WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger told the Senate Budget Committee Thursday that a defense spending freeze would "decimate" the Pentagon's programs, delaying work on the B-1 and Stealth bombers, reducing the fleet of tactical aircraft, halting development of a new transport airplane and blocking the purchase of two submarines.
But Weinberger, trying to fend off cuts in the $313.7-billion Pentagon budget proposed by President Reagan, met the same skepticism he encountered on two previous visits to Congress this week--despite his volunteered "hit list" of some of the Pentagon's most favored projects.
Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) told Weinberger that few in Congress expect the Pentagon, which is seeking a five-year growth rate of 6.5% after inflation, to receive even a 5% increase in fiscal 1986.
And Sen. Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.), questioning whether the nation has received what it paid for in Reagan's $1-trillion defense buildup, said the Pentagon has "no clear idea" of how to use its funds or how to fight more effectively.
Later, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff--who had been silent for most of the session as Weinberger exchanged volleys with committee members--asked for an opportunity to respond to Chiles.
The suggestion that the nation is not getting its money's worth out of the Pentagon, Gen. John W. Vessey Jr. observed tartly, is "baloney." He declared: "To say we don't get value received is just pure bunk."
Weinberger had told the senators that a Pentagon budget freeze, after compensating for inflation, would not produce the savings "that everybody is looking for" in the effort to reduce the expected 1986 federal budget deficit to $180 billion.
"What that would do would be to decimate the ability of the (Defense) Department to continue with the programs that are now in effect," he said, volunteering for the first time a list of specific weapons he would cancel if a freeze were approved.
"You'd have to delay by about three to four years the present schedule of the B-1 and the Advanced Technology Bomber," he said. The Reagan Administration has requested $6.2 billion to produce 48 B-1s, completing its order at 100 airplanes, while the Advanced Technology Bomber--known as the radar-eluding Stealth airplane--is not expected to be deployed until the 1990s.
Weinberger also said that a freeze would require a 38% reduction in tactical aircraft purchases, a 50% cut in the increased numbers in Army and Air Force helicopters and a halt to work on the C-17 transport plane, new D-5 missiles for Trident submarines and two of the boats themselves.
Domenici responded: "I have a great deal of difficulty in believing that would be the result." The defense secretary said he could "go on for four pages," but a Pentagon spokesman, Bill Caldwell, said later he was unable to produce a cutback list.
The size of the defense budget has become a central issue in efforts to reach an agreement between the Administration and the Senate's Republican majority on deficit reduction. But Domenici said in a speech Thursday that unless the Pentagon bears its share of budget cuts, any agreement "will fall apart."
Sources on Capitol Hill said that Senate leaders are trying to agree to a 3% inflation-adjusted increase in the Pentagon budget over each of the next three years. Such an increase, they said, would reduce the deficit as much from fiscal 1986 to 1988 as would a one-year freeze followed by two years of annual 5% increases in the Pentagon's budget.
Cut in Military Pensions
Budget analysts said that either course would reduce the planned buildup by about $100 billion over three years but would still permit military spending to increase from about $247 billion this year to more than $315 billion in 1988.
Domenici also endorsed the controversial recommendation of Budget Director David A. Stockman that Congress cut military pensions. He conceded that Stockman's rhetoric had been "out of line" when he made the recommendation but said that if cost-of-living adjustments in Social Security pensions are frozen, consideration should be given as well to freezing similar adjustments in military pensions. Stockman had described the military pension system as a "scandal."
Meanwhile, the suggestion that Social Security cost-of-living adjustments be frozen for a year was being pressed by Senate Republican leaders. Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), for example, told the American Bankers Assn. that Republicans had agreed to include in their budget package a plan to bypass the scheduled Social Security adjustment if it did not become a "politicized, polarized issue."
Persuading the President
Noting that Reagan has recommended no change in Social Security benefits, Dole added that the way to persuade the President to alter his position is through a "bipartisan group willing to make that change." Democrats, however, have shown no inclination to tamper with Social Security.
Domenici, echoing Dole's remarks, also said he supports a Social Security freeze "if we can put together a deficit reduction package of $50 billion or more. That is the conditionality."
In the Senate, sources said Republican leaders are seeking a compromise on the budget package that would protect Social Security recipients living near or under the poverty line from falling further behind economically. Under that plan, beneficiaries would receive an inflation adjustment for retirement benefits next year.