Boom and Bust

Department of Defense Annual Report, Fiscal Year 1981

by Harold Brown Secretary of Defense
Department of Defense

Harold Brown
Harold Brown; drawing by David Levine

The United States may buy itself two things with its $1 trillion defense budget of 1981 to 1985. The first is an economic decline of the sort that comes about once or twice in a century. The second is a nuclear war.

This country is in the early years—not, despite the new shine of the Carter Doctrine, at the very beginning—of the most expensive military boom in history. In the process, the distinction between the military and the nonmilitary modes of the American economy is being suppressed. So is the distinction between nuclear and nonnuclear war. The continuum of money and destruction is being projected, through investment in military research and development, into the far future.

The expansion in military science and technology is the most ominous component of a defense budget that is dense with the ghosts of past and future wars. The new defense boom has been welcomed—in the US Congress, for example—as a response to recent events in Southwest Asia and elsewhere. But its main focus, instead, is on nuclear conflict.

The greatest increase in any major category within the 1981 budget is for “research, development, test and evaluation,” or “RDTE.” Spending on strategic and other nuclear weapons increases particularly fast, as does futuristic research at the “leading edge” of military technology. With the money it spends to buy and keep scientists and engineers, the Defense Department is designing the weapons of ten and twenty years from now. With its research boom, it is defining a revised American doctrine of science-intensive war.

This effort is not new, and it is scheduled to persist for the balance of the five-year defense plan. The proportion of defense spending devoted to research and the procurement of new weapons has increased steadily since 1976. This constitutes, as the Report shows, the first sustained boom in US military investment—investment in Southeast Asia aside—since 1960-1963.

The RDTE budget for 1981 is $16.5 billion. The MX missile—the race track of Ozymandias that Herbert Scoville described in the previous issue of The New York Review—is its most expensive item. The MX is allocated $1.5 billion in research money: this is more than the combined RD budgets for the Department of Labor, the Department of Education, the Department of Transportation, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Drug Administration, and the Center for Disease Control; over 140 percent of the RD budget of the National Science Foundation.1

This allocation for the MX is only part of a build-up in research on nuclear, anti-nuclear, and post-nuclear weapons systems. The “science and technology” program (“advanced research,” “technology opportunities,” and so forth) receives special commendation from Defense Secretary Brown, who presided as Director of Defense Research and Engineering in 1961-1965 over the first great boom in strategic research, and is now concerned to “overcome the effects of reduced funding during the 1965-75 period.” It is as though the years of…

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