WASHINGTON — The federal budget crunch may force the United States to face the future with slimmed down armed forces, White House National Security Adviser Frank C. Carlucci told senators Thursday, tacitly acknowledging that Pentagon spending may be cut to reduce the deficit.
Nominated by President Reagan to replace Caspar W. Weinberger as defense secretary, the 57-year-old Carlucci was asked where he expects to turn if the Defense Department is forced to accept an outright decline in its budget in the next two years.
"I think we have to look at everything," he replied at his confirmation hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee. "I don't think anything can be sacrosanct. I think we might well be talking about a smaller force."
Carlucci made no promises to the senators about any possible concessions involving defense cuts. "I bring no agenda other than the President's," he said, "to provide efficiently and effectively for today's defense needs, and to build the bipartisan consensus necessary to provide for our nation's future security."
Nevertheless, it was Carlucci's tone, perhaps more than his words, that differed markedly from that of his dogged predecessor, who fought all attempts to cut the budget he used to engineer an unprecedented buildup of the nation's defenses.
At the outset of his testimony, Carlucci acknowledged that his most pervasive problem will be "reconciling the department's . . . plans with domestic, economic and fiscal considerations."
"My style in the past has been to function in close collaboration with the Congress. That will continue to be my style in the future," said Carlucci, widely known as a savvy political strategist and negotiator. "We may differ, but you will never find me unwilling to state where I stand nor unwilling to work toward constructive solutions."
The United States, coming to the end of the Reagan Administration's massive modernization of the U.S. armed forces, now has about 2,166,000 men and women in uniform. During 2 1/2 hours of questioning Thursday, Carlucci made it clear he would prefer to see smaller, fully capable combat forces to a larger force structure not fully prepared to fulfill its role.
His comments followed a sober assessment from Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) that the new Defense Department chief will face "staggering" problems.
Need for 'Fiscal Restraint'
"Foremost among these is the need to bring the defense budget into sync with fiscal reality. We must get more military capability from less spending growth in this era of fiscal restraint," Nunn said. He dismissed as "unattainable" the Defense Department's five-year plan calling for budget growth of 3% each year.
Nunn said he hopes to bring Carlucci's nomination to a committee vote this morning and perhaps see him confirmed by the full Senate next week.
Carlucci, who was named White House national security adviser in the wake of the Iran-Contra scandal, was nominated to become defense secretary when Weinberger resigned because of his wife's failing health. Weinberger's departure has been viewed as a serious personal loss to Reagan because the defense secretary was a favorite of conservatives and one of the President's oldest friends remaining in the Cabinet.
But senators indicated that they expected Carlucci to quickly take control of the massive defense department, where he has already served as Weinberger's deputy during the first two years of the Reagan Administration.
Praised by Both Sides
In his appearance before the committee Thursday, the seventh confirmation hearing of a government career now spanning 31 years, Carlucci was lauded by both Democrats and Republicans.
Under questioning by senators, he urged Congress not to cut funds for the Administration's Strategic Defense Initiative below $4 billion. Otherwise, he said, the program would suffer serious adverse effects.
Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) told Carlucci that the Administration had "oversold" SDI, also known as "Star Wars," and that he should make a new effort to clearly define its objectives.
Carlucci, saying he had conducted a review of White House records, denied that President Reagan had ever talked about the proposed defense system as an "impenetrable shield" against enemy intercontinental missiles over the United States.
In describing his own objectives for the strategic program, he said that the Pentagon will search for a system that is "militarily effective."
Not unexpectedly, Carlucci also expressed his support for the proposed U.S.-Soviet treaty eliminating intermediate-range nuclear missiles, an agreement expected to be signed when Reagan meets with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev in Washington next month.
Thurmond Tells of Concerns
Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S. C.) told Carlucci that he still has personal concerns about the impending agreement.