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Arms: the easy answer

Whenever the United States feels particularly insecure, its instinctive response is to reach for its guns. There is no question that, with the world as it is, guns are necessary. However, this is one of many areas of modern life in which more is not necessarily better -- or even safer.

President Carter, reacting to the demands of the hawks in the SALT II debate and subsequently to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, is asking for a real increase in defense spending of 5 percent. His proposed military budget for 1981 is just under $150 billion, an amount so for totally exempt from the drastic federal budget cutting now under way. Indeed two Senate committees last week voted to increasem the President's military budget by $6.5 billion.

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Much of the rationale for these increases comes from the steady rise in Soviet military expenditures. There is no doubt that a rise has taken place. However, since we calculate their expenditures by estimating what it would cost us to do what they are doing, and since they are much more parsimonious than we in soldiers' pay and many other components, our statistics almst certainly exaggerate their real costs.

In fact, the elevation of our military budget is as much a reaction to our own perceptions as to real threats, though these of course exist. When our military and our hawks complain loudly and long enough about Soviet "superiority ," an unwarranted inferioritiy complex is self generated for which it then becomes politically necessary to compensate, usually to overcompensate.

Of course the Soviets have contributed substantially to these perceptions by their unnecessary buildup of heavy strategic missles and intermediate missiles targeted on Europe, and their provocative interventions in Angola, Ethiopia, South Yemen, and Afghanistan.

However, US military responses, while necessary up to a point for political reasons, often seem, to a layman at least, to be militarily irrational, sometimes ludicrously so. One cannot help but suspect that many of them are as much the product of interservice ambitions and rivalries as of sober calculations.

It seems fairly safe to predict that a few years from now everyone will wonder how we could have seriously considered building such a Rube Goldberg monstrosity as the MX missile system. Its cost would be absolutely fabulous; the General Accounting Office estimates $56 billion, which is probably on the low side. Yet the MX could conceivably be expected to work only if the limitations on warheads per missile imposed by SALT II were maitained, which, given our failure to ratify SALT, seems increasingly unlikely.

Moreover, no one has satisfactorily explained why we have to spend $50 billion to maintain the theoretical invulnerability of one "leg" of our strategic deterrent "triad" when we have two other "legs," one seaborne, the other airborne, both of which are being substantially upgraded, the latter with armadas of cruise missiles.

The rationality and expediency of other aspects of our elevated military response are also open to question.

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The NATO decision taken last December to introduce intermediate-range nuclear missiles into Western Europe, as a counter to increasing deployments of Soviet SS-20s, was a political asset at the time. It was agreed to by the Europeans, however, on the understanding that limitations on missles of both sides would be negotiated in SALT III. If there should be no SALT III, because there is no SALT II, the decision could become a source of interallied friction rather than of strength.

In actual fact, its effects in any case may be more cosmetic than real. If the Soviets are not deterred by fear that an American President would use our strategic missiles in case of need, they are unlikely to be deterred by fear he would use intermediate missiles in Europe, to which they would almost certainly make a strategic response against us.

Finally, it is not at all clear that we have thought through what a "rapid deployment force," for which additional billions ar being budgeted, could actually do and hence how it should be composed. It is too small to cope with a Soviet invasion of the Persian Gulf area, which is in any case most unlikely. On the other hand, it may well be considerably larger and more conspicuous than any of our friends in the area would want us to employ there to suppress internal uprisings.

Three conclusions may be drawn from this rapid survey.

First, there is a good deal of "fat" in the Pentagon budget, in the sense that there are very costly programs which have not been sufficiently thought through and which should not be heavily funded until they have been. If inflation demands drastic cuts in critical domestic programs, there are certainly limits to what we should contribute to military posturing, as distinct from real military need.

Second, we should at the earliest possible moment, for many reasons of which the budget is only one, press forward with US-Soviet negotiations for far more serious reductions in both strategic and conventional arms than have been hitherto contemplated. Technology is already dangling over our heads even more horrendous and costly weapons systems than those we have.

Finally, and this must be the subject of another article, much more thought needs to be given to whether foreign aid programs, currently beinb butchered by Congress, do not contribute, dollar for dollar, far more to world stability, and hence to our national security, than many of our most expensive military programs do.