterrent. He feels that internal changes in the Soviet Union have played the dominant role in keeping the Russians at the bargaining table.

Both men want to modernize US nuclear forces. They support the Trident D-5 missile, which would give submarine-launched strategic weapons the accuracy of their land-based counterparts. They support the radar-evading Stealth bomber and advanced cruise missile. They differ most on the land-based leg of the nuclear triad. Bush supports the deployment of an additional 50 MX missiles; Dukakis does not. Dukakis argues that rail basing is too vulnerable and too expensive. Bush favors the single-warhead Midgetman mobile missile; Dukakis backs the concept, but not its current form - again on cost grounds. The Democrat would await the results of several studies on how best to build and base a Midgetman before supporting the project.

Bush has attacked Dukakis as opposing the Midgetman. But the Reagan administration never liked it, either; it was the price the Reagan-Bush White House paid for progress on the MX. Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci III nearly axed Midgetman from the fiscal 1989 budget altogether, ultimately giving it token financial support. Congressional Democrats have fought hardest for it.

Both men support the recently implemented US-Soviet treaty that eliminates medium-range ballistic missiles. Both support talks to reduce strategic nuclear arsenals; but Dukakis would ask the Soviets to eliminate all of their SS-18s, the missiles that most threaten US silos. Dukakis also argues for a ban on nuclear testing.

Some of Dukakis's positions need clarifying. How will he persuade the Soviets to destroy more than 300 SS-18s without getting something more significant than 50 MXs in exchange? How will he develop warheads for the Midgetman and advanced cruise missile without additional nuclear tests? And how will he muster political support for an as-yet-undefined version of the Midgetman without unraveling a bipartisan compromise?

Both men support research on ballistic missile defenses. Bush backs the administration's funding levels. Dukakis would reduce the effort to its pre-1983 level, when spending on such research ran at about $1 billion a year.

As to overall levels of military spending, either man will have to cut the Pentagon budget significantly.

It's untrue that Dukakis has opposed every new weapon since the slingshot, as Republicans have charged. Nor has Bush embraced every new weapon system that comes down the pike (he hasn't proposed any new weapons himself). On strategic matters, the two men are closer than media-event sound bites would suggest.

First of two editorials on the candidates and defense.

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