Reagan's Defense Buildup Bridged Military Eras
Coming out of the Vietnam War, the defense industry was much as it had been since World War II, with scores of companies competing for work, but Pentagon budgets declined. Stores of weapons had been depleted by the war and not replaced. The companies were venturing into new areas of innovation -- such as radar-evading stealth technology -- and had developed two fighter planes that would be the finest in the world, the F-15 and the F-16.
Reagan came along and brought such programs to life with an infusion of money. Defense spending hit a peak of $456.5 billion in 1987 (in projected 2005 dollars), compared with $325.1 billion in 1980 and $339.6 million in 1981, according to the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Most of the increase was for procurement and research and development programs. The procurement budget leapt to $147.3 billion from $71.2 billion in 1980.
"It was more during the Nixon and Ford era that key programs were developed that are the backbone of today's military, and during the Reagan era they were procured," said Norman R. Augustine, former chairman of Lockheed Martin Corp.
Even the most memorable of Reagan's defense programs -- the Strategic Defense Initiative, or "Star Wars" -- had been around since the late 1960s until Reagan embraced it and made it into something bigger. Or, at least, seemingly bigger.
Missile defense "had less impact on the industry than many might think," Augustine said. "Although it was a highly publicized and certainly controversial program, in the grand scheme of defense spending it wasn't that large, and much of it was spent on research and development, a relatively smaller part of the defense budget."
The people it really affected were the Soviets, he said. "They were much more convinced we could make it work than many of us were, frankly, and certainly more than much of our media."
The Soviets felt they couldn't keep up with such technology, Augustine said, and came to believe that Reagan would spend more on weapons than they could ever match -- pushing them to effectively surrender in the Cold War.
Critics question whether Reagan outsmarted his adversaries. Military officials in both the United States and the Soviet Union were bluffing about one another's capabilities to help fuel a push for more and more weapons, said Pierre Sprey, a Pentagon consultant in the 1970s and 1980s.
"What we had was two huge defense apparatuses busily propagandizing their governments to spend the absolute maximum amount of money," said Sprey, who was prominent in a group of reformers inside and outside the Pentagon who argued against increased military spending.
"It wasn't a buildup, it was just a spend-up," Sprey said. Reagan gave money to defense contractors for weapons while funds for troops, maintenance and training languished. For example, not only did Reagan approve construction of the costly B-2 bomber, Sprey said, he also resurrected the B-1 bomber, a problem-plagued program that the Air Force didn't want and the Carter administration canceled.
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