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The Nation: Defense: The Numbers Game

7 minute read

Those who are behind, said President Ford, “try harder—and sometimes swing wilder too.” Ford was trying to dismiss one of Challenger Ronald Reagan’s wild, but nonetheless effective swings: his claims that the President and his old colleagues in Congress had allowed the Soviet Union to surpass the U.S. in military might. Reagan’s startling victories in Texas and Indiana seemed in part to show that he was on to a hot campaign issue: whether the U.S. has indeed become No. 2 behind the Soviets in military strength. It is also a familiar topic in U.S. political history; the “missile gap” argument was a major part of the 1960 campaign.

Ford has been trying to counter Reagan’s claims with variations of a basic theme: “We are absolutely unsurpassed in military capability, and we [have the power] to deter aggression, to maintain the peace, and to protect our national security.” As Reagan pressed his charges, Ford began taking some well-publicized steps aimed at proving that he would spare no expense to keep the U.S. that way. As a bemedaled American officer put it: “There’s no question that the more Reagan sticks it to him, the more dollars we’re going to see.” Items:

— Ford supported building the B-l supersonic strategic bomber (at roughly $87.8 million apiece), although final tests are not scheduled to be completed until this fall.

— Having already submitted to Congress the biggest defense budget in history —$112.7 billion in spending requests—the President asked for an additional $322 million last month for 60 Minuteman III missiles. Each is armed with three nuclear warheads that can be separately targeted.

— With $6.3 billion already requested to build new ships for the Navy, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld asked the Senate Armed Services Committee to add another $1.2 billion. The total would build 21 ships for the U.S. fleet.

Rumsfeld insisted that it was “plainly outrageous” to suggest that the request for new funds was linked to the President’s loss to Reagan in Texas. To be sure, the Administration did decide to request the new funds on the morning of the day that Texans were balloting, but the decision was only a tentative one. The final go-ahead was given later.

No matter how much Ford says and does, Reagan seems to go on scoring points by exploiting the defense issue. In a rare display of public anger, Ford lashed out at his opponent just before the Texas primary as a man whose “simplistic” approach to national-security problems could lead him to make “irresponsible and fundamentally harmful policy decisions” if he ever did become President.

Reagan does have a tendency to speak glibly of defense matters. He has said that the U.S. should exploit its lead in technology to offset Soviet numerical superiority. No one could quarrel with that aim—indeed, it is a basic premise of U.S. strategy. But Reagan went on to suggest using the cruise missile to counter Soviet tanks. Still under development, the cruise missile is no battlefield weapon; armed with a nuclear or conventional warhead, it will be launched from aircraft or naval vessels against strategic targets up to 2,000 miles away.

In his basic speech on the hustings, Reagan claims, “The Soviet Union is continuing to outspend us by about 50% and is way ahead of us in conventional weapons. The Soviet Union outnumbers us 2 to 1 in manpower, 3 to 1 in artillery, and 4 to 1 in tanks.” Western military experts have no real argument with Reagan’s figures. By almost any numerical measure, the Soviets lead the U.S.: an estimated $141 billion in 1975 defense spending to $94 billion for the U.S.; 253 attack submarines to 73; 34,500 battle tanks to 10,000; 168 combat divisions to 19; 3.6 million men under arms to 2.1 million.

But such simple comparisons are misleading. They leave out, for example, the technological superiority that Reagan himself refers to. Riding laser beams, U.S. “smart” bombs are far more accurate than anything in the Soviet arsenal. The Soviets have more tactical aircraft than the U.S. (5,350, v. 5,000), but a Soviet MIG-23 cannot be refueled in flight, while an American F-4 can, and also carries 61/2 more tons of ordnance. The U.S.S.R. has not fought a war since 1945; the U.S. has armed services staffed with officers and men who were battle-hardened in Viet Nam. With 2,329 ships, the new Soviet navy heavily outnumbers the 478-vessel U.S. fleet. But the U.S. is ahead in tonnage and ability to resupply at sea and ports of call.

The statistics game also ignores the fact that the U.S. would be supported by allied forces in the most likely theater for a major conventional war: Europe. Defense experts believe that the alliance’s forces, with the aid of tactical nuclear weapons, are now strong enough to resist what they consider the most dangerous kind of Soviet attack: a quick blitz aimed at seizing the Continent in two or three violent days. The goal of such a Soviet onslaught would be to overrun Europe and confront the U.S. with a fait accompli while the Administration was still making up its mind to launch nuclear missiles at Russia.

In any strategic nuclear exchange, the Russians would also start with a numerical advantage in terms of missiles —2,350 to 1,710—but the U.S. would have a sizable lead in warheads—9,000 to 3,500. Even if the Soviets launched a pre-emptive strike, the U.S. would still be able to mount a counterattack that would lay waste much of the Soviet Union. The casualties would be beyond belief: 100 million dead Americans, 100 million dead Russians. Strategists in London as well as in Washington believe that the war would probably be won by the U.S.—insofar as winning would any longer have meaning.

To avoid the possibility of such a catastrophe, the experts agree with Reagan—and Ford, as well—the U.S. should build up its conventional forces. By so doing, the U.S. would “raise the nuclear threshold,” in the jargon of the strategists. That is, by fielding strong conventional forces that could stand up to the Soviet army, the U.S. would reduce the likelihood of risking Armageddon, since it would not have to rely so heavily on nuclear arms to turn the tide of a conventional war.

Taking into account all of the many factors glossed over by Reagan, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld characterizes the U.S.-Soviet military relationship as one of “rough equivalence,” a view snared by many European officials. But Rumsfeld argues, like Reagan, that the Soviet Union is expanding and perfecting its arsenal of weaponry at such a rate that the U.S. does stand in real danger of falling dangerously behind in future years.

One man who agrees with Reagan’s general aims is former Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger, who was fired last November by Ford, partly because of his feuding with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, partly because he wanted $-2.7 billion more for the Pentagon than the White House was willing to give—at the time. Last December he gave Reagan a three-hour briefing on defense matters, and has since kept in touch with his staff. Reagan invokes his name frequently—eight times in a two-day stretch last week —and Schlesinger says he could live with Reagan as President.

But Schlesinger, who is trying to stay neutral so that his views will gain wider currency, differs with the way Reagan and Ford are fighting over the strength of U.S. defenses. Says he: “This ‘Who is No. 1?’ and ‘Who is No. 2?’ business oversimplifies matters. It does not enlighten the public on the nuances of the issues.”

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