Feast or Famine Defense Cycles

SOME academics would consider it an insult to have their writings likened to journalism. But Murray Weidenbaum's latest book, "Small Wars, Big Defense," a look at the current state of the United States military and defense industry, does have the feel of a lengthy newspaper series or a long magazine article. It is written clearly. There are plenty of quotes from a multitude of sources (although, contrary to journalistic style, these are footnoted). And each chapter is laden with facts and analysis, as we ll as a layer of opinion that would be suitable for an op-ed page article in a newspaper.

Weidenbaum, an economics professor at Washington University, St. Louis, writes a monthly economics column for this newspaper. So perhaps he won't mind the journalistic comparison when it is meant as a compliment.

But Weidenbaum has the disadvantage of a book deadline. The book is months out of date: It often refers to the Soviet Union, whereas most journalists now write of the "former Soviet Union," or Russia, or some other republic. However, the breakup of the Soviet Union doesn't make much difference to the book's basic purpose - to provide background and suggestions for what the United States should do to its military establishment as a result of the dramatic drop in the military threat with the end of the co ld war.

Some say the breakup of the Soviet Union makes possible even greater shrinkage of the defense forces. Others see a greater risk of military clashes.

Weidenbaum, who was chairman of President Reagan's Council of Economic Advisers in 1981-82, is a moderate conservative. He advocates a strong national defense, but at a much lower cost. He envisions a minimum role for government in the shift of manpower and other resources out of the military into the civilian economy.

The policy task facing the American people, he writes, "is how to gear down the massive military effort that was under way since the early 1980s, but to do so while maintaining the capability to conduct demanding military operations. Events following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait have made it clear that the United States must continue to be able to respond to rapid and substantial changes in the international environment - including changes for the worse."

Thus the quality of the smaller military force should be maintained, he says. But some planned new weapons systems should be forgone. The cadre necessary to reestablish larger forces, should that be necessary, must be given priority. A high level of military research and development and a viable defense industrial base should be kept. And, he says, renewed attention should be given to counter the threat resulting from proliferation of nuclear and other weapons, especially on the part of third-world natio ns and terrorist groups.

If he were writing the book today, Weidenbaum probably would have expressed concern about the risks from the former Soviet republics and the nuclear weapons on their territories.

That basic defense philosophy probably won't get much of a quarrel. The Bush administration was already embarked on a schedule of 2 percent per year real reductions in defense spending when Weidenbaum finished this book last May. Since then, the president has indicated that the further decline in the threat from the East may allow more rapid defense cuts. And the Democrats in Congress are panting at the possibility of releasing more money from the defense budget for civilian purposes. On Jan. 16, Senate majority leader George Mitchell (D) of Maine called for a cut of $100 billion or more from defense spending over the next five years to help finance middle-income tax cuts, antirecession aid to state and local governments, and incentives for business investment and home ownership.

Weidenbaum's plea is that the nation avoid another wasteful and inefficient cycle of feast and famine in military spending.

In shrinking the armed forces, the devil will be in the detail. How far should the shrinkage go? What weapons systems should be abandoned, hurting business in certain congressional districts? How far should Congress go in attempting to ease the economic discomfort of those individuals and companies affected? Should defense research and development dollars be used to steer industry in certain directions? And so on.

Weidenbaum's economic analysis of these questions is enlightening. Some of his key points include these: The US can afford whatever size military establishment it needs without much damage to its economy. He challenges the views of Yale historian Paul Kennedy that the United States risks weakening its national power by devoting too many of its resources to defense.

A "peace dividend" in the 1990s will be in the neighborhood of one-fourth to one-half of 1 percent of national output each year if defense spending is cut a real 4 percent per year.

This will constitute neither a great bonanza for the advocates of civilian spending increases nor an overwhelming problem of "conversion" to a peacetime economy feared by others.

The best policy is to "do nothing allowing lower defense spending to reduce the budget deficit, writes Weidenbaum. "Economic activity in the United States marches essentially to the beat of civilian drummers."

History indicates that defense companies have difficulty entering civilian markets. Thus many such firms might be better off shrinking their size to fit into a reduced military spending budget. In most cases, the closing of a military base has resulted in only temporary dislocation until civilian uses could be found for those valuable properties.

Weidenbaum has a multitude of constructive suggestions for dealing with the problems of a shrinking defense force. The book is a "must read" for anyone involved in the process, including federal legislators and their assistants, and executives in the defense industry. Others should find the book informative. David R. Francis is editor of the Monitor's Economy page.

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