TALK about a peace dividend may be getting out of hand. It's clear from events in Eastern Europe and from good feelings after Malta that United States military spending will shrink. But it's far from clear just how much money will be freed and whether it will be available for other priorities. A realistic view of the budget trim now under way indicates that the 12 percent or so of Pentagon spending already cut over the last four years will be followed by another 12 to 15 percent chop in the next five years. And the cutting will get harder, since programs that are closer to the hearts of congressmen, businessmen, and generals will inevitably feel the axe.
Where will the savings go? Most of them are likely to help satisfy the demands of Messrs. Gramm-Rudman-Hollings. Deficit reduction will be priority No. 1. But domestic programs such as education, housing, and the war on drugs could at least be less subject to cuts because of reduced arms spending.
This isn't as pessimistic as it may sound. Billions of dollars will in fact be shifted; guns will get a diminished share and butter more. But the changes won't amount to a sudden, dramatic reorientation of national priorities.
For one thing, military planners will still make a good case for vigilance in a world of multiplying uncertainties. Regional conflicts still rage. Iraq's recent launch of a three-stage rocket underscores potential dangers from proliferating ballistic missiles.
The Soviet Union will continue to have a powerful military, and Soviet politics could shift. Minus the East-West confrontation in Europe, however, American military needs will be different - the scale of forces can be smaller, with an emphasis on flexibility.
The Bush administration should reexamine US military strategy. Budget snippers will need a good plan if they're to avoid excising efficiency and effectiveness along with an airplane or base here or there.
Will cutting defense spending damage the economy? Not really, though certain companies and localities will feel the pinch. Government arms spending accounts for about 6 percent of the country's gross national product. That will probably go down to 5 percent by the mid-'90s. Most suppliers of the military can shift to other product lines. Government-aided retraining and other services can ease the shock for communities heavily dependent on defense industries.