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Weinberger 'Surge' Will Swamp His Successors

November 11, 1987|JOHN D. STEINBRUNER | John D. Steinbruner is director of Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution

Caspar Weinberger has been an intensely partisan figure as secretary of defense. He has inspired commensurately strong reactions, in Washington at least, to extol or to indict his record. That makes it all the more difficult to reach a balanced assessment, but it does not diminish the importance of doing so. Weinberger has presided over events that promise long-term effects on the future of American security. His departure raises questions about whether we want to continue along the path he set forth or change course.

The most notable results of his tenure are the large increases in the defense budget that occurred between fiscal years 1981-86. Defense spending grew at an average annual rate of 7% (excluding inflation), the largest peacetime surge in American history. That surge added roughly $100 billion to the level of the annual defense budget, approximately a 50% increase in today's dollars over 1980. Virtually all areas of defense activity were affected, but the dollar surge was particularly heavy in the area of weapons purchases, increasing the proportion of the defense budget devoted to investment from 39% in fiscal year 1981 to 47% in fiscal year 1986.

Although 90 ships were added to the Navy and two divisions to the Army, the basic size of U.S. forces did not expand at a rate comparable to the surge in investment. Hence the increased spending is primarily producing a military establishment that, on the whole, is better equipped--a good result as far at it goes.

There is a dark side to this accomplishment, however. Weinberger imposed very little discipline on the internal allocation of the defense budget, perhaps the least of any defense secretary in recent memory. More could have been achieved for all the money that was spent. And it is generally recognized that his successors will face more difficult decisions because Weinberger neglected to set priorities.

Choices of priority are easier to make and less disruptive in their effects when resources are being added to the defense budget. But the emerging consensus that a plan to cut the federal deficit must mean relatively constant defense budgets--the implications of which Weinberger has stubbornly refused to acknowledge--will descend with a vengeance on his successors. They will wish that the investment surge had been more judiciously targeted and more sustainable in its design. Unaided by the relatively low retirement rate of ships during the 1980s, the 600-ship Navy will have to shrink again as will the obviously excessive scale of nuclear weapons deployments. These are inevitabilities that could and should have been anticipated.

A second notable feature of Weinberger's tenure is the campaign for the Strategic Defense Initiative. Though SDI was clearly President Reagan's personal invention, Weinberger was chief executive agent and principal cheerleader, vesting the program with a strategic and technical character that is virtually certain to undergo fundamental adjustment as his ideological zeal is removed and hard realities impose themselves. There is no meaningful prospect that the Joint Chiefs of Staff will allow a deployment program using currently foreseeable technology. Even a modest attempt at defensive capability, even an SDI deployment with very limited objectives, would require in effect a new service, potentially the size of the Navy. To put it mildly, projected budget conditions do not encourage such a thing.

Moreover, even if technical assessments and politics among the military services do not manage to contain SDI deployment, Soviet reactions are ultimately destined to provide compelling incentives. U.S. assets in space are hostage to Soviet objections to SDI, and the assets are simply too valuable and too vulnerable to proceed with the SDI program on a unilateral basis, as Weinberger has insisted. Whatever future SDI might have depends unavoidably on a framework of regulation mutually agreed upon by the United States and the Soviet Union, and probably all other users of space as well.

That is true of security generally in a world where technology is being dispersed among many nations. Weinberger, riding a wave of nationalist emotion, refused to acknowledge that strategic inevitability. Whether induced by prudence or forced by circumstances, his successors will have to adjust fundamentally his policy of insisting that the SDI program be unilateral.

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