Time for Some Trimming


"Some day there is going to be a man sitting in my chair who has not been raised in the military services and who will have little understanding of where slashes in [the military budget's estimates] can be made with little or no damage. If that should happen while we still have the state of tension that now exists in the world. I shudder to think what could happen in this country." President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in a 1956 letter to a friend

IN LAST DECEMBER'S Atlantic interview. David Stockman referred to a "swamp of $10-20-30 billion of waste" in the Pentagon budget. To drain that swamp. Stockman proposed to President Reagan significant cuts in the defense budget. Despite his arguments, and the prospect of an ever-growing federal budget deficit, Reagan sided with Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger '38 and his grandiose plans for rearmament at a fantastic cost: $1.6 trillion over the next five years.

The amount staggers the mind, so much so that Congress and the public have been unwilling to look at the specifies of the Reagan proposal. But scrutiny of defense spending-carried out with the same intensity as Stockman's microscopic dissection of social programs--is long overdue.

As the Senate this week considers Reagan's latest defense appropriations bill, this one for $180.2 billion, grumblings can be heard from members who are troubled by the massive buildup. Defense specialists like Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) have been vocal, through largely unheeded, advocates of a more discriminating approach to defense spending. We hope these misgivings about unbridled military spending will lead Congress to examine the Pentagon's requests with an eye toward getting rid of systems that are too costly, unreliable, or utterly useless. Many of the Pentagon's boondoggles are listed in April's Washington Monthly magazine, which describes 35 ways to cut the defense budget. Among the larger weapons systems the magazine would are and which we agree should be done away with are:

* The MX missile. Production of the MX continues even though the Administration has no plan for basing it. There is little chance that the Reagan team will devise a viable method of deployment--it spent several months last year trying to dream up an alternative to the Carter Administration's race-tract-cum-shell game proposal--making the mobile missile a colossal waste of money or a very expensive bargaining chip to be traded off in some distant strategic arms reduction talks.


* The B-1 bomber. Scrapped by former President Jimmy Carter only to be revived by Reagan, the B-1 would cost $200 million a plane: at that price, which is certain to rise, the United States could afford only 100 of them. Carter rightly cancelled the planes because it was unlikely to be capable of penetrating Soviet air defenses and because the superior Advanced Technology Bomber or "Stealth" plane, would be available to replace the B-52 fleet early enough so that an interim bomber the B-1 would be unnecessary.

* Nimitz-class aircraft carriers. Military experts often describe these wide-deck nuclear-power carriers as "sitting ducks." Retired Adm. Hyman Rickover has said they would survive "about two days" in a war with the Soviet Union. Yet the Pentagon wants three new ones at a cost of $3.6 billion a piece. When fully equipped with fighters, helicopters, cruisers and other escort vessels, the price rises to $17 billion each. Manpower and operational costs would bring the total to $30 billion by some estimates.

* The Trident submarine. The navy is spending $30 billion to build 12 of these 600-foot-long subs to hold one-third of the country's nuclear arsenal. For the price of a dozen Tridents, the navy could, according to some calculations, deploy 110 smaller, more maneuverable conventional submarines--many versions of which already exist to carry twice as many missiles and force the Soviets to locate nearly 10 times as many subs.

The list could go on and on. The MX, B-1, aircraft carriers and Tridents are only the most prominent examples of weapons systems that could be cut, but they underscore the need for a careful assessment of every aspect of military spending. The Pentagon and the Administration clearly will not take on that task; it is left to Congress. The House and Senate now have a responsibility to interject coherence and rationality into a military-industrial complex. that has reached obscene proportions.