President Reagan's declaration last week that the Soviet Union is ahead of the United States "in literally every kind of weapon" has prompted charges of verbal overkill and raised questions in Congress about what the nearly $1 trillion spent on defense in the past four years has bought the taxpayers.
The president's assertion of Soviet military hegemony also appeared to contradict his buoyant "America is back" rhetoric during last year's election campaign, as well as administration contentions that the U.S. military buildup has largely eroded any Soviet dominance.
While Reagan's comment has been ridiculed as hyperbole by some influential lawmakers and defended by the administration, military professionals interviewed said the United States lags behind the Soviet Union in some military areas but clearly leads in others.
Reagan said during a news conference last Tuesday that "the United States is still well behind the Soviet Union in literally every kind of offensive weapon, both conventional and in the strategic weapons."
This suggested far greater pessimism from the president than his assurance to Congress on Feb. 1, 1984, that "during the past three years we have taken decisive measures to increase our military strength to levels necessary to protect our nation and our friends and allies around the world. The improvement in our defense posture has been across the board."
Reagan also was more upbeat the night after his news conference in an ABC News program when he said "we now have redressed our military capability to the point that the Soviet Union does not have an undisputed superiority of such nature that they could deliver an ultimatum, 'Surrender or die.' "
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, yesterday called Reagan's view of utter Soviet superiority "totally incredible." Levin said the rhetoric may be designed "to justify the nonreaching of an agreement" between Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev meet in November.
Levin said the Soviets have fewer strategic nuclear warheads (those capable of striking each other's homelands) than the United States, no force comparable to the nearly 200,000 U.S. Marines and nothing to match the 13 U.S. aircraft carriers.
Levin also said Reagan's comment does not square with Gen. John W. Vessey Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who told the Armed Services Committee that he would not trade the American offense for that of the Soviets. Vessey also said the Joint Chiefs think the superpowers have "rough parity" in nuclear arms.
Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said on a television news program Sunday that Reagan "needs to sit down with the Joint Chiefs and learn about our submarines, about our aircraft carriers, about our tactical air, about our cruise missiles, about our bombers and other advantages."
Robert C. McFarlane, Reagan's national security affairs adviser, tried to narrow Reagan's assertion of Soviet superiority by stating Sunday on a television news program that "the president's point was that in central measures of strategic power and coercive potential, that is hard-target kill capability, there is indeed a Soviet three-to-one advantage of about 6,000 warheads to our 2,000."
Hard-target kill capability refers to a missile warhead with enough accuracy and explosive power to destroy a missile buried in the ground beneath tons of concrete and steel. Reagan inherited from former President Jimmy Carter a program to deploy 200 MX missiles with hard target capability. Congress has since cut that to 50 MX missiles, in part because members have little confidence in the basing mode Reagan has selected.
Between Reagan's critics and defenders lies a large middle ground of opinion shared by both political moderates and professional military officers, who think that any military comparison between the United States and Soviets must consider such issues as quality of weapons versus quantity, geographical advantages and troop experience in using modern weaponry.
The U.S. government 25 years ago opted to build fewer but better weapons than the Soviets, rather than try to match Moscow man for man, or tank for tank. Reagan continues to follow this policy while decrying alleged Soviet numerical leads. The Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, with Reagan's blessing, have used their share of the $1 trillion provided in the first four years of his rearmament program to continue buying highly sophisticated and expensive weapons, rather than vast numbers of cheaper but less capable models.
Most analysts think that the United States has better warplanes, combat ships and missiles than the Soviets. U.S. forces also are far ahead of the Soviets in ability to detect and destroy enemy submarines, and in quick projection of military power through such techniques as refueling planes in mid-air or warships at sea.
The comparative numbers, as provided by the Library of Congress, include the following:
*Strategic nuclear warheads -- U.S. 10,770; Soviet Union 9,594.
*Intercontinental ballistic missiles -- U.S. 1,030; Soviet Union 1,398.
*Submarine missiles -- U.S. 592; Soviet Union 946.
*Attack submarines -- U.S. 99; Soviet Union 270.
*Heavy bombers -- U.S. 297; Soviet Union 303.
*Air launched cruise missiles and bombs -- U.S. 3,296; Soviet Union 1,052.
*Aircraft carriers -- U.S. 25; Soviet Union 5. (Counts helicopter carriers.)
Navy attack aircraft -- U.S. 787; Soviet Union 60.
*Soldiers -- U.S. 781,000; Soviet Union 3 million.
*Tanks -- U.S. 13,347; Soviet Union 52,900.
Retired Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt, who as chief of naval operations from 1970 to 1974 stunned the nation by saying the U.S. Navy had only a 35 percent chance of beating the Soviets, said Reagan's rearmament program has bettered the odds so that the Navy has a 55 percent chance of victory. He agreed with Reagan, however, that the United States still lags offensively in most other areas.
Other active duty officers involved in conventional warfare planning and operations said Reagan had overstated the problem. They, declared that U.S. forces have never been stronger in peacetime, or manned with better people.