PRESIDENT REAGAN'S $8 billion worth of cuts in his defense budget raises a series of disquieting questions. The secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger, says that roughly half of the reduction is the result of lower inflation estimates, particularly in fuel costs. The other half largely represents a cancellation of the 1983 military pay increase and some of the money for construction and training exercises. Some of the weapons procurement programs will be slowed down but not, apparently, curtailed.
The second week in January is rather late to be making inflation adjustments in the budget. The budget is supposed to go to Congress on Jan. 31. Oil and gasoline prices did not drop last week. They dropped last March, and have been stable since then. If the defense budget got to the final review in the president's office without any challenge to the fuel figures, you have to wonder how rigorous the previous examinations were.
As for the pay increase, doesn't this deletion aggravate the imbalance between money for hardware and money for people capable of using it? The rapidly rising expenditures for weapons are beginning to take on a life of their own, squeezing everything else in the budget. But contrary to much that you have heard from the Navy Department, the Navy's truly critical need when this administration took office was not more and bigger ships. It was sailors. The Navy did not have--and still does not have-- enough people to take to sea the ships that it already has in commission. This country's military strength will always rest not on the numbers of its weapons but on the quality and morale of the people in uniform. It's all very well to say that recruiting is going well currently--at a time when the unemployment rate in the civilian economy is nearly 11 percent. What happens when the unemployment rate falls?
In terms of deficits and economic policy, what good does this kind of cut really do? Deletions of pay raises and training exercises cannot be sustained indefinitely. Pay can't be frozen indefinitely. The cuts can diminish one year's deficit, but it is not one year's deficit that frightens people and keeps interest rates high. It is the pattern of deficits that steadily rise, year after year, indefinitely. One of the forces driving that rise is the administration's disproportionate commitment to new weapons systems, in which each procurement program starts small but subsequently grows. People who worry about future deficits--and people who worry about national defense--will not be reassured by the sight of a president protecting the procurement contracts at the expense of soldiers' pay and training.