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Throttling Back Defense

February 21, 1988

Four years ago President Reagan projected his 1989 defense budget at an almost unimaginable $456 billion. His request to Congress for the coming fiscal year in fact totals less than two-thirds that amount. Indeed, the $299.5 billion in spending authority that Reagan seeks is a full 10% less than what the Pentagon was insisting just a few months ago it must have. Does this considerable scaling down reflect a sense that the world has lately become a safer place, easing the manifold international responsibilities assigned to the U.S. armed forces? Not really. What the Administration's final defense budget represents instead is an unavoidable accommodation with harsh fiscal realities.

Credit Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci with guiding the services toward that accommodation. The process hasn't been without pain, and, as Carlucci and the service chiefs will be testifying in the months ahead, it is not seen as being without risks. But Congress, many of whose members agree on the risks involved, seems unlikely to make significant changes in the defense request.

The big blow will fall on procurement. The Navy will have to forget about--for now and probably for good--its ambitions for a 600-ship fleet, the Army will see its helicopter program sharply curtailed, the Air Force will lose three fighter wings of 72 planes each. In all, 18 weapon systems in production or under development are to be scrapped, while the services will shrink by 36,000 uniformed personnel.

None of this, to be sure, will exactly leave the nation naked to its enemies. The Reagan Administration's seven-year defense buildup has consumed an awesome $1.7 trillion. That has bought formidable quantities of planes and tanks, missiles and ships, support equipment and satellites. Thanks to better pay, it has also helped enlist and retain what the services say is a high-quality all-volunteer military force. But questions remain--put not least urgently by some high within the services themselves--as to whether even with all this spending such unglamorous but vital requirements as training, maintenance and ammunition stockpiling have not been stinted.

The straitened circumstances facing the Pentagon, now and undoubtedly for years to come, clearly puts new emphasis on the need for greater allied burden-sharing in behalf of the common defense. In so many words, the United States may have reached or be rapidly approaching the point at which its resources are no longer adequate to the commitments that it has assumed. Clearly, the allies ought to be thinking more seriously about what they can do to help, not in this country's interests but in their own.

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