Loose Cannon

The secretary of the Navy jumped ship this week. As one Pentagon official put it, going overboard was the only honorable thing left for James H. Webb Jr. after he lost a fatuous fight to keep the Navy from taking a fair share of defense cuts.

Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci took the nonsense pretty well, considering. What he said, in effect, was that as long as he has no choice but to cut the size of his forces, he wants to cut them in ways that leave what remains fully capable of fighting. Nobody except Webb could ask for more.

Webb's immediate beef is with the fact that Carlucci cut 16 frigates, among the Navy's oldest and smallest ships, out of the Defense Department budget for fiscal 1989 as part of an effort to keep his end of a bargain with Congress. Under a formula worked out late last year, the Pentagon is asking for $299.5 billion for the next fiscal year. Only a matter of months ago, it was forecasting a budget of $332.4 billion, but that was before it became clear that the American economy could not keep going into debt indefinitely to pay for defense or anything else.

Webb, 42, a former Marine officer and decorated veteran of Vietnam, seemed to understand the economics in a speech to a National Press Club luncheon last month. The question for the nation's leaders, he said, was to keep their global commitments and still cut their military forces. One thing certain, he said, was that it would be impossible to keep the commitment "and at the same time reduce the size of our navy." Carlucci reduced the size of the Navy and Webb resigned, raising questions on his way out that Congress will raise more quietly with this week's budget hearings.

Webb obviously was not trying to make friends with his January speech. The army's role in World War II he called a "rear guard" action. The Air Force, which will lose 25,000 personnel in the budget cuts compared to the Navy's 9,000, was not even mentioned. His conclusion was that sea power has been, and must continue to be, the decisive factor for America in this century.

Whether Webb was searching as hard for answers to the tough questions about defense as he was for headlines is a good question, considering the way he resigned. He sent a letter to President Reagan and dropped off a copy in Carlucci's reception room on his way out.

Carlucci, who has at least a year of service with the Pentagon, the Central Intelligence Agency and other departments for every month that Webb spent as secretary, faces a tough enough task without distractions of this kind.

He is point man on a road that is by and large uncharted. It is the one along which the United States and the Soviet Union are traveling, trying to wind down their cold war by negotiating down the size of their nuclear and conventional forces. It is a nervous road for both parties because nothing like what they are trying has ever succeeded, largely because nothing like it has ever been tried.

The most difficult part of the task, no matter how much progress the President may make in arms control this year, will be handed on to the next President and the next defense secretary. That makes a proper beginning the more important. Carlucci deserves Washington's full support.

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