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A Better Approach on Defense

December 08, 1987

The Reagan Administration originally proposed a defense budget of $323 billion for fiscal 1989, beginning next Oct. 1. But, under the deficit reduction plan agreed on by the White House and congressional leaders, the Pentagon will have to live with about $30 billion less. That is a painful prospect for the military services and their civilian bosses. But Frank C. Carlucci, the new defense secretary, appears to be going about it in the right way.

Historically, when faced with serious budget squeezes in military spending, both Congress and the Pentagon have tended to achieve the savings by stretching out the development and production of weapons in the pipeline. Such savings are illusory; stretch-outs, in the long run, result in higher costs for the production of smaller numbers of weapons.

Carlucci has let the services know that this time they should concentrate on eliminating entire programs so that the surviving weapon systems can be funded more properly.

Equally important, the services have been instructed to submit their own plans for where the ax should fall, subject to changes by higher authority, instead of leaving matters to an unpredictable Congress. The potential victims of the downsizing of forces are said to include two new aircraft carriers, the Air Force's Midgetman missile and the Army's LHX helicopter. Consideration also will be given to reducing troop strength.

Inevitably, reasonable people will disagree over just where cuts should be made. Any effort to cut U.S. troop strength and fold up the Midgetman missile program, for example, should be carefully examined by Congress with an eye to the effect of the medium-range-missile treaty with Moscow on the military balance.

In broad terms, however, the Carlucci approach to budget-cutting makes good sense, although it is radically different from the approach followed by former Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger. He presented large military budgets reflecting his idea of defense needs and then, when the squeeze came, refused to do the cutting but left the job in the hands of the relevant congressional committees.

This disjointed procedure encouraged an atmosphere of confrontation between the executive and legislative branches, and made it difficult to plan rationally for the nation's defense within the framework of available resources.

Inevitably, grumbling is reported among uniformed officers over the cuts and the tight timetable for presenting recommended changes. In view of the overriding need to calm the financial markets by getting the federal budget deficit under control, however, there is no sensible alternative.

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