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Maritime Strategy Must Not Be a Budget Victim

February 07, 1988|JOHN McCAIN | John McCain (R-Ariz.) is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a former naval officer.

On Feb. 18, our nation is in for a rude shock. That's the day the Reagan Administration will submit its defense budget for fiscal 1989. Suddenly, we will have to come to grips with the fact that we have planned cuts in our defense budget that have no justification in terms of our global commitments or the Soviet threat.

If responding to the Soviet threat were the only issue, we would be paying far more attention to the fact that instead of a defense buildup, we have actually been cutting our real defense spending for nearly three years. We would care that from 1977 to 1986, the Soviet Union produced 3,000 submarine-launched or intercontinental ballistic missiles while we produced 850. We would be focusing on the fact that the Soviets also produced 24,400 tanks to our 7,100; 20,200 major artillery weapons to our 2,750; 7,150 fighters to our 3,450; 4,650 military helicopters to our 1,750, and 140,000 surface-to-air missiles to our 16,200.

In fact, when measured in terms of an overall improvement in the military balance, our much publicized "defense buildup" simply does not exist. Not only are we spending less of our gross national product on defense than we did in the past; we also have fallen steadily behind the Soviet Union in virtually every measure of force strength, while Moscow has steadily caught up with us in force quality.

The only exception has been the Navy. Although the Soviet Union has outproduced us 90 to 43 in submarines, we have produced 89 major surface combatant vessels to their 81. We also have funded nearly enough improvements in our maritime forces to implement a forward strategy.

The problem now is that we risk giving up even that level of improvement in the balance, just as we have let our strategic nuclear forces slide from parity into inferiority and failed to fund a robust conventional defense of Western Europe.

While the final budget debates are still under way, we are likely to cut Navy manpower at a time when we need to increase it. We are studying options such as mothballing 14 frigates, phasing out some of our older aircraft carriers, buying fewer Aegis air-defense ships and Trident submarines, halting development of a new nuclear submarine that would conduct anti-submarine warfare and cutting back on naval aviation.

We have already virtually given up on the 600-ship Navy. What is far more important now is that we may also cut back our carrier task forces, lose our advantage in nuclear submarine forces and technology, and delay or reduce the one successful improvement in strategic nuclear forces--the Trident II--that could give us security even if we carried out President Reagan's proposed strategic arms reductions.

The Navy's carriers and battle groups are critical to our role as a world power and our ability to deter conflict in the Third World. Whether they are deployed off a coastline or are over the horizon, they are the primary instrument for limiting the use of force.

Yet our experience in the Persian Gulf has already shown how quickly we can strain our existing resources in terms of carrier battle groups. We face far more serious strains in the future. We cannot count on maintaining bases in key countries like Greece, the Philippines or Spain, nor do we have such forward bases in the gulf, much of Asia, most of Latin America and virtually all of Africa. Further, we now have no military substitute for such naval forces.

Our lead in nuclear submarine technology is equally critical. We can contain the Soviet Union's ability to attack our lines of communication and our nuclear ballistic missile submarines only if we can hunt and kill Soviet submarines quickly and effectively. But already, Soviet submarines can move faster and dive deeper than ours can. They are almost as quiet. Their sensors and their weapons are almost as good. Even if we fully fund our current five-year defense plan, there is a very good chance that we will end in strategic inferiority in nuclear submarine forces. Any cuts will make that inferiority certain.

Finally, the Trident II program is the only truly successful and survivable new strategic offensive weapons program we have ready to deploy. It is the one that can ensure that our strategic forces will be survivable as well as unimaginably lethal even if we carry out a 50% reduction in those forces. It is the program that would provide the supreme allied commander in Europe with accurate warheads needed to discourage any Soviet violation of the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty. The Soviet Union may have a 3-to-1 lead in intercontinental warheads, superior and increasingly mobile ICBMs and a lead in bombers, but we still have a 2-to-1 lead in submarine-launched warheads. As long as we have this lead, nothing can prevent us from retaliating in case of a surprise Soviet attack. With or without the strategic arms reductions, it is our submarine-launched ballistic missiles that make war unthinkable.

While we have not yet had the courage to admit it, the recent budget cuts have already forced us to give up on strong conventional options for NATO. For all the talk about conventional defense initiatives, we are now making less than half the real annual increase in defense spending that we need to pay for such options. The major Army and Air Force conventional modernization programs have been cut by 40% to 70% since fiscal 1985. Not a single Administration witness at the ratification hearings on the INF treaty has provided any indication that we will budget what we need to pay for a robust conventional option to defend Europe during the next five years.

We cannot afford to give up our maritime strategy as well. We can survive budget deficits, or we can find other means to reduce them. We cannot survive gutting our capability to act as a world power, gutting our ability to defend our friends and allies, and gutting our ability to prevent nuclear war.

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