The immense size of Ronald Reagan's defense program -- $1.46 trillion in commitments and $1.3 trillion in spending over the next five years -- gives the distinct impression that the new president will settle for nothing less than American military superiority over the Soviet Union.
But what Reagan has done in his overhaul of President Carter's defense blueprint is only a partial step toward that goal. He has opted for increasing the highly visible weapons that can impress the world with U.S. military strength in a hurry.
These are the warships, fighter planes and tanks for use in saber-rattling or fighting less than all-out nuclear war. They have nothing to do with improving strategic balance described by Reaganites during the election campaign as swinging in the direction of the Soviets.
Reagan's postponement of the big strategic decisions -- like how to close the "window of vulnerability" opened up when the Soviet Union perfected warheads accurate enough to destroy U.S. ICBMs in underground silos -- means this part of the arms race could still be forestalled even as the competition in conventional arms proceeds apace.
Chairman James R. Jones (D-Okla.) of the House Budget Committee said last week he will focus on the need to negotiate a U.S.-Soviet showdown in the arms race during his committee's review of Reagan's economic recovery program. He said a wide-open arms race would defeat the recovery effort.
In choosing to emphasize conventional military arms, Reagan rejected, at least for now, expensive quick-fixes in the nuclear balance pressed upon him by some of his early advisers.
William Van Cleave, for example, who headed Reagan's transition team at the Pentagon, advocated digging extra holes for existing Minuteman missiles so they could be rotated to foil Soviet gunners. But this idea sank out of sight along with Van Cleave, who returned to a teaching post in California.
Reagan did set aside $2.5 billion in the fiscal 1982 defense budget for a new manned bomber, a strategic weapon. But the bomber is not even on paper yet. And the president is still studying how to deploy the new MX land missile, which Carter wanted to emplace in the valleys of Nevada and Utah.
When Navy Secretary John Lehman volunteered to reporters last week that he did not believe the United States should feel bound to the limits in the strategic arms accords, SALT I and SALT II, as it rebuilt its arsenal, he was promptly slapped down by a State Department statement which said this was not the administration view. The conventional weapons buildup is not covered by the SALT agreements.
Reagan's closest defense adviser, Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, is steering away from terms like "military superiority" or "margin of safety" used so often by Reagan and/or his allies during the campaign. While stating he believed the Soviets had achieved military superiority, Weinberger said last week that "the fundamental objective" of the Reagan defense program is to make a nuclear attack on the United States look like a losing proposition to any would-be aggressor -- an oblique way of pledging that the United States plans to reverse the balance.
The Reagan team has veered noticeably from the language used by the past three administrations which placed "parity" or "essential equivalence" with the Soviets as the nation's strategic goal.
All this definitely does not rule out Reagan going for military superiority over the Soviet Union later in his administration. But for the moment he is sticking with the all-volunteer armed forces.
Reimposition of the draft is regarded by many specialists as essential for closing the manpower gap with the Soviets. As a candidate, Reagan repeatedly expressed his opposition to a draft.
For now, the president is also sticking to Carter's main new strategic weapons, the MX system and the unmanned cruise missiles.
So where is all this money going, if not into additional strategic weapons debated so loudly during the campaign? The way Reagan approtioned the defense dollar in his rewrite of Carter's fiscal 1982 budget is instructive.
Carter earmarked $74.4 billion for general purpose forces -- those for fighting non-nuclear wars. Reagan raised that to $89.5 billion. That $15.1 billion increase in this one account is almost as big as the $17.4 billion Reagan set aside for stragetic nuclear weapons like ICBMs, missile submarines, cruise missiles and bombers. Carter had put $14.5 billion in his strategic account, meaning Reagan raised it only $2.9 billion, almost all for the bomber still on paper.
From the standpoint of getting highly visible American weapons out where people can see them, Reagan's emphasis on conventional weapons makes sense. The battleship New Jersey can be brought out of mothballs and sent to the Persian Gulf before the MX missile is ready to deploy anywhere. The New Jersey is one of three ships Reagan wants to reactivate. a
Unlike the paper bomber, Reagan does not have to wait years to get the F15, F16 and F18 fighters. They are already in production. Reagan intends to order more of them than Carter planned to buy. The Army's M1 main battle tank is also in reach. Reagan wants production accelerated.
There is also heavy emphasis in Reagan's defense program on fixing up the ships, planes and tanks on hand by spending billions on spare parts and overhauls. This addresses the so-called readiness problem and reduces the chance of reading more horror stories about warplanes that cannot fly and ships that cannot sail. Carter's farewell defense budget represented a turnaround in investing in readiness, even if it meant buying fewer new weapons.
A White House official conceded that the Reagan administration decided to ask Congress for big increases in defense this year, partly for fear the country's current pro-defense mood will not last. So Reagan's first defense budgets call for getting a lot more while the getting is good.