The administration's plan to cut some $30 billion from defense spending in fiscal years 1983 and 1984 to balance the federal budget means that a number of military programs dear to the hearts of Pentagon chiefs will suffer delay, cutback, or actual elimination, say sources here.
In a briefing Sept. 2, Pentagon spokesman Henry E. Catto Jr. did not exclude the possibility that defense trimming would affect the proposed deployment of the MX missile and the B-1 bomber.
According to congressional sources, the Air Force would like to acquire a minimum of 50 B-1s at a cost of $197 million each. If "stealth" radar-baffling technology cannot be applied to a new strategic bomber as rapidly as hoped, the Air Force will seek "an upper buy" of 232 B-1s, say these sources.
Any reduction or cancellation of the B-1 program, which President Reagan wants to resuscitate in the wake of its axing by Jimmy Carter in 1977, would reopen the debate on the ability of the nation's aging B-52 bomber force to penetrate Soviet air defenses, widely considered to be formidable.
The Air Force has reportedly said that if more than $3 billion is cut from its fiscal 1983 budget, it will have to retire its B-52Ds, which along with B-52 Hs and F-111As currently are tasked with cracking Soviet air defenses.
Though strategic warfare experts seriously doubt the President would cancel the MX, the need to cut defense spending might spur him to deploy fewer of the missiles in a simpler basing format, they say. The national campaign to stop the MX is urging the President to scrap the missile project altogether.
Several congressmen, including Tom Tauke (R) of Iowa and S. William Green (R) of New York, have written to President Reagan suggesting that cuts be made in US strategic weapons programs. Noting that the country is pledged to maintain a triad of strategic retaliatory systems, they point out that it is actually supporting five: manned penetrating bombers; submarine-launched ballistic missiles; land-based ballistic missiles; submarine-launched cruise missiles and air-launched cruise missiles. "Surely all five methods cannot be truly needed," they write.
The congressmen urge the Pentagon to "weed out" weaponry beset by cost overruns and poor planning. They say the Navy F-18 fighter is, "an example of waste, fraud, and abuse"; Navy ship production has suffered "horrible overruns"; and the M-1 tank is "unreliable.
If the Air Force is hit with swinging budget cuts it may reportedly have to begin phasing out its old Titan II intercontinental ballistic missiles. Fifty-two remain in service. The Titan II, which has been operational since 1963, carries a thermonuclear warhead and is considered ideal for use against "soft" targets.
Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger is said to be compiling a list of military programs that could be delayed, reduced, stretched out, or cut to save the requisite $30 billion. It has been termed "a reverse wish list" and could be in the President's hands next week.
The Navy may be asked to abandon, for the moment at least, plans to build a 600-ship fleet. It may also be asked to forego acquiring three old warships that it planned to renovate and put to sea -- the battleships Wisconsin and Missouri and the aircraft-carrier Oriskany. Moreover, its F-18 fighter program may be in jeopardy. Sources say the Pentagon has been reassessing the plane's future for some months.
Writing in the Washington Post Sept. 1, retired Gen. Maxwell D. Taylor, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, questioned whether the MX is essential. He proposed plans for more large aircraft carriers, two additional Army divisions, and more than 300 Harrier jump-jets for the Marine Corps.
If President Reagan is reluctant to cut back on anything, it is defense. But with the 1982 federal budget deficit estimated at $60 billion, $15 billion more than originally projected, he has little choice.