JAMES H. WEBB JR. left his post as secretary of the Navy over what he saw as a matter of principle: loss of the administration's long-held goal of a 600-ship Navy. His decision took courage. So did Defense Secretary Carlucci's decision to stick by his spending cuts. Mr. Carlucci came into office pledging to ``trade off a smaller force in order to maintain a quality force.'' He knew this would mean shelving some of the ideals cherished under former Secretary Caspar Weinberger, among them the 600-ship Navy. His stand for realism and pragmatism deserves praise.
The Pentagon's current budget-squeeze discomfort is being spread around: Under Carlucci's proposed budget, the Navy retires 16 frigates, the Army forgoes activation of two light infantry battalions, the Air Force deactivates two tactical air wings. All this is part of a restructuring of military spending that has to take place, given mounting concern over the federal deficit.
Likely, this is only the beginning. The next administration will have to build on what Secretary Carlucci has started. Defense spending began a downward slide two years ago, after reaching lofty heights earlier in the Reagan era. The political forces impelling that shift are powerful: congressional unwillingness to support higher levels of arms spending; the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings spending caps; the public's preference for taking chunks out of defense spending rather than entitlement programs.
Is the nation's ability to defend itself and its interests going to be hurt by this process? Not likely. First, even with the currently proposed cuts, defense spending will remain 39 percent higher than it was in fiscal year 1980, when the buildup was just getting up steam. Second, the modernization effort so successfully promoted and launched by President Reagan and Secretary Weinberger has a pretty full fuel tank. Some $260 billion is already appropriated and waiting to be spent by the Pentagon.
So Carlucci's term, ``smaller,'' is a relative one. But there's no doubt a battle of priorities, driven by deficit worries, is in full swing. Mr. Webb, in a sense, is a casualty of that battle. So far, only two major weapons systems have been cancelled: the anti-satellite missile and the Navy's A-6F attack jet. Production of the Midgetman missile was cut, but the project will still receive research and development funding. And lots of new weaponry is still firmly built into the procurement system.
That system itself should get penetrating scrutiny: Can it shift toward design and production of weaponry that can be used in common by the various services? Can the US be even tougher on defense contractors, forcing greater efficiency? Are all US bases really needed?
Today's budget-driven self examination by military planners is beneficial. It can only strengthen the country.