FROM the time, in the spring of 1981, when it became apparent that the newly initiated Reagan defense buildup was underfunded by at least $750 billion, it was inevitable that an impasse would be reached. We are now in the midst of that budgetary dilemma. At the heart of the impasse is the decision early in the Reagan years to rebuild to at least a 600-ship Navy without a compensating reduction in some other part of the defense budget.
How that decision was reached is itself instructive of structural problems that make it all but impossible for the US government to carry out any major reallocation of resources within the defense establishment.
In the remarkably clear and concise series of hearings on national strategy and defense organization conducted by John Tower (R) of Texas, then chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, between December 1982 and November 1983, there is a central, recurring theme: From the time President John F. Kennedy discarded the long-range strategic planning capability he inherited from President Dwight D. Eisenhower, national strategic planning has been the province of whoever in any administration could best express himself on the subject.
In the Reagan administration, that person is Secretary of the Navy John F. Lehman Jr. Bright, articulate, and brash, sometimes to the point of brazenness, Mr. Lehman is just what an admiral called him, with beaming approval, during the recent television special honoring comedian Bob Hope -- the ``father of the 600-ship Navy.''
Lehman dominated Reagan administration strategic thinking during its early months.