The Defense Industry
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Doubletalk: The Story of Salt I
The most important theme of President Reagan’s proposals for defense has little to do with military strategies or concepts, but rather with sheer quantities: the budget stands for more. The administration’s program is the clearest possible expression of a faith that spending more money for defense, without being particular about where or how, will make the nation more secure.
The Reagan military program has so far put forward no new concept of building weapons or organizing soldiers. With the exception of a plan to build a navy that will supposedly be large enough to challenge the Soviet fleet in “high threat environments” off the Soviet shore, it offers no coherent view of how and where force might be applied. Indeed, beyond its proposals for weapons to be built in fiscal year 1982, which begins this fall, the administration has not even revealed just what it intends to spend the money for. It has revealed only that it intends to spend a lot.
In the last budget revisions it prepared before leaving office, which included substantial increases in spending for defense, the Carter administration had proposed to raise the Total Obligational Authority for the military1 by 7.8 percent (after inflation) in fiscal year 1981, and by a further 5.3 percent in 1982. Reagan proposes to increase the budget by 12.4 percent and 14.6 percent, respectively, in the same two years.2 During the following four years, the administration intends to increase the defense budget by at least 7 percent, after inflation, every year, until it reaches $367.5 billion in 1986.3 If these intentions are realized, they will amount to a 50 percent increase in military spending, as measured in constant dollars, within five years.
This plan calls for nothing less than the largest peacetime military buildup in American history; indeed, it exceeds even the cost of America’s most recent war. As Lester Thurow recently pointed out in these pages,4 if the cost of the Vietnam buildup between 1965 and 1970 were converted to 1980 dollars, it would come to about $59 billion. Measured on the same scale, the increase in military expenditures over the next five years will be nearly three times as large. Lyndon Johnson refused to raise taxes to pay the bill for his war; ever since he has shared the blame with OPEC for causing the ruinous American inflation of the 1970s. Ronald Reagan now proposes to finance his much larger expansion while reducing taxes by 30 percent.
The gravest effects of this increase may be felt not on any battlefield but in the rest of the American economy, which needs to find new sources of capital to finance industrial regeneration. But if such concerns are put to one side and the new defense program is judged strictly on its own terms, does it then make sense? If the purpose of Reagan’s military budget is to…
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