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Going on $200 billion

Since we have trouble grasping the meaning of even $1 billion, the sum of $ 196 billion demands a mighty leap of imagination. That is the military budget which President Carter is requesting of Congress for the fiscal year beginning October 1981. It represents a real increase of 4.6 percent over tis year's defense spending. President-elect Reagan will be under strong pressures to boost the budget even more and, if he does so by more than, say, 7 percent annually, the budget could reach $200 billion in 1982 and $376 billion in 1986. Over five years total military outlays could total more than $1 trillion.

Bear with us for just a few more statistics. Worldwide, spending for weapons now surpasses $500 billion a year, with the United States and the USSR accounting for 80 percent of this. And the prognosis is that the amount of money spent on arms will continue to grow as weapons become more costly and more vulnerable. Need it be added that this mad rush to the production of more and more arms is a major contributor to inflation?

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These sobering figures are cited not necessarily to challenge the new Carter budget. It is widely agreed there is continuing need, in light of the Soviet military buildup, to brace and improve the American defense capability, notably in conventional weapons. No American wants to see US or NATO security weakened. If more spending is required, the sacrifice in personal well-being will be readily made.

But the American people will want to know, too, that the Reagan administration will approach the military budget with the same determined standard of cost-accounting efficiency and elimination of waste as it says it intends to apply to every other sector of government. It is not a matter of how much the US -- or the Russians, for that matter -- spend on defense, but what the money is spent for and how it is spent. The ost careful analysis will have to be made, first, of what US defense needs around the world are and, then, of what kind of American arsenal is required to meet these needs. Simply to shower the Pentagon with whatever it wants would do a disservice both to maintaining a rational, effective military posture and to lifting the American economy out of its difficulties.

High priority must be given to putting the US defense industrial base in order. It is shocking to be told that the US national security is endangered because of serious deterioration of the defense industry. A special House Armed Services Committee panel reports declining productivity growth, aging facilities and machinery, deficits of critical materials, skilled labor shortages, inflexible government contracting procedures, and onerous government regulations. It recommends, among other things, establishment of a flexible defense procurement policy making possible the acquisition of arms in a timely, economic, and efficient manner and also the revision of tax laws to encourage greater capital investment -- proposals deserving thoughtful study.

Other steps must also be pursued. Specific items in the Carter budget, for instance, call for review. It is doubtful, for one, that the MX program, as now conceived, is the best way to go to protect the nation's ICBM capability; the environmental and political obstacles alone are horrendous not to mention the disadvantages of the system itself.

Then there is the issue of NATO, which secretary of state-designate Alexander Haig says will soon find itself in the "unprecedented predicament" of being inferior to the Warsaw Pact in a number of areas. Here, again, it will not be a matter of resolving the deficiencies simply by boosting expenditures but of finding ways to achieve more effective defense for the money. The question of burden-sharing also will arise, with the US feeling rightly that it allies, now economically strong, should carry a fair weight -- if not in the military then in the economic field. This will necessitate a reassessment of NATO purposes, strategy, and purview of operation -- something which has not changed basically for over three decades.

Finally, it is abudantly clear that a pursuit of better and more efficient defense must be accompanied by unrelenting efforts to achieve arms control. Here lies the path to true security for the United States and the world. Not merely because a limitation of weapons will reduce the dangers stemming from the devilish proliferation of arms throughout the world. But because the huge expenditures now going into nonproductive material can be used for productive purposes -- for attacking poverty, raising literacy, bettering human lives. In short, doing all those things which help eliminate the causes of insecurity and conflict.

That $196 billion should thus be seen as a challenge to the new leaders in the White House -- not as a figure to be topped merely for the sake of looking tough but as a symbol of the need for intelligent, long-range and, yes, tough-minded think ing.

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