Sacred Cows and Scarce Defense Dollars

July 31, 1986|LAWRENCE J. KORB | Lawrence J. Korb was the assistant secretary of defense for manpower, installation and logistics from 1981 to 1985. In September he will become the dean of the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.

Last February--a short time after I left my job in the Pentagon and joined Raytheon Co., a private defense contractor--I endorsed a report by the bipartisan Committee for National Security that found the increase proposed in the Defense Department's new budget to be unrealistic in light of the deficit situation.

After two Navy assistant secretaries and at least one senior Senate staff member complained about my participation, I lost my job at Raytheon. That has become a controversy within itself. But my dismissal should not obscure the message that my colleagues and I were trying to make.

The committee's study started from a premise that has proved to be completely accurate--that the Department of Defense cannot reasonably expect Congress to appropriate as much money as was once projected in long-term budget plans. As a result, the military services need to face up to some hard choices when competing for limited funds.

To put the necessary choices into perspective, just a year and a half ago the Pentagon projected a budget for fiscal 1986 through 1990 totaling slightly more than $2 trillion--about 30% of the total federal budget. This year it submitted a proposal adding up to slightly less than $1.7 trillion for the same five-year period--about $300 billion less. Members of Congress of both parties greeted even that request as unreasonable.

At the time, my colleagues at the Committee for National Security and I saw the real debate as being between three alternatives: allowing military spending to grow enough to cover inflation, freezing spending at the fiscal 1986 level without taking account of inflation, or anticipating that defense would suffer very deep cuts if the Gramm-Rudman legislation took effect. We carefully analyzed the forces that could result from each of these long-term funding levels, and recommended the first of them--budgets that keep pace with inflation.

To be sure, even that alternative would provide $200 billion less over five years than the Pentagon was requesting--and $500 billion less than it had projected a year earlier. But for fiscal 1987, at least, it has turned out to be slightly above the level that Congress approved in its recent budget resolution, and considerably higher than the amount that the House of Representatives voted initially.

Obviously it will be difficult for the Department of Defense, coming out of a period of very rapid expansion and planning to receive so much more, to adjust to such funding levels. Frankly, if conditions were right I would endorse continued growth in the military budget. But the fact is that spending will not go up in fiscal 1987, even if certain Reagan Administration officials consider it a personal affront to say so.

Given limited resources, there is a right way and a wrong way to adjust military spending plans. The wrong way is to delude ourselves into thinking that we can save enough simply by eliminating waste or through procurement reforms. The savings would not be large enough, and the real issue is whether to buy certain weapons in the first place. Buying the wrong weapon more cheaply is not much of a bargain.

The right way to adjust is to determine our strategic priorities and, on that basis, to decide what forces to develop and what weapons to build or not to build. The most important task that this nation faces is to maintain the gains that we made in our defense posture over the past five years.I do not believe that the money spent on defense in that time was wasted. It is true that budgets in the first Reagan Administration were heavily biased toward the purchasing of new weapons, while funds for operations and personnel increased more slowly. It made sense to begin by ordering the hardware, which takes longest to deliver.

But now, just as all these new weapons are rolling off the production lines, the budget is getting tight. The most destructive temptation is to go ahead with the next generation of weapons while taking easier cuts in ammunition, support equipment and operating funds. Compared with plans that it made a year ago, for example, the Air Force requested the same number of planes in its fiscal 1987 budget but reduced spare-parts purchases by 39% and procurement of ammunition by 24%. Such practices could squander the huge investment that we made in new weapons in the first half of the 1980s.

Rather than seek an easy way out, we have to ask very difficult questions and perhaps slaughter some sacred cows. Should the United States continue with a massive modernization of its nuclear-offensive forces while embarking simultaneously on the development of strategic defenses? Is this the time to increase the size of our force structure--Army divisions, Navy ships, Air Force wings--when we know that future budgets will be strained to support the structure that we already have? What kind of naval presence and power-projection capability do we need, and where?

These questions must not go away.

Postscript: I was asked to leave Raytheon because my bosses feared that my presence there would spoil relations with the Pentagon, their largest source of income.

One lesson in all this perhaps should have been more obvious to me: The customer is always right. But when the customer is the executive branch of government, the unfortunate result may be to squelch debate over critically important matters of public policy. Experienced former officials should not have to keep their heads down when they feel that they have important things to say about the nation's defense.

Los Angeles Times Articles