The White House plans to spend less money buying new weapons and maintaining old weapons so that it can salt away extra billions for "Star Wars." It is like the settlers around Plymouth Rock in the 1600s rationing powder and ball for their muskets to save up for a nuclear submarine.
Almost on the hour, scientists whose paychecks do not depend on President Reagan's dream of an impervious shield against nuclear missiles find new technical, political and strategic reasons for cutting Star Wars research, not expanding it.
But the White House will ask Congress not just to sacrifice readiness among conventional forces but also to budget more than Star Wars researchers can possibly spend in the next two years.
That decision is no more absurd than any other aspect of the Gramm-Rudman budget-cutting act that forced the White House in the first place to choose between defense in the here-and-now and defenses in the hereafter. Gramm-Rudman itself should be scrapped so that Washington can go about the business of cutting the immense federal budget deficit in an orderly fashion with a combination of judicious cuts in social and defense programs and increases in taxes.
But Gramm-Rudman by itself can do no more harm than leaving a mess on the cutting-room floor that Congress eventually can clean up if it finds the nerve. Loading up the Star Wars budget carries a greater potential for damage.
Star Wars does not make this country's allies as nervous as it does the Soviet Union, but it makes them nervous enough. One reason is that in the rush to turn wishful thinking into expensive hardware nobody thought through the massive changes in strategy that even research on nuclear defenses would produce.
For many analysts, thinking the project through leads to a world in which the United States has spent a fortune on defenses that may or may not work--that cannot be tested until they are needed --and the Soviet Union has spent another fortune on new missiles to overwhelm the defenses, and both, in effect, are back where they started.
Defense readiness is not the only victim of the Star Wars project. It also hinders progress in arms-control talks at Geneva. By declining to discuss so much as an amendment to the anti-ballistic missile treaty that would set out rules under which both superpowers would investigate defense systems, the Administration virtually guarantees that nothing will be done to reduce offensive weapons. The White House needs to start over and think that through.