President Carter's new defense budget will ask Congress to buy the planes and ships needed to deliver and equip a quick reaction force for distant places like the Persian Gulf, administration officials said yesterday.
The president's fiscal 1981 request for the first time will force lawmakers to decide whether they want to build a force designed specifically to intervene over long distances.
Up to now, the concept of a Persian Gulf force has been a paper proposal. But the Iranian crisis is providing fresh impetus to bring it into being, despite the "never again" hangover from the Vietnam era.
Under the president's five year plan, the funding would start low in fiscal 1981 but rise steeply in later years. So it is policy significance of such a force, rather than the dollars required to fund it, that is expected to dominate the debate in Congress.
Specifically, Carter intends to ask for down payment in fiscal 1981 of about $80 million for a proposed long-distance transport plane designated CX and $220 million for two cargo ships expressly designed to hold military equipment.
The idea is to give the plane so much range that it could deliver troops, tanks and artillery from the United States directly to the troubled area. The plane could be refueled in mid air.
The closest thing the Air Force now has is the Lockheed C5, a plane with wings so fragile that they are being rebuilt. Lockheed is circulating a plan for a new version of the C5, costing about $70 million each, for transporting the so-called "Rapid Deployment Force."
Once troops of that force were on the ground, they could only fight a few days, before running out of ammunition, food and equipment. Carter's proposed cargo ships full of material would be positioned near the likely trouble spots ahead of time, in hopes of getting supplies to the troops quickly.
A similar idea was championed by former defense secretary Robert S. McNamara in the 1960s, only to be shot down by Congress on the ground it would tempt the United States to become the world's policeman.
McNamara proposed the combination of the C5 transport and fast deployment logistics ship (FDL).
The FDL, as in the case of Carter's proposal, would be loaded with military supplies and steam off likely trouble spots or be anchored near them.
The late senator Richard B. Russell (D-Ga.) took the lead in sinking the FDL. His senate Armed Services Committee, in denying the fiscal 1968 request for FDL ships, stated its objection this way:
"Beyond the cost, the committee is concerned about the possible creation of an impression that the United States has assumed the function of policing the world, and that it can be thought to be at last considering intervention in any kind of strife or commotion occurring in any of the nations of the world.
"Moreover," continued the committee in its report on the Pentagon's fiscal 1968 authorization bill, "if our involvement in foreign conflicts can be made quicker and easier, there is the temptation to intervene in many situations."
In successfully urging his coleagues to kill the FDL, Russell warned the Senate that "if it is easy for us to go anywhere and do anything, we will always be going somewhere and doing something."
Several members of the National Security Counicl have been taking the other side of that argument since Carter took office in early 1977.
The United States, some on the council have argued, must not remain inhibited by its failure at intervention in Vietnam. Instead, goes this argument, the U.S. military must be equipped to influence events in areas outside the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which has been the focus since Vietnam.
As now planned, the Rapid Deployment Force would not be a new army. Instead, it would be comprised of existing units designated and equipped to respond to an emergency.
One scheme calls for the Marines to contribute a "fly-in element" of about 4,000 troops and supporting aircraft; the Air Force would contribute 12 squadrons of fighters and light bombers; the Army would contribute the 82nd Airborne Division, an armored brigade from Fort Hood, in Texas, and a mechanized division from Fort Carson in Colorado.
The size and composition of the Rapid Deployment Force would be tailored to the emergency.
Gen. E. C. Meyer, Army chief of staff who helped plan the Rapid Deployment Force, has been complaining about the lack of planes to deliver it.
It "doesn't to any good to rust out at Fort Carson," he said. "To go somewhere and do something, we have to be taken there."
The new CX cargo plane for delivering the Rapid Deployment Force would enter the development stage in fiscal 1981 with the $80 million Carter has earmarked for the year Development and production costs would quickly push the funding into the billions after 1981, with the first CX expected to be flying in the late 1980s.
Navy leaders are cool toward the floating warehouses Carter envisions for the Rapid Deployment Force. They fear the cargo ships would take money from an already strained ship-building account and eventually require warships to protect them.