The Price of Tomorrow's War


TWO OPPOSING SCHOOLS of American military planners used to argue fiercely about how the Department of Defense should spend its non-nuclear dollars. Some innovators favored buying expensive, high-technology electronic weapons, while traditionalists insisted on simply having more tanks, planes and missiles than anybody else. This summer, the high-tech side triumphed, and their victory will have a dramatic economic impact--especially on the poor.

The debate on military spending had for years been fought in Pentagon memos, reports and meetings: the crucial difference this year was that the debate shifted to real battlefields, in Lebanon and the Falkland Islands. In both cases, the results were spectacular and unmistakeable. Israeli fliers in ultra-modern McDonnell Douglas F-15 planes shot down 40 Syrian planes in the first month of the invasion without losing a single jet. They also destroyed 19 surface-to-air missile batteries in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley in a single battle, again with no Israeli losses.

In the Falklands, Argentine forces used their small but sophisticated electronic arsenal--most notably, the Exocet missile with its 45-mile range--to make England's victory a more narrow one than Israel's. Observers noted that the Falklands war was an old-style "slugfest," in which the British relied on sheer determination; but by contrast, Israel relied on its electronic weapons. Retired British Air Vice-Admiral Stewart Menaul summarized the difference between the conflicts: "We fought yesterday's war. The Israelis fought tomorrow's war."

America will prepare to "fight tomorrow's war," too. In the last five months. Pentagon officials have met 10 times with executives from 50 electronics companies. According to the Pentagon's director of electronic warfare research, the meetings have laid "the basic structure for planning and building U.S. electronic warfare devices over the next 20 years."

The cost of high-tech weapons will be staggering. By one estimate, the electronic portion of all military spending will rise from 40.6 percent ($22.7 billion) in 1981 to 47 percent ($106 billion) in 1991. An analyst at Goldman, Sachs and Co. predicts an electronic weapons spending increase of 25 percent by 1985, compared with an overall defense increase of 14 percent.

Even the high levels predicted may be exceeded by President Reagan. The Administration spent $156 billion on the military in 1981 and originally planned to raise the outlays to $364.6 billion by 1987. But the President surprised even some conservative congressional allies by recently announcing he might not stay within his stated spending levels.

The defense budget, boosted by plans to build a 21st-century fighting force today, will continue to increase at phenomenal rates, which once again raises the guns-versus-butter question that has haunted every post-war president. For Reagan, the specific question is. With America currently experiencing the highest unemployment and poverty rates since the Great Depression, why are 57 cents of every federal tax dollar going to the military while relief programs are being slashed?

By 1983, the administration will remove nearly one million recipients from the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program. More than two million will lose their food stamps, and 400,000 will no longer be eligible for Medicaid. And unemployment is expected to grow, with effects on society that may be more severe than was previously supposed.

When unemployment recently hit a 41-year peak of 9.8 percent, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University pointed out that when the jobless rate rises 1 percent, state prison populations go up 4.1 percent; 4.3 percent more men and 2.3 percent more women enter mental hospitals, and suicides increase 4.1 percent.

RELIEF FOR THOSE thrown out of work and those unable to compensate for economic misfortune is often a question of saving lives, a fact the President has ignored since taking office. While generals and planners were analyzing the performance of multi-billion-dollar weapons this summer and preparing budget requests, a bankrupt Ohio businessman named Antonio C. Garza took his wife. Kay, to make a new start in Texas. San Antonio police found the couple shot dead in the front seat of their car: Garza apparently killed his wife with a rifle before taking his own life. Near the bodies were bankruptcy papers, an empty wallet, and a note saying. "We came to San Antonio to work, not to die. But Reagan economics has nothing trickling down to us."

Although a new dimension has been added to the way the country is defended, our leaders still ignore the older question of how much it actually costs America to become "strong again." The pricetag is turning out to be immense.