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Defense Can't Be Hostage of Deficit Debate : 'Buildup' Has Seen U.S. Falling Behind in Vital Categories

March 04, 1988|ANTHONY H. CORDESMAN | Anthony H. Cordesman is a legislative assistant to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and an adjunct professor in national-security studies at Georgetown University. He is the author of "NATO Central Region Forces," to be published shortly by Jane's

Americans are being forced to make some hard choices between the need to reduce federal spending and maintain our nation's security.

We need fiscal responsibility, and we need to protect our economy. At the same time, we need to react to changes in the threat to the United States. Clearly, defense spending priorities must be based on something more than domestic political and economic considerations.

The United States began its defense buildup in 1981 in reaction to a Soviet effort that had been going on for nearly 20 years. During the 1970s we had let our own defense budget drop by nearly 20% (in real terms) while Moscow was investing 50% more each year in new weapons than was Washington. Estimating Soviet expenditures in terms of dollar costs, the Kremlin outspent us by about $510 billion on defense between 1975 and 1985.

In the case of strategic nuclear forces, the single most threatening area to world peace, Moscow spent $140 billion more between 1966--the time the Soviet Union first achieved rough parity in nuclear strength with the United States--and 1985.

When translated into numbers of weapon systems, these figures become even more alarming. During 1978-87, and despite the rise in real defense spending that occurred under the Reagan Administration, the Soviet Union produced 3.2 times as many tanks, 8.7 times as many artillery weapons, 4.3 times as many armored vehicles, 2.1 times as many tactical combat aircraft, 2.1 times as many military helicopters, 5.3 times as many surface-to-air missiles, 1.8 times as many submarines and twice as many attack submarines. The only area in which the United States had parity was in producing major surface combat ships.

The Soviet Union also continues to lead the nuclear-arms race. Consider the weapons that will not be affected by the treaty on intermediate-range nuclear forces: Long before the INF treaty was signed, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization agreed to reduce its other nuclear weapons in Europe by 2,800. Yet between 1980 and '86 the Warsaw Pact increased its land-based short-range nuclear-delivery systems by 50%; it now has a lead of 14-1 to 15-1 over that of NATO. After 1983 the alliance steadily reduced its number of theater nuclear-strike aircraft while the Warsaw Pact built up a 3-1 lead and doubled the average range-payload capability of these aircraft.

Despite Mikhail S. Gorbachev's rhetoric about arms control and his calls for glasnost , or openness, the Soviet buildup has continued. During 1984-86 alone, the Soviet Union produced 300 new intercontinental ballistic missiles; NATO, including our British and French allies, produced 10. The Soviet Union produced 250 submarine-launched ballistic missiles, NATO only 170. In the case of the short-range ballistic nuclear missiles not covered by the INF treaty, the Soviet Union produced 1,350, NATO exactly one.

The trends become even clearer when measured in terms of killing power. Since 1975 we have cut our total nuclear stockpile by about 12%. At the same time, the Soviet Union was increasing its stockpile by more than 37%, and it now has a 30% lead.

Since the mid-'60s we have steadily cut the total yield of all our nuclear weapons; today they have only about one-third the total yield that they had in 1965. The Soviet Union has made some cuts in the total yield of its stockpile since the mid-'70s, but has recently slowed the rate of its reductions. The total yield of the Soviet nuclear stockpile is now about three times that of the United States.

As for strategic defense, the secretary of defense's annual report to Congress shows that Moscow has spent at least four times as much as Washington has in every year from 1965 to 1987. Despite its propaganda effort to halt "Star Wars," the Soviet Union has spent $90 million more on its own effort than we have since announcing the Strategic Defense Initiative.

This helps put the whole issue of defense spending in perspective.

It is important, however, to understand that some people are still contending that the United States is in the midst of a huge defense buildup. The Reagan Administration did make important increases in defense spending in fiscal 1981-85. Real defense spending rose by 13% in fiscal '81, 11.5% in '82, 8.1% in '83, 4.3% in '84 and 7.3% in '85.

This buildup, however, must be evaluated in terms of both the trends in Soviet spending and the fact that the U.S. defense budget had dropped sharply in real terms in six of the preceding 10 years. Further, any increase in real U.S. defense spending stopped three years ago. It dropped by 4.2% in fiscal '86, 3.3% in '87 and 2.9% in '88. It will drop by 1% in fiscal '89, even if Congress gives the President every dime that he asks for.

Few Americans realize that defense has contributed virtually nothing to the growth of the budget deficit, which started to take on serious proportions in the mid-'70s. Defense has dropped from about 45% of the total federal budget in 1960, and 40% in 1970, to around 25% in 1975, where it remains to this day. Defense spending is also now far lower as a percentage of gross national product and of the federal work force than it was in the 1960s and '70s. What has caused the deficit is that other federal outlays have grown from about $200 billion in the early 1950s to well over $800 billion today.

We need to consider all these trends with great care as we debate this year's defense budget. We risk being penny-wise and megaton-foolish.

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