Squeezing Defense

Two good things have happened this week. Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger announced a crackdown on free-spending defense contractors, and the Senate Budget Committee voted overwhelmingly to hold military expenditures well below the level sought by President Reagan. For the time being, we are forced to applaud with one hand.

Weinberger suspended about $35 million in Pentagon payments to General Dynamics Corp. while the Defense Department looks into possibly improper billings by the giant company, which is a major manufacturer of F-16 jet fighters, Trident submarines, Tomahawk cruise missiles, Army tanks and other weapons.

According to the Pentagon, General Dynamics billed the government for corporate trips, entertainment, advertising and other expenditures having nothing to do with the contracts involved. In testimony before a House subcommittee the firm denied deliberate overbilling, but the people who matter at the Pentagon were unpersuaded.

Weinberger, in addition to announcing the partial withholding of payments to General Dynamics, ordered a review of billing practices of all major defense contractors, and said that all contractors will henceforth be required to certify under penalty of perjury that their claims for reimbursement do not include political or entertainment expenditures not directly benefiting the government.

The crackdown should save the taxpayers a few bucks, and therefore is praiseworthy. However, it would be naive not to understand that Weinberger is fighting not just for honesty in defense contracting but also for an untouched military budget.

Even as Weinberger spoke Tuesday, the GOP-dominated Senate Budget Committee voted to freeze military spending in fiscal 1986 at current levels, adjusted for inflation, followed by 3% boosts after inflation in 1987 and 1988. The three-year savings would total $80 billion to $100 billion.

Unfortunately, the ceiling voted by the Budget Committee is unlikely to prevail in the full Senate and House. Even if it does, the long-range effect will be negative unless Congress and the Administration can bring themselves to make the right sort of defense spending cuts.

Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, observed recently that stretchouts of planned weapons production have accounted for about 70% of the defense budget reductions in the past four years. At best, stretchouts don't cut spending; they only postpone it. In practice the taxpayers end up paying more for fewer planes or tanks or missiles than originally planned.

The best way to achieve real savings in procurement is to eliminate the production of some weapon systems in order to have the wherewithal for the efficient production of others. Historically, however, Congress has been no more willing than the Pentagon to make these hard choices.

Bringing errant defense contractors to account is worthwhile by definition. But far more fundamental steps are required if the massive federal budget deficit is to be brought under control without injury to true national security.

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