WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger said Sunday that a congressional freeze on military spending would be "very damaging . . . to national security," but Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.) charged that the Pentagon had collected as much as $50 billion more than it needed because of overstated inflation estimates.
Congress is nearing critical votes on the future of the Reagan Administration's military buildup, and Weinberger acknowledged that "the President has already been more or less forced into a position of taking zero growth but with allowance for inflation," a reference to a $302-billion plan for fiscal 1986 approved by Senate committees and expected to come before the full Senate before the Memorial Day recess.
House Figure $293 Billion
The House Budget Committee, however, has voted for a $293-billion defense budget--without any allowance for inflation. Weinberger said: "That's about a 4% cut depending on what inflation comes out, and that . . . would be a very damaging thing to the national security." It would mean delaying the delivery of new ships and tanks and "we don't think it is very safe," Weinberger said on NBC-TV's "Meet the Press."
"You can't measure the budget simply by looking in the abstract and saying that's an awful lot of money," he said. "You've got to look at what the Soviets are doing, how much they spend, how much they've spent for 20 years while we were going down 20%, and you have to weigh whether or not that threat requires us to do the kinds of things that we think are essential."
Aspin, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, in releasing Sunday a copy of a speech he had prepared for delivery today on the House floor, charged that the Administration has consistently overestimated inflation rates and that the Pentagon "therefore overcompensated for it" during the last four years.
"We're talking about needless appropriations totaling no less than $18 billion and possibly on the order of $50 billion," he said, contending that the money went into "a trackless tangle of vast and vanishing funds."
Citing the Pentagon's disclosure last week that it would have a $4-billion surplus in this year's defense budget, Aspin said that this "same sort of thing has been going on for many years--and the total squirreled away in the past four years could be as high as $50 billion."
Weinberger, flying later Sunday to Brussels for a NATO meeting, told reporters accompanying him that "we don't hide the money. We don't have a slush fund. It is turned back to the Treasury."
The $4-billion surplus, Weinberger said, "means we're getting a lot more defense for a lot less money than Congress thought we needed."
'We Hunt for' Overcharges
During his television appearance, Weinberger said that the Pentagon has acted aggressively to end overcharges by defense contractors. "We hunt for it, we find it, it's one of the ways we reduce our prices," he said.
But Rep. Bill Nichols (D-Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services investigations subcommittee, said on ABC-TV's "This Week With David Brinkley" that a "general overhaul . . . is certainly in order" for the military procurement system.
"People are fed up," he said, and "they're looking for Congress to do something about it. Defense is very much on the hot seat these days."
Nichols said that the "biggest dollar cost in the Pentagon is the duplication of weapons systems" rather than the anecdotes about high-priced hammers.
Rep. Charles E. Bennett (D-Fla.), also appearing on the program, said that "there is nothing wrong with our structures" of acquiring weapons and military parts.
"It doesn't take any longer in America than it does in France," he said, adding that American procurement is often for much more technologically complex weapons systems.
Robert L. Kirk, president and chief executive officer of LTV Corp., a leading aerospace and defense contracting firm, said on the same program that the defense industry already "is probably the most-regulated industry around" and "the last thing that the industry and the Pentagon needs is another layer of bureaucracy."
At present, he said, "the system is taking so long to make decisions. Our lead times have gone from a few years to many years . . . and there's no reason for that."
Richard DeLauer, a former undersecretary of defense for research and engineering who now is a Los Angeles-based consultant, said that the Pentagon takes 16 million procurement actions a year and that only a few of these result in "horror stories" of overcharges.
"The problem is that we're focusing on the hole in the doughnut rather than the doughnut," he said.