WASHINGTON — Navy Secretary James H. Webb Jr. announced his resignation Monday in protest over the Pentagon's scaled-down fiscal 1989 budget request, saying that he could neither defend the spending plan before Congress nor support Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci, who overruled him recently in ordering the decommissioning of 16 Navy ships.
"Since I became Navy secretary last year, I have stated . . . frequently my belief that the force levels of our sea services remain minimal and must not be reduced," Webb said in his resignation letter to President Reagan.
"Since recommendations to that effect were rejected by your secretary of defense, I am unable to support him personally or to defend this amended budget," he added.
Webb's angry departure follows nearly 10 weeks of wrangling between Carlucci and the Navy over how to cut about $12.3 billion from the service's original spending blueprint. Under a compromise worked out between the White House and Congress during their budget meetings last fall, the Pentagon was to cut about $33 billion from its proposed fiscal 1989 budget.
The budget request, which Carlucci presented to Congress Thursday, would mothball 16 of the Navy's older frigates, a plan that would derail the service's long-stated drive to build a 600-ship fleet by next year. Webb had proposed in December to move 16 ships from the active Navy to the Naval Reserve, a shift that would have kept the 600-ship goal on track.
Greeted With Anger
At the White House, where Webb's resignation was greeted with barely disguised anger, officials expressed support for Carlucci.
"At this time of budget problems, all agencies have to make hard decisions and choices. Frank Carlucci is making realistic decisions on a range of budget problems," said a White House spokesman who declined to be identified.
Meeting with reporters Monday before Webb's dramatic resignation, Carlucci defended his willingness to accept a declining defense budget in the Reagan Administration's final year.
He said that the Pentagon's $299.5-billion request for fiscal 1989 avoids "politically expedient" choices that would have been "much more palatable" to Congress but would have dangerously eroded the nation's defenses.
"I want to leave my successor and the next President with the best possible ramp for defense spending, even though that means taking a considerable amount of political flak this year," Carlucci said.
Although Webb's successor has not been named, Pentagon officials speculated that Carlucci may recommend H. Lawrence Garrett III, undersecretary of the Navy since last August. Garrett served as the Defense Department's general counsel, working closely with Carlucci when he held the No. 2 post at the Pentagon early in the Reagan Administration.
Webb, 42, a much-decorated Vietnam veteran who has written best-selling novels glorifying the valor of American servicemen, has served at the Pentagon for four years. He became Navy secretary in April, 1987, after serving as assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs since February, 1984.
Colleagues of the Navy secretary said that Webb made his decision after weeks of deliberations, during which he considered battling Carlucci's decisions on Capitol Hill.
Webb eventually decided to quit because, one colleague said: "Jim figures when there's a decision he can't live with, that descending to politics is improper and unmanly. That's . . . the way he looks at civilians. Civilians do that kind of thing, not honorable people."
He had expressed his unhappiness over the budget on two other occasions, when he wrote the President that the Navy's civilian and uniformed leaders "proposed cuts totaling the amount required . . . which also would preserve the cherished goal of your Administration to rebuild our Navy to a minimum level of 600 ships.
"In each case, the advice of this senior leadership . . . was ignored," he added. "I can only conclude that the decision to reduce the level of our fleet to a point that it may never reach the 600-ship goal was motivated by other than military and strategic reasoning."
On Jan. 13, in the heat of the Pentagon's internal budget deliberations, Webb also signaled his displeasure in a controversial speech to the National Press Club.
"It would seem illogical to reduce the size of our sea services at the very moment in history when they should be assuming an even greater role . . . unless our leaders wish to consciously acknowledge that we will be unable to meet the contingencies of the future," Webb declared.
But Carlucci, who issued only a terse statement of thanks to the departing Navy secretary, said it is necessary to cut the size of the U.S. forces, including ships, to keep the remaining forces strong.
The Pentagon's adherence to the White House-Congress budget compromise should head off acrimonious debates in congressional committees when they begin considering the Pentagon's request this week, Carlucci added.