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.
Early in 1982 the Army attempted to dismiss the entire civilian staff of its Strategic Studies Institute at Carlisle Barracks, Pa., because it had failed to stop what a senior Army aide called the ``onslaught'' of the Lehman Navy. By hiring civilian academics deemed to be more suitable to this task, and with the aid of such proponents as Robert W. Komer, former undersecretary of defense for policy, the Army began a counterattack which has so far preserved its most valued, but increasingly vulnerable, bureaucratic asset -- the five Army division equivalents stationed in Europe -- and which has succeeded in winning Department of Defense support for the organization of additional ``light'' divisions.
The enormous internal pressures generated have begun to have an impact on Lehman's supposedly unassailable Navy. There has been a drastic reduction in ship operating days. There is reportedly a serious slippage in the building of escorts and auxiliaries needed to protect and support the 15 aircraft carriers. And the construction of dispersed port facilities is in trouble.
In the days when he was fully in charge of the Reagan defense strategy, Lehman's announced purpose was to build a Navy capable of challenging the Soviets on their home territory, including the exposed and potentially vulnerable Pacific Maritime Province. When the Army, with the assistance of the European NATO alliance, succeeded in pulling the Reagan administration back toward Central Europe, Lehman began to change tune. Indeed, he has become one of the most vocal of all ``Europe-firsters,'' with a plan by which, in the event of war with the Soviet Union, the Navy and most of the Marine Corps are to go lunging into the Norwegian Sea toward some as yet vaguely defined objective.
All this was published as a ``Maritime Strategy,'' in a supplement to last January's US Naval Institute Proceedings, but with significant demurrers from the Marine Corps, in particular as concerns a ``Europe-first-and-last'' strategy.
The fact that the Navy, with somewhat reluctant and doubting allies in the Marine Corps, could announce its own independently developed ``national strategy'' with only nominal mention of the Army and the Air Force says just about all that needs to be said about our lack of a coherent national strategy.
The about-face of the Lehman and Reagan strategy toward Europe comes after a decade of steadily rising American trade balances in favor of the Pacific, compared with Europe. It also comes in the face of the buildup of the Soviet Pacific Fleet to the most powerful of all Soviet naval contingents. It flies in the face of the fact that in the Norwegian Sea the US ships would be facing alone the full brunt of Soviet land-based air power, while in the Pacific the Aleutian Islands would permit the Air Force to cover naval operations from US territory. Not least of the factors to be considered is that Britain, not the United States, is the principal NATO ally threatened by any Soviet incursion into northern Norway and that Britain has all the resources necessary to counter that threat.
As essentially a maritime nation dependent on unfettered access to the high seas and the lands beyond for its survival, the US needs a powerful Navy, very possibly in excess of the 600 ships now planned. At the moment, however, it is a Navy pointed in the wrong direction, with weakening defenses against strategically mindless budget reductions distributed ``evenhandedly'' among all services.
William V. Kennedy is a journalist specializing in military affairs.