Defense Spending


Behind this enormous spending lie four strategic concepts that have been developed since 1945 to reduce the country’s vulnerability to attack as a result of technological change and to meet the requirements of our postwar activist foreign policy. Foremost among them is the concept that we must simultaneously be prepared to defend against an all-out nuclear attack and, given that contingency, to respond with massive retaliation. The key is the creation of a nuclear arsenal so vast and a delivery system so awesome that no enemy would dare to launch an all-out effort—to produce, in short, a nuclear stand-off by matching or exceeding the Soviet Union in missile and nuclear capability. Now described in the macabre argot of the military as the MAD program (for Mutual Assured Destruction), this concept is perhaps best symbolized by “Looking Glass,” an instrument-packed C -135 that flies twenty-four hours a day, with a full general on board at all times, from the Strategic Air Command base at Omaha. It is linked directly by radio to both the Pentagon and the White House and in the event of nuclear attack would become the command post for retaliation. At that point “Looking Glass,” according to the Defense Department scenario, would begin the “Doomsday Flight.”

The second concept is based on the premise that a nuclear stand-off exists but that the possibility of limited tactical use of nuclear weapons remains. Thus in the fiscal-year 1975 budget Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger proposed that attention be given to FTO (Flexible and Selective Targeting Options)—also known as Counterforce—at a start-up cost of $310 million. What is called for is a refinement of existing missiles carrying multiple nuclear warheads to pinpoint specific limited targets—Soviet missile silos, for example—and the development of more flexible weapons than we now possess.

Of lesser importance strategically but expensive nonetheless, the third concept calls for the development of elaborate and technologically complex defensive systems like the DEW line (Distant Early Warning Line), composed of radar and other electronic detection devices, and the aborted ABM , or Antiballistic Missile System.

Finally, the postwar military remained firmly committed to a massive land force, distinguishable from its pre-World War II counterpart by greater mobility and increased firepower from improved conventional weapons. Such an army would be prepared to fight limited “brush-fire” actions, be flexible enough to move rapidly by air to somewhat larger conflicts in a matter of days, and at the same time be equipped to undertake the huge land wars of the past. Consequently it was essential to maintain both a sizable standing army of professionals and a ready reserve in the National Guard.

Whatever the merits of any one of these programs, the Department of Defense did not concentrate on a single concept but has in recent years developed all four at once, choosing to maintain, for example, both a massive air force and a massive land army, though the existence of one may very well obviate the necessity of the other. The result has been a steady escalation of costs and a tendency to prepare for any contingency, however remote the possibility of its occurrence may be. Thus in the last fifteen years both the Air Force and the Army have independently developed missile systems, each of which by itself would have provided sufficient retaliatory power to meet the nation’s needs. Moreover, all services have developed some weapons systems that have proved to be unreliable or unworkable; the Snark subsonic missile, the Sky-bolt, the B -70, the B -58, and other systems have all failed to meet the expectations their proponents had promised—at a cost, according to a congressional estimate, in excess of $50 billion, a figure roughly equal to all military expenditures from 1789 to 1940 including the cost of the Revolution, the Civil War, and World War I .

To be sure, current budget practices have reduced some of the waste and some of the duplication that marked defense spending in the 1950’s and early 1960’s. Cost overruns in research and development reached levels of 200 and 300 per cent in the fifteen years after World War II ; by the end of the Kennedy administration overruns had been reduced to an average of 40 per cent in completed programs and to 90 per cent in development.