The budget compromise adopted by a congressional conference committee and approved by both the House and Senate, cutting about $20 billion from the fiscal 1984 deficit that the president was willing to accept, has sent him up the wall. The bipartisan proposal departs from Reagan's budget recommendations in important respects:
* It would raise an additional $12 billion in taxes next year.
* It would restore some of the earlier cuts in social spending, thus boosting nonmilitary outlays by $6.3 billion. (It also sets up a $8.5 billion "reserve fund" for antirecession relief, if specifically voted.)
* And instead of allowing a 10 percent real increase in military budget authority as demanded by Reagan and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger (who used to be known when he was a civilian budget-cutter as Cap the Knife), the conference trimmed that figure to 5 percent. In terms of 1984 outlays, Pentagon spending would be reduced by $5.3 billion from the Reagan proposal, or 2.2 percent below the administration request.
The bipartisan approach still leaves a deficit of $170 billion (more if the antirecession reserve is expended), but it is at least a step in the right direction. Most significantly, it represents the first small restraint on the huge and reckless expansion of military programs that started under Jimmy Carter, and accelerated under Reagan. Even with the curbs forced by the conference agreement, military spending by fiscal 1986 will be higher in real dollar terms than for any year during the Vietnam or Korean wars.
The president and Congress must also deal with indexed entitlement programs and develop a more rational and fair tax system. But this column focuses on the explosion in the Pentagon budget, and the great urgency to do even more than the congressional conferees did to get a grip on military outlays. Budget Director David A. Stockman, knee-jerking to the conference report, warned that the military budget reductions would cause "major programmatic and weapons changes" at the Pentagon. Let's hope to God they do.
This nation can't buy peace or security by throwing billions of dollars into military budgets, if the money is spent stupidly. A new $6.95 paperback, "More Bucks, Less Bang: How the Pentagon Buys Ineffective Weapons," puts in perspective what the huge outpouring of defense expenditures has actually meant to the security of this country. This book, based on articles by more than a dozen journalists, raises a gut question:
Can the Pentagon procurement bureaucracy, on the basis of a miserable record, be trusted to buy efficient tanks, guns and planes with the huge pot of money its been given to play with?
No, says editor Dina Rasor: " . . . the Pentagon bureaucracy perpetuates an incentive system which rewards people who obtain, by whatever means, the largest budgets for their projects, and punishes those with cost-saving and innovative ideas for weapons that could win on a battlefield."
This book argues, convincingly, that the huge increase in proposed military spending doesn't buy more, but in many cases results in a shrinkage of forces or produces qualitatively bad weaponry, or equipment that endangers lives of servicemen.
Example, detailed by William Boly of the California Magazine: the Army has ordered $13 billion worth of a new armored troop carrier, the M2 Bradley, which at $1.6 million per copy is 14 times the $110,000 cost of the M113 it replaces. But the M2 is supposed to double as a light tank, requiring a bulky gun turret that cuts the number of riflemen it can carry from nine to six. And because the aluminum-alloy armor is "explosion-enhancing," the M2 is a sitting duck for enemy antitank fire.
Or consider the Pershing 2 missile, which the Reagan administration, with allied approval, is determined to deploy in Europe by the end of this year. Frank Greve of the Knight-Ridder Newspapers reports that in four out of five tests, the missile failed to hit its targets. On the one successful launch, the missile was guided to the target by 6-foot high aluminum reflectors. Maybe the idea is to persuade the Russians to leave the lights on at important targets.
How can more money shrink military forces? As part of the buildup to "a 600-ship Navy," it was decided that $4.2 billion would be spent for five surface fighting-ships costing up to $1 billion each, and one Marine landing ship, an LSD41 with a $400 million price tag. But inflation forced the Navy to trim sails somewhere.
To save $249 million in operating money, the Navy--believe it or not--mothballed 22 perfectly good existing ships. Thirteen of the 22 are modern destroyers, 12 of which had gotten $25 million overhauls in the last three years. Among the other nine ships are five LSD28 Marine landing dock ships said to be so similiar to the new $400 million landing dock that an expert would have difficulty telling them apart.
According to "More Bucks, Less Bang," Marine Corps fleet commanders say their current ability to deliver Marine landing forces has been hit hard by the penny-pinching mothballing of the five LSD28s. One can hardly escape the conclusion, the authors say, that the Pentagon and the shipyards "would rather buy ships than have ships."
A. Ernest Fitzgerald, who successfully sued to get his job back after being fired from the Pentagon in 1969 for exposing a $2 billion cost overrrun on the Lockheed C5 cargo plane, writes in a chapter on over-spending:
"To begin with, the need for each weapon system should be justified in terms of its contribution to solving a legitimate defense problem." But as Fitzgerald bitterly suggests, contracts for new weapon systems often have no connection with real defense problems or foreign policy objectives, but represent juicy political patronage dispensed in this "one-industry-town."
The authors recommend some modest reforms to interfere with the ability of Pentagon bureaucrats to play footsie with big defense contractors. Only 6 percent of Defense Department procurement is now on a competitive basis--a figure that they suggest should gradually be increased to 70 percent.
Retired generals and admirals freely take on jobs or consultancies with prime contractors they had been dealing with while active, a practice that should be stopped dead in its tracks. There are other suggestions for cleaning up waste and/or corruption.
So, until someone makes sense out of the procurement process, as this book says, adding money to the Pentagon budget will make it "impossible to achieve even minimally adequate defense." Stockman would do well to put away his crying towel, and spend $6.95 on this book. He may learn something.