The description of the weapons reads like a fantasy from the wilder realms of nightmare. The costs defied perspective. And as President Jimmy Carter considered his second consecutive record peacetime defence budget last week, it seemed more and more that, like the sorcerer’s apprentice, he could not control the magic.
The actual figure put forward by America’s defence planners is $124 billion for 1980, $6 billion more than for 1979 and 2.5 times Canada’s total federal budget this year. What is more, the White House is already predicting that by 1983 defence spending will have risen to $131.7 billion and maybe more.
The reason is that the president is committing himself now to weapons that will have to be paid for then. These
include the MX blockbuster missile system, which alone will cost $40 billion. More billions will go on the cruise missiles he has chosen over the B-l bomber, cancelled last year but now seen clearly as only a short-term saving. Moreover, the budget contains the seeds of astronomical spending late in the next decade. It includes research millions—the exact sum is classified—for missile-destroying ray weapons, which scientists say could revolutionize the art of war.
They will be of two basic types: those using high-energy laser beams and those incorporating a beam of atomic particles such as the electrons that comprise a lightning bolt. When they
come into being, the philosophy of deterrence by “mutual assured destruction” (the balance of terror) will be obsolete. Missiles launched from silos, underground sites or submarines will be detected and destroyed almost instantaneously by satellites carrying the weapons.
There is some speculation in the intelligence agencies in Washington that the Soviet Union is ahead of the U.S. in researching particle-beam weapons. Some believe the Soviets are already testing nuclear explosions as a power source at Semipalatinsk, where nine puzzling underground explosions are said to have taken place this year.
The size of the power pulses needed by beam weapons can be guessed at from an estimate of the cost of shooting down one ballistic missile with a single
pulsed burst of energy: $1.5 million. In a missile attack on the United States, the Soviet Union might launch more than 1,000 missiles, each with about 10 multiple-targeted warheads. But beam weapons offer hope that an all-out missile attack could be infallibly thwarted, so Carter cannot afford to pass them up.
On the other hand he must also consider the lobbying tactics of those in-
volved. The very people who are telling him that the Soviet Union may be ahead in developing the beam weapons belong to the CIA-Pentagon-military-industrial complex. They believe in ehormous defence spending the way most other folk believe in motherhood, and they are quite capable of trying to scare their chief executive into taking their side.
Indeed, over the past few weeks there
have been at least half a dozen calculated leaks. Among the most imaginative was a report, believed to have originated with U.S. defence officials, that Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, now 72 and in poor health, may step down early next year. No one knows who his successor will be, say the military men (the current betting favors politburo veteran Andrei Kirilenko, 72, at least as a temporary measure), so the U.S. should be as strong as possible. It is a plausible enough argument, except that Brezhnev has been in ill health for some time now and has shown a notable reluctance to quit.
A more powerful persuader in the debate about the defence budget is Carter’s commitment to NATO (see box on page 31). In 1977 he urged the NATO allies to increase their commitment by at least three per cent, pledging a similar increase in U.S. military spending. To keep that promise—and keep the over-all spending on defence down to $124 billion—Carter would have to cut into his domestic spending. Services that mostly benefit poor ghetto communities would suffer.
Some of his key political advisers, including chief aide Hamilton Jordan, Press Secretary Jody Powell, image formulator Gerald Rafshoon and National Security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski are urging him to go that way. They argue that the mood of the country has turned conservative and military conscious. But Stuart Eizenstat, Carter’s assistant for domestic affairs, and officials of the Office of Management and Budget are opposing the increase. They say that the social cutbacks it will cause will cost a lot of votes in 1980.
Carter may get out of the dilemma by cutting back by about a billion dollars. This would allow him to increase America’s NATO commitment by three per cent and up the over-all budget by 1.5 per cent. Just what that will buy is a secret. But some of the major items are known: one of the largest single
amounts, $1.1 billion,will go to buy a Trident submarine; $1.6 billion for a conventionally powered aircraft carrier; $1 billion for 60 F-15 supersonic fighters; and as yet unknown millions on new XMl tanks.
It seems ironic that a huge new budget should coincide with reports that the U.S. and the Soviet Union are close to a new SALT agreement—limiting the numbers of strategic nuclear weapons that each side holds. But without heavy defence spending, Carter would have little chance of getting a SALT agreement through the Senate. When it comes to weapons, Capitol Hill insists on being more equal than others. And you need to be more than an apprentice sorcerer to control that kind of logic. William Lowther
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