Courtesy Reuters

The Defense Program: Buildup or Binge?

Over the past four years, President Ronald Reagan and his national security team have succeeded in rewriting the context of the defense debate. The need for a massive defense buildup has been accepted; the only open question is the future rate of growth. In budgetary terms, the impact of this buildup has been dramatic. Excluding inflation, the 1985 defense budget approved by Congress is 51 percent higher than five years ago, reflecting a remarkable $330 billion in cumulative real growth since 1980. During the same period federal support for domestic programs, excluding interest payments and entitlement programs (retirement, health care, unemployment), declined by over 30 percent. In the recently submitted budget request for 1986, President Reagan has proposed to continue this transfer of funds from domestic programs to defense. His budget accords the Pentagon a further increase of six-percent real growth—while many domestic spending programs have been slated for major cutbacks.

Following the election in November 1980, former Defense Secretary Melvin R. Laird offered the following advice to the incoming Reagan team: "The worst thing that could happen is for the nation to go on a defense spending binge that will create economic havoc at home and confusion abroad, and that cannot be dealt with wisely by the Pentagon." The Reagan Administration chose not to heed Laird’s warning.

Rising defense budgets have been a major factor in the federal deficit crisis, and the defense program, together with its supporting rhetoric, has had some disturbing foreign policy implications. Relations with the Soviet Union in the last several years have deteriorated, and arms control negotiations came to a standstill during the first Reagan term. Relations with our European allies have also been strained. It is the last part of Laird’s warning, however—that our defense establishment could not manage rapid budget increases effectively—which is of concern in this article.

Since 1980 we have heard much discussion of the broad budgetary and foreign policy implications of the Reagan buildup, but too little attention has been paid to the

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