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Defense against what?

Paradoxically the debate over SALT II revived the controversy in this country , which had been relatively quiescent during and after the Vietnam war, over whether the US was still ahead or was falling behind in the arms race between the two superpowers. In other words, the mere discussion of modest arms limitation provoked a substantial upsurge of military programming by the Carter administration, even before the invasion of Afghanistan.

In the presidential campaign which followed, both candidates continued to call for large increases in defense expenditures, without either of them answering explicitly the question of precisely what sort of threats we were proposing to defend ourselves against, and whether the alleged threats were plausible or implausible.

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As Mr. Reagan and his colleagues go about preparing their military program, it will behoove them, lest they waste billions in preparing for the kinds of war that will never be fought and hence do not need to be deterred, to examine much more closely what the real, as distinguished from the theoretical, threats actually are.

It is axiomatic that each side routinely exaggerates the strength of the other. While American military critics emphasize the areas in which the Soviets are superior, they ignore those in which the US and the West have the advantage. While they point out that Soviet military budgets exceed US military budgets, they gloss over the fact that total NATO military expenditures exceed total Warsaw Pact military expenditures, and that the Soviets also have to worry about China.

When these critics note that in 1976 the CIA revised substantially upward its estimate of the percentage of GNP the Soviets spend on arms, they neglect to add that this does not necessarily mean the Soviets had been producing more arms than we supposed, but perhaps that it took the inefficient Soviet economic system a larger proportion of its GNP than we had estimated to produce a given quantity of arms.

When these critics make much of Soviet superiority in numbers and throw weight of Soviet land-based missile launchers, they omit mention of the very substantial US lead in numbers of warheads and in quality and invulnerability of strategic submarines.

In other words, Mr. Reagan may find the gap between overall US and Soviet military capabilities considerably smaller than he has been led to believe. Or he may find that a gap does indeed exist but that it lies primarily in availability and quality of manpower rather than in numbers and quality of weapons.

It would be a mistake of the first order if Mr. Reagan, at a time when he will be struggling to overcome rampant inflation and reduce government spending, should be persuaded to waste billions deterring the Soviets from doing what they have not the slightest intention of doing. No Soviet leader in his right mind -- and they are not stupid -- is going to launch a strategic "first strike" against the United States as long as we have submarines, bombers and cruise missiles able to respond and to totally devastate the Soviet Union. Spending billions to make our land-based missiles invulnerable to a first strike which will never occur is to pour those billions down a rathole.

The Soviets might indeed trigger a nuclear war through miscalculation or accident, just as we might, but they will not do so intentionally because that would clearly mean the end of their regime and their society.

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There is, however, a danger which may become much more real in coming years than any calculated Soviet aggression. That is the gradual breakup of the Soviet leaders will be tempted to make to preserve it. Paradoxically again, a proletarian revolution and a war of national liberation are occurring today, but the first is not against the "bourgeoisie" and the second is not against the "imperialists." The first is in Poland and the second in Afghanistan and both are directed against the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Also we must not forget the longstanding claims of China, a billion people, to considerable segments of Soviet Siberia.

So in hard fact it is the Soviet Union, the last colonial empire, which is far more threatened than the United States, and has therefore a greater stake in the preservation of peace and the status quo.

Under these circumstances what are the real priorities in American national security?

Certainly the challenge of the Soviet Union exists and must be met, but it is neither of the magnitude nor of the character we sometimes imagine. The real US deficiency is not in weapons, where our technology is superior and will remain so as long as our society remains dynamic, but in manpower, where the error of the Vietnam war has traumatized our younger generations from making the personal contribution to defense without which the most modern weapons are useless.

The gravest threat of all, however, is that of unplanned nuclear war which, arising perhaps from escalation of some confrontation in the third world, could, without either superpower so intending, plunge them and the world into nuclear holocaust. The most vital component of national security is, therefore, a program of crisis management agreed with the Soviets, coupled with balanced but significant arms reductions, which will make such an appalling catastrophe somewhat less likely.

It is to this threat, rather than to others less real or serious, that Mr. Reagan should devote his primary attention.