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US defense policy: new muscle, but the same old plans for using it

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More significant than the immediate debate over the size of President Reagan's defense budget may be the broader issue of military posture.

Do the proposed Pentagon programs fit together in a way that clearly outlines national security needs and the policies necessary to meet those needs?

As expected, US Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger's military policy and strategy report to Congress for the five-year period through 1987 is receiving mixed response.

The administration contends that its long-range plans take into account the realities of big-power confrontation and geopolitical instabilities. More spending is envisioned in all categories, but the conventional and strategic nuclear programs are carefully designed, officials say.

For all the rhetoric before and after the 1980 presidential election, Mr. Reagan's defense posture differs in degree rather than in major substance from that of President Carter.

''Seventy-five percent of what they're doing is an acceleration of what (former Defense Secretary) Harold Brown was doing,'' says William Kaufmann, an MIT political scientist who played a key role in formulating defense policy statements under five Republican and Democratic defense secretaries. ''In that sense, it doesn't represent any drastic departure from strategy and even force structure.''

Mr. Weinberger concedes as much when he says, ''We are, to a greater extent than we would like, the prisoners of our immediate past.''

When he writes that the first goal of defense strategy ''must bring to a halt the further expansion and consolidation of the Soviet military empire,'' he echoes Harold Brown's report of a year ago.

But a more muscular posture is assumed when Weinberger says: ''Even if the enemy attacked at only one place, we might choose not to restrict ourselves to meeting aggression on its own immediate front. We might decide to stretch our capabilities, to engage the enemy in many places. . . .''

Still, Weinberger insists that this will increase deterrence rather than provoke a fight: ''It is likely to increase the caution of the Soviet leaders in deciding on aggression.''

As detailed in the Weinberger report to Congress, major emphasis is to be given over the next five years to increasing conventional force strength and especially mobility. This desire to ''project power'' into many parts of the world accelerates Mr. Carter's effort to respond in such areas as the Persian Gulf.

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