Despite their often-repeated alarms over the inflationary impact of government spending. President Carter and Congress have joined forces to commit the nation to record peacetime military budgets - with no relief in sight.
Carter, on the one hand, pledged himself in his 1976 campaign to reduce military spending and he seemed to be backing up his promise by canceling two giant weapons systems, the B1 bomber and Nimitz nuclear aircraft carrier. But he has also fixed a 3 percent annual growth rate for defense outlay. That amounts to $3 billion a year after allowing for inflation.
Earlier White House predictions that national defense spending will rise from $117.8 billion in the current fiscal 1979 to $131.7 billion in fiscal 1983 in today's dollars ($162.1 billion in 1983 dollars) are beginning to look conservative for a number of reasons.
By fiscal 1983, when Carter would be midway through a second term, bills for the new strategic weapons allowed under a new strategic arms limitation treaty (SALT) will be piling up on the president.
For example, the president intends to buy a new generation of land-based intercontinental ballistic missile to replace the Munuteman and Titan ICBMs considered vulnerable to Soviet attack. The price tag on the MX block-buster missile system alone is likely to be $40 billion. Carter also is committed to spending billions on the cruise missile he chose over the B1 bomber.
On top of that, there is talk in the Pentagon about spending billions for air defense, and perhaps a new Air Force bomber as well, to assure skeptics that leaving the Soviet Backfire bomber outside the SALT II treaty is an acceptable risk.
Also, Carter must pay for new generations of conventional weapons either in, or close to, the expensive production stage: Army XMI tanks; Navy warships, nuclear submarines and F14 and F18 fighter planes; Air Force F15 and F16 fighters and A10 attack planes.
He cannot offset the rising cost of weaponry - one fighter plane costs up to $25 million and one Trident nuclear missile submarine $1.5 billion - by cutting back on personnel costs within the military budget without the risk of coming up short on volunteers to fill military ranks.
Recruiters already are having a hard time meeting Army, Navy and Marine Corps quotas and stress that cutting back of military benefits would aggravate the situation. More than half the Pentagon's annual budget goes for paying, training, housing and retiring people.
Despite the concern about inflation, there is no sign that either Carter or a majority in Congress wants to cut back on defense spending significantly to help cool off the economy.
Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.) tested congressional sentiment recently by urging his Senate colleagues to vote for a "symbolic" $1 billion cut in the Pentagon fiscal 1979 budget.
"I want the United States to be as strong militarily as the Russians and Chinese," McGovern said. "But I would like to see the American dollar become as strong as the German mark and the Japanese yen."
Only 10 senators joined McGovern in voting for the $1 billion cut as an anti-inflation gesture.
A few years ago then-Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-Mont), now U.S. ambassador to Japan, did better than that on amendments to withdraw U.S. troops from the NATO battle zone.
The new rationale for spending progressively more on defense each year, even when no American forces are in combat anywhere in the world, rests on two assumptions: the United States must spend more to keep up with the Soviets; other nations will perceive that the United States is losing its power if defense spending decreases.
Congressional committees have spent years assessing the assumptions underlying individual weapons, including the B1 bomber, Nimitz carrier and neutron arms. But the assumptions justifying higher peacetime budgets have yet to be critically examined.
Is the United States reacting to the higher spending it provoked in the Soviet Union - the mirror image phenomenon? Do other nations really equate high defense spending with national power?
Congress has not addressed those questions. The House Appropritations Committee, which in other years slashed Pentagon budgets, this year embraced both the "catching up" and "perceptions" arguments:
"The committee's total recommendation of $119.4 billion for the Department of Defense for fiscal year 1979 reflects the committee's concern over the continued military buildup of the Soviet Union and the committee's determination to provide the funds necessary to finance sufficient military strength for the United States." the committee said in its report.
"While the committee does not see an immediate threat tof a military attack on the United States, the committee recognizes the need to provide the building blocks today on which the future's defenses will rest. Further, the committee understands the impact on world opinion of perceived military strength and feels that the best interests of the United States would not be served if it appeared to other countries that the Soviet Union is becoming stronger militarily than is the United States . . ."
Defense Secretary Harold Brown portrayed the action-reaction dynamics of U.S.-Soviet defense spending when he told Congress early this year that "certainly we pulled ahead in the late 1980s and early 1980s, and then substantially reduced our basic effort while the Soviets continued to expand theirs at a steady pace. Now we must increase our investment in defense if we are to stay abreast."
James R. Schlesinger sounded this theme when he was defense secretary from 1973 to 1975. Writing about it in the February 1978 Fortune magazine after his Pentagon tenure, Schlesinger contended: "As the military balance tips more directly toward the Soviet Union, its neighbors will increasingly recognize the imbalance of power and some will become more willing to acquiesce in demands or to offer concessions. Deterrence has thus been weakened . . ."
Although then-President Ford did not increase the defense budget as much as Schlesinger recommended - a dispute which figured in Ford's firing of Schlesinger - the post-Vietnam upward swing in defense budgets started with the Ford fiscal 1976 budget.
There was no indication during the campaign of 1976 that Carter would continue Ford's upward swing by committing himself to an annual 3 percent growth in defense spending, war or not.
"Without endangering th defense of our nation or our commitments to our allies," candidate Carter wrote the Democratic Platform Committee on June 10, 1976, "we can reduce present defense expenditures by about $5 to $7 billion annually."
The Carter administration forecasts that these amounts will be needed for defense between now and fiscal 1983, with Total Obligational Authority (TOA) the amount the Pentagon would have available to commit to military program as follows: [TABLE OMITTED]
Defense Secretary Brown has said that those projected military budgets are less than the ones forecast by Ford and therefore Carter has lived up to his campaign pledge to reduce defense spending.
After subtracting the money that would be lost to inflation, the Pentagon early this year estimated it would need $140.3 billion for fisal 1983 in the account called total obligational authority. This would be the highest peacetime budget in 36 years and would total $173 billion in fiscal 1983 dollars. These estimates now look conservative, as do those for actual spending.
A dramatic indication that the Carter administration is committed to achieving a given total for national defense came right after the House sustained the president's veto of the $2 billion Nimitz nuclear aircraft carrier. Brown rushed up to Congress with a list of military projects to use up the $2 billion saved, and, when denied his wish list, said it was "likely" Carter would try again later this fiscal year.
If the size of the Pentagon budget rather than what it would buy has become the main objective, critics argue that the yearly totals have become ends in themselves.
Key pronouncements of past presidents on national defense budgets over the last 30 years contrast sharply with the Carter administration's commitment to increase the peacetime defense budget by 3 percent every year in real terms.
President Truman, who was in the White House during the World War II phasedown and Korean War, told Congress on Jan. 9, 1953, that "military expenditures are expected to reach their peak" in fiscal 1954 and would then start declining.
President Eisenhower on Jan. 21, 1954, said he was reducing the national defense budget in fiscal 1955 to get more bang for the buck. "These savings," he said, "result from revisons in programs, from shifts in emphasis, from better balanced procurement and from improved management and operations. Our security is being strengthened - not weakened . . . With the shift in emphasis to the full exploitation of airpower and modern weapons, we are in a position to support strong national security programs over an indefinite period with less of a drain on our manpower, material and financial resources . . . We cannot afford to build military strength by sacrificing economic strength. We must keep strong in all respects . . ."
President Kennedy, although charging during his 1960 campaign that Eisenhower had allowed a "missile gap" to open up with the Soviet Union, actually reduced the strategic forces account after he took office and increase the one for convention forces to fight nonnuclear wars. His defense secretary, Robert S. McNamara, came from Detroit with the reputation of a tight-fisted manager who would cut the fat from the defense budget.
However, the fiscal 1962 Pentagon budget that Eisenhower left Kenenedy totaled $132 billion in today's dollars. When McNamara left the Pentagon in 1968, the Pentagon's budget in today's dollars had climbed to $161 billion, largely due to the Vietnam war.
President Nixon, after the Vietnam war, took a step back toward the Eisenhower philosophy of streamlining forces and reducing overseas commitments of troops to save money. "In accord with the Nixon doctrine," said Nixon on Jan 20, 1973, "our allies have assumed a greater share of the burden of their own defense. These developments and the increased effectiveness of modern weapon systems have enabled us to reduce our military forces without jeopardizing our strength or abandoning our commitments. . ."
President Ford, by pushing up defense spending for fiscal 1976 when there was no war to fight, reversed the previous attempts to scale down Pentagon budgets in peacetime. The congressional session just ending demonstrated that President Carter and Congress intend to keep the defense budget going up, even with peace and a SALT II treaty.