Caspar W. Weinberger's guiding philosophy over seven years as secretary of defense was the financial well-being of the military establishment, and its corporate clients.
He has consistently sought to maximize the amount of money flowing to the military services and defense contractors, and to minimize external control on how the money is spent. This central thought has illuminated his approach to the full range of issues he has confronted--be it managing the defense budget, committing American troops to combat, or conducting arms control negotiations with the Soviets.
He presided over the greatest peacetime increase in military spending in American history. When the Reagan Administration entered office in 1981, the defense budget (adjusted for inflation) stood at about $200 billion, which has been the normal level since World War II. Today, the budget exceeds $300 billion, surpassing the $250-billion annual budget during the wars in Korea and Vietnam.
What have we received for the $2-trillion defense effort of Mr. Weinberger? This vast increase in the defense budget has had remarkably little impact on the size of our military forces. The Army still consists of 16 divisions, and the Air Force of 36 wings of aircraft. Only the Navy has grown, from 485 ships to 585 ships.
The increase in spending without accompanying increases in military capability has brought growing complaints about mismanagement and waste. A special commission, appointed by President Reagan and headed by the noted military-industrial leader, David Packard, made a number of recommendations last year to improve management of the defense budget. Chief of these was the appointment of a "czar" to oversee the research and procurement process. Richard Godwin, the first procurement czar, recently resigned after a frustrating year in office. Although he had the nominal support of Weinberger, Godwin's goal of centralized control of the defense budget ran directly counter to Weinberger's established philosophy of letting each service and agency decide its own priorities.
Weinberger's enthusiasm for more money for the military has been accompanied by a reluctance to use the forces at his disposal in actual combat. The major beneficiaries of the Weinberger era were strategic forces, the most expensive and least usable element of our defense establishment. Military forces at the other end of the spectrum, such as those to deal with terrorists, have few needs for expensive hardware, and thus have received less support.
Weinberger has generally counseled restraint in responding to terrorism. And his publicly enunciated criteria for when to commit American troops to a crisis in the Third World are considerable more cautious than the criteria propounded by Secretary of State George Shultz. The lesson that Weinberger learned from the Vietnam War is that involving U.S. troops in combat creates political controversy that endangers the military budget.
Weinberger's consistent opposition to arms control has also kept the money flowing. One of the more attractive aspects of the impending Euromissile agreement is its negligible impact on the defense budget. The weapons to be eliminated are few in number, and have already been paid for.
On the other hand, a treaty limiting strategic forces could lead to annual reductions of tens of billions of dollars in spending on long-range missiles and bombers. Although the "Star Wars" budget seems to have stalled at the $4-billion level for the foreseeable future, the failure to agree with the Soviets on a compromise on the Strategic Defense Initiative continues to protect the strategic budget from massive reductions. Weinberger's adamant support for the SDI program must in part be based on a recognition that as long as Star Wars is an obstacle to a treaty reducing strategic offensive forces, the budgets for these forces will be safe.
Thus, Star Wars will shield the budget for America's missiles long before it could defend the missiles themselves.
How will Frank Carlucci, Weinberger's expected successor, fare? He is unlikely to reverse Weinberger's course on management of the Defense Department, and he also seems equally unlikely to change Weinberger's approach to arms control. Earlier this year Carlucci engaged presidential arms control adviser Paul Nitze in a spirited public debate over negotiating with the Soviets on limits on the Star Wars program. Carlucci made it clear at the time that he opposed such negotiations, and there is little reason to believe that he will have a change of heart in his new office in the Pentagon.
The Weinberger-Carlucci approach to the Defense Department may have worked during an era of public support for rising defense spending. But that public support has dwindled, and the stock market has imposed a reality test for the future. In the future the secretary of defense will have to be more concerned with managing how the military budget is spent, and arms control agreements will be a central part of that process.