In its revised budget the Reagan administration requested $214.1 billion for defense in the current (1982) fiscal year. Among those who object, some columnists and many TV personalities, full-time defense critics, disarmers, isolationists, and “concerned” churchmen and academics remain blessedly ignorant of the full dimensions of the Soviet military upsurge and of our own weakness. Others, who do have some fair notion of how the military balance stands, simply believe that the United States should be content with weakness, for that too can insure a kind of peace. And then there is the George F. Kennan school of thought, which still refuses to recognize the profile of a classic military empire in the Soviet Union of our days, and which holds that we should not oppose Soviet aims because they are merely “defensive,” as in Afghanistan for instance (Kennan’s own chosen example).
Of all the odd spectacles of our intellectual scene none is so dispiriting as the widespread respect still accorded to Kennan’s view, for it is the theory of a historian and yet one which can only be persuasive to those who are wholly ignorant of history. All great empires expand “defensively,” their last conquest being necessary to shield their penultimate acquisition. That Roman aims were always defensive, from the first conquest of the Latium (to protect Rome itself) until the final sallies into Scotland and eastern Mesopotamia, is a mere commonplace; and it was the same “defensive” necessity that induced the British to expand their Indian empire, with the North-West Frontier being reluctantly occupied to protect the Punjab, just as the Punjab had been regretfully annexed to shield Rajaputana and the Sind, and they in turn had unwillingly been taken earlier, to provide defensive depth for what had been occupied earlier still.
Exactly the same sequence of defensive expansion has brought the Russians to invade Afghanistan—and now the Russians find their latest conquest insecure because of trouble that comes from across the frontier . . . just as, before the invasion, the violent popular resistance to the Russian-made Communist government in Kabul was making Soviet Central Asia insecure. This “defensive” expansion of the one great military empire of our days—which also happens to be the largest empire of all history—will quite obviously leave no country in a state of safety, except possibly New Zealand (and perhaps not even it, there being a latent territorial dispute over the Antarctic).
For practical politicians who must seek electoral support and who also oppose a serious level of defense spending, neither an obstinate denial of the need—against all the evidence—nor elegant obfuscation in the Kennan style will do the trick. Unlike many would-be experts, and the “concerned” this-and-that, a net majority of the American voting public understands far too much about the military balance and its consequences to tolerate an overt refusal to restore our strength before it is too late. The electors who replaced Jimmy Carter with Ronald Reagan did not do so for the sake of supply-side economics, but rather because having once known an America that was strong, and having seen the bitter consequences of a foreign policy of weakness, they decided that strength was after all far better than weakness.
Few indeed are the voters who can knowledgeably compare the intercontinental nuclear forces of the two sides, or those of continental range for that matter. But many can sense that Soviet conduct nowadays has become much more daring and more dangerous, because our long-standing superiority in those forces has been lost. Only the expert can estimate in detail the implications of a conventional balance in which the Soviet Union can spare as many as forty divisions for offensive war on a new front—after securing both its European and its Chinese frontiers—while we for our part would have no more than four or five divisions that could be sent to stop them. But again, the public understands what it must, namely, that the Soviet Union can now change the world map by war, and that we would have great difficulty in doing anything to stop its expansion, even if it happened to be vitally necessary to do so. Similarly, one does not need high skills in operational research to evaluate what the Soviet Navy’s 110 nuclear attack submarines and 198 diesel boats could do to our diminished fleet, and what that in turn means for our power—which must reach across the oceans to be effective at all.
Since the public understands so much about our military predicament and its broad meaning, the politicians who still desire to oppose our belated rearmament must now do so in camouflage. Hence their pious insistence that they fully support a strong national defense, and that they merely object to “waste, fraud, and mismanagement” in the Pentagon.
There is no doubt whatever that some defense spending is wasted, and that there is some mismanagement—and it would be astonishing if there were no fraud at all when so many billions change hands for the purchase of a million different things. Nevertheless, when a politician nowadays wants to cut the defense budget on the grounds that it is the waste, fraud, and mismanagement that he really wants to cut, an informed public should see through the deception easily enough.
In the first place, the necessary detail is missing. We are not told where the waste and the rest occur—something that would be of great interest to the Secretary of Defense and his men, to Congress, to the General Accounting Office, and to the Office of Management and Budget.
Secondly, we have every reason to believe that the total amount of money that is wasted, mismanaged, or defrauded is very small—that is to say, it is small by the standards of government.
As numerous investigations have shown, the Defense Department and the armed forces are already subject to much tighter financial controls than the various health and welfare programs that nowadays account for a much larger share of the the federal budget. (Defense now accounts for one-fifth of total public spending.) Contractors who sell products or services to the Pentagon are subject to the relentless scrutiny of an army of accountants and investigators, both civilian and military. Even in contracts that run to the billions, each outlay of a few hundred dollars will promptly be investigated if grounds for suspicion arise. Nothing of the dimensions of the various medical-aid scandals would be possible, and such cases of fraud as have been uncovered are mostly very minor affairs involving marginalia like PX outlets and sergeants’ messes. Thus it is not by accident, as Pravda would put it, that all the loose talk about fraud in defense spending is rarely decorated with any case histories.
Mismanagement, of course, is another matter, a question of opinion rather than law. When is it sensible to call off a development program for a new weapon that will not work? When should a shipyard be written off as unfit to do its work? When should an aircraft project whose cost keeps growing be stopped? In retrospect, to be sure, the answer is easy. A certain project having failed, one can go back a long way in its history to detect the point when the inevitability of failure should have been recognized. But that is not how matters would have looked at the time, when one could easily believe that a little more effort would cure the problem.
If one surveys, for example, the prolonged agonies of the first Ohio-class (“Trident”) missile submarine which the Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics has finally managed to complete in its Groton, Connecticut shipyard, years behind schedule, it seems obvious that the Navy would have been better off in financing the creation of a whole new shipyard somewhere else, and under different management. But when the “Trident” submarine program was first started, the Electric Boat shipyard at Groton was the obvious, indeed inevitable, candidate for the job, since the only other shipyard with recent nuclear-submarine experience was already fully employed. Certainly the Navy could not have anticipated the many problems that were to arise in the future, and all the many technical obstacles that would be encountered in the attempt to build the largest submarine ever, which was also supposed to be the quietest, and very fast too.
What happened at Groton during the years when the Ohio was being built has provided material for a number of major investigations by Congress, and for several journalistic exposes. The episode is indeed deserving of much scrutiny because it seems that all the dysfunctions of our society were visited upon the unfortunate shipyard: the overall decline in educational standards, which produced young workers with high-school diplomas but no literacy or numeracy; the influx of inexperienced women and minority workers that federal regulations imposed on the shipyard; the further decline in the quality of our industrial manpower brought about by the “dropping out” syndrome, and the furious quest for “meaningful” jobs; the deindustrialization caused by the inadequacy of savings and investment, and by clean-air and other novel restrictions which have forced hundreds of small casting and forging shops out of business; and finally the fiscal and legal complexities created by a legislative process itself dominated by lawyers and accountants, which favors the large multipurpose conglomerate with its own full staff of lawyers and accountants as opposed to the smaller specialized company with real industrial expertise—for one aspect of the whole sad story was that the Groton Yard passed from the control of shipbuilders (Electric Boat) to that of a conglomerate (General Dynamics) whose managers applied business-school techniques where craft and experience were needed.
The fact remains, however, that as the literature on the affair itself testifies, the Ohio case is more exception than norm in our defense purchasing, the result of a rare conjunction between the most complicated weapon ever built and an exceptionally troubled contractor.
What passes for mismanagement in the common discourse of our press is often nothing more than inflation. Those who indulge their eloquence so greatly in mourning the “cost overruns” that have attended virtually every major weapon procurement of the last decade make great play of the combat aircraft that was supposed to cost $10 million and which comes in at $20, and point to the $2-million battle tank that was originally presented to Congress as an “austere” design for half that price—as if our grocery bills and our houses had not undergone a similar explosion in price over the same span of years.
There is, of course, the entirely distinct complaint that even without any irregularities to add to the bill, our weapons simply cost too much because their design is overambitious (or “gold-plated,” as the jargon goes). Some in the “military-reform” movement, a loose gathering of strategic and technical experts as well as a number of Congressmen specializing in defense issues, have a straightforward solution for this problem. They advocate a general return to simplicity on the grounds that in real-life combat, sheer numbers count for more than unit quality, and that in any case the complexity of many weapons has become so great that they will not function properly in the harsh conditions of a real war.
Hence these “reformers” call for the production of small, one-seater fighter aircraft without radars or other complicated devices, which might cost $4 million each instead of $20 million; tanks that would be much lighter than the 50-ton M-l and correspondingly cheaper; 2,000-ton destroyers in lieu of the 8,000-ton ships now being built; smaller non-nuclear carriers for vertical takeoff aircraft instead of the 90,000-ton nuclear-powered super-carriers of the Nimitz class that cost more than $2.5 billion apiece; 1,000-ton diesel-electric submarines in place of the very large nuclear submarines now being built at a cost of almost $1 billion each; and so on.
What makes the argument for simplicity so powerful is that the real difference between the simpler weapons that the reformers advocate and the more complicated weapons now being built is very much greater than mere arithmetic would suggest. In the first place, at any one budget level one can obviously buy many more of the simpler weapons; with more units being produced, industry can then have long production runs so that great economies can be achieved in fabrication and assembly; and then in turn, a much higher proportion of the simpler weapons will actually be maintained and available at any one time, and thus ready for combat when they are needed.
For example, a billion dollars spent on a complicated fighter will pay for, say, forty aircraft, and in war one may obtain from them at most, say, eighty combat sorties a day (often fewer). But the same amount spent on a very simple jet fighter might purchase 200 aircraft; with maintenance being correspondingly easier, that second force could provide as many as 800 combat sorties a day. And it is obvious that in equal combat (i.e., in daylight and at close range) the force of complicated fighters would be easily defeated, since it would have to fight under a crushing numerical inferiority of one to ten in actual sorties flown—and then all its advantages would count for nought.
On the other hand, the great weakness of the “simplicity” argument is that against worthy opponents and in demanding circumstances, fighters that are blind in the dark and have only visual-range missiles, tanks that are too lightly armored to withstand the pounding of the enemy’s fire, warships that lack electronic brains, eyes, and ears for long-range surveillance and strike, as well as aircraft carriers that cannot launch powerful aircraft and submarines that lack endurance, will all fail to meet the test of combat.
In some war situations, the 800 sorties of the “cheap” fighter force would indeed be much more useful than the 60-80 sorties that the long-range, multipurpose fighters could provide. This would be so, for example, in a Battle of Britain setting, featuring the large-scale encounter of hundreds of aircraft all flying from bases nearby, and all fighting in confused daylight mass engagement. In such conditions, the ability of the heavyweight high-cost fighter to make long transits to battle would count for nothing, and equally its ability to fire radar-guided missiles would be useless, since the impossibility of identifying friend and foe would impose the need for visual combat. But as soon as we change the setting and demand long-range transits to the area of combat (as in the case, for example, of a war in the Persian Gulf), or if advanced weapons are needed to shoot down Russian bombers a long way away before they can launch their own missiles, the “cheap” fighter is revealed as almost entirely useless.
The same is true of all Other manifestations of the simple weapon in whatever form. There is bound to be much overlap between the abilities of the complicated and costly weapon and those of its simple counterpart. If the specific form of combat corresponds to that area of capability where both kinds of weapons can be used, then the larger numbers of simple weapons will indeed prevail, as the “reformers” claim. But then there are the further areas of capability that only the more complicated weapons can offer. At that point there is no longer a contest to be evaluated at all, since the simple weapon is totally outmatched.
It might therefore seem that both kinds of weapons should always be bought, and there is even a phrase in the jargon for such a practice, the “high-low mix.” But the question cannot be resolved on technical and economic grounds alone, weapon by weapon, except in extreme cases—such as the weapon too complex to work at all, or too weak to survive in any combat whatever. The question is in fact strategic and one must begin at the beginning, in a consideration of national strategy. The right “high-low” mix for, say, Korea will not do for the United States, and vice versa, if only because American forces would almost everywhere fight alongside allies who are in place (often with large conscript forces), so that in general it is the allies who can best provide the numbers, while what they need from us is precisely the smaller high-quality force of special capabilities.
If this particular issue in our defense is pursued at all seriously, we find that only a fully strategical appraisal can yield a valid answer. Beginning at the level of national strategy, one must proceed level by level to the intended theater strategies, to the operational methods that are envisaged (do we fight the enemy in air combat, or do we attack the enemy’s air power at its source, by attacking his airfields?), all the way down to the tactics of specific forces in particular situations. And the same, of course, is true of every other issue of significance, from the proper role of the Marine Corps to the proportion of our defense budgets that should be spent on intercontinental nuclear weapons.
This leads us to the third and most compelling reason for ignoring the politicians who campaign against “waste, fraud, and mismanagement.” For there is indeed something wrong with our defense policy and with the workings of our armed forces, and what is wrong is very serious indeed. But far from being a failure to hunt out irregularities and waste, it is the very opposite. The obsessive attention now being devoted to micro-management is the root cause of an evil far greater than any marginal inefficiency or any thievery could possibly be. For it leads to the neglect of strategy, of the operational art of war, and of tactics. Our civilian defense leaders and our senior officers alike are systematically distracted from the pursuit that should be their dominant business by a wrong-headed quest for paper efficiencies and marginal savings.
Since too many of our military leaders share the national passion for technology and delude themselves that there is a “technical fix” for every tactical problem; since social pressures have forced the officer corps into a civilian mold, with the prescribed model being that of the bureaucrat-in-uniform; since antique fears have prevented the formation of a “general staff” dedicated to the serious planning and study of war; and since it remains the national illusion that smart lawyers and problem-solving pragmatism can do anything, circumstances are in any case most unfavorable for the serious pursuit of strategy. But it is the compulsion exercised upon the whole defense structure in the name of efficiency that finally strangles what potential there is for the pursuit of strategic wisdom, operational ingenuity, and tactical art.
Was it more important that the French before 1940 save 10 percent in building the fortifications of the Maginot Line, or would it have been more useful to consider—at the level of national strategy—whether a defensive orientation for the French army was compatible with a policy of alliance with the small powers around Germany-countries which would need the active protection of an offensive French army to protect France in turn? Was it more important to make sure that the most cost-effective of all guns were chosen for the forts of the line, or would it have been more productive—at the operational level—to consider what Panzer divisions, i.e., small groups of tanks spearheading truck columns, could do to French defenses if they found a gap to penetrate in depth? Was it more important that some Monsieur Dupont or other not steal a few bags of cement from the depot, or would it have been more fruitful to study—at the level of tactics—the problem of antitank defense, and to discover perhaps that antitank guns will destroy single tanks but will not defeat tank forces (the illusion of the 1930’s) any more than the antitank missile can do so now (the illusion of the 1980’s, and just as widely shared)?
Similarly, is our taxpayer better served by a saving of a few million dollars in the purchase of a particular kind of helicopter for the Marine Corps, or would the citizen in him benefit more from the development of an up-to-date operational method for the employment of our intervention forces as a whole? If so, perhaps we might win the next encounter, instead of staging a large-scale repetition of the Iran hostage-rescue attempt (“Desert One”) with the Rapid Deployment Force. And so one could go on, in example after example, since the domination of micro-management is pervasive, and pervasively debilitating.
An objection will undoubtedly arise at this point. Why should proper bookkeeping detract from strategy? Why should the necessary management of our budget preclude the study of the different operational methods to be used in war? And why, finally, should the praiseworthy effort to minimize fraud interfere with the development of good tactics? After all, junior officials, clerks, accountants, bookkeepers, and investigators should take care of that sort of work, leaving all the higher civilian officials and the senior military officers free to attend to the strategical purpose of our forces and weapons.
Those who are spared from the knowledge of the real conditions under which the Department of Defense must operate, will find this objection compellingly plausible. From those who know better, it will evoke sardonic laughter or pleasurable fantasy. For the sad truth is that the attention of the senior figures in the Pentagon is monopolized by the mass of detail of the budget-making process itself, which runs right through the year in a perpetual cycle.
Each year by late January the budget must be presented to both houses of Congress; then the most senior civilian officials and many military officers will have to justify each item in elaborate presentations and argue many points in detail before the two major committees of each house and numerous subcommittees, in a process that continues for months. To prepare that January budget, each service branch and defense agency must sort out its own priorities several months in advance, and then present its budget proposal for detailed review again and again, before a multiplicity of internal authorities culminating in the Secretary of Defense himself. For each item requested, fully detailed justifications have to be prepared complete with the cost figures, the fullest possible exploration of all other possible alternatives, and detailed evaluations of the performance expected from whatever is being bought—and these justifications must themselves be reconciled and amended step by step going up from the branch or department level to the service or agency level, and then through the scrutiny of the Pentagon’s “systems analysts,” engineers, comptrollers, and lawyers. As this process unfolds, the Secretary of Defense, his deputy, and their staffs will be called upon to intervene at various levels before presiding formally over the final decision—when each major item must be reviewed once again if internal disagreements persist, as they often do.
Since Congress will eventually examine each line of the budget in great detail with its own very large staff of experts, lawyers, analysts, and accountants (with major items being further investigated by the General Accounting Office, the Congressional Budget Office, and even the Office of Technology Assessment), there is a most powerful pressure on the Pentagon to pursue efficiency, and to minimize “waste, fraud, and mismanagement” by the most minute scrutiny of every single item.
Congressional oversight there must be, but as it now operates, Congress offers no rewards whatever for tactical or operational innovation or for the development of a better strategy, while it penalizes most severely any error in micro-management. By the logic of the situation, and also because of the personal inclination of most Congressmen and their staffs, the whole focus of the review to which the Pentagon’s budget is subjected in the Armed Services and Appropriations Committees of each house (and their numerous subcommittees) is on the cost-accounting and legal details rather than on the purpose and meaning of our defense decisions. Five minutes of desultory conversation on the role of destroyer-sized warships in the present era of seapower may be followed by hundreds of hours of discussion on the merits of purchasing some weapon or other that is to be aboard a particular class of destroyers.
It is the great peculiarity of strategy that its issues can only be understood as a whole, that is, when matters are viewed in the broadest possible perspective—even if thereby the lesser detail is overlooked. But the nice young men and women who fill the greatly enlarged committee and personal staffs are not strategists, and they have found employment for themselves in arguing chosen points in minute detail and in trying to impose their own pet ideas, so that the Pentagon’s senior officials, military officers, and civilian experts must be in attendance at hearings that go on for weeks on end, and sometimes for months. Even so, the Pentagon’s decisions are not infrequently rejected, with staffs imposing their own judgments even in matters exceedingly technical.1 Inevitably, the knowledge that all these courts are waiting to judge its work affects the Pentagon most profoundly, and indeed it has been the decisive impulse in the gradual absorption of all energies in the budget-making routine itself.
The Pentagon’s priorities are certainly “distorted,” then, just as the critics claim, but not in favor of waging war, preferably nuclear, at the slightest excuse. They are distorted rather in favor of micro-management for the sake of civilian efficiency, as opposed to military effectiveness—a thing altogether different. The great irony is that the defense establishment is under constant pressure to maximize efficiency, and that its own leaders earnestly believe in that goal, when all along they ought to be striving to achieve military effectiveness, a condition usually associated with the deliberate acceptance of inefficiency.
Consider the divergence between efficiency and effectiveness in the employment of military manpower. Efficiency dictates that each individual should serve where his individual skills are most productive. Thus, for example, if we discover three gunners too many in one tank battalion and a shortage of the same kind of gunner in another battalion, we should promptly reassign the three men to the latter. Similarly, if we discover that one company is somewhat over-strength while another is short of men, we should immediately move the bodies around from one to the other to achieve efficiency. Then, too, one-soldier efficiency calls for the frequent removal of men from their units to attend skill-enhancing courses of all kinds. As for the reserves, efficiency prescribes that men be kept in reinforcement “pools” for individual assignment.
But an army’s companies and battalions are not production units. Their goal is not to make the most efficient use of their equipment but rather to fight—and men will not fight unless they are motivated in combat by the cohesion built up through the slow growth of comradeship and small-group solidarity. Military effectiveness therefore requires us to tolerate all manner of inefficiencies in order to keep the men together for as long as possible.
All who know anything at all about the essential nature of warfare will know that much; and indeed the vital necessity of achieving cohesion by forming fighting men into stable and intimate groups was already old hat by the time of the Romans—and was even given actual statistical proof more than a generation ago. But our “manpower managers” do not seem to know this, even though they are serving officers. Their pursuit of one-soldier efficiency (along with short volunteer enlistments and too many course assignments) has been keeping our forces in a crippling state of turbulence, which means that our soldiers are condemned to live among shifting bands of strangers—an environment that alienates, and which positively encourages violence and outright crime. Moreover, training becomes repetitive and boring for those few who do serve longer in a unit, since the same routines have to be practiced over and again every few months, to train the influx of new arrivals. In combat the price to be paid must be much higher.2
Quite recently, the Chief of Staff of the Army, General E. C. Meyer, reinvented this particular wheel, and has instituted daring new practices whose aim is to keep soldiers together for longer, in units that would be more stable—not without encountering much resistance from those who decry the inefficiency that will inevitably result.
The conflict between civilian efficiency and military effectiveness is so pervasive that it even applies to defense production where, one would think, efficiency should indeed be the only true guide. But consider a common case. Two firms are competing for a weapon-production contract on the usual basis, that is, cost plus fee. One firm is highly efficient: its floor-space is just about the right size, and all its machine tools will be fully utilized by working three shifts around the clock. The second firm is just as obviously inefficient: it is burdened by excessive capacity and it would work only one shift on the expensive machinery. Under present efficiency criteria, the first company will undoubtedly get the contract. But what happens if we actually need the equipment, that is to say, if we find ourselves at war? Then, surely, we would wish that we had given the contract to the second, “inefficient” producer, keeping it in business, for the latter would have an inherent industrial-mobilization potential in all that extra floor space and underutilized machinery. As it is, the greatest weakness of our overefficient military-industrial complex is precisely that we lack the ability to expand production quickly enough to meet the needs of a war situation—and even in a very short war we would need to produce such things as torpedoes and tactical missiles, to reload all those expensive submarines, ships, and aircraft. At present our stocks are absurdly small,3 and our industrial-mobilization potential is minimal.
But the crucial divergence between efficiency and effectiveness is most clearly manifest when we consider the central question of how the armed forces should be structured and equipped. Efficiency demands homogeneity and commonality, as opposed to what Congressmen would decry as wasteful diversity and duplication. Thus in the pursuit of mythical economies of scale and irrelevant efficiencies, our Air Force and Navy have repeatedly been pressed to accept a single standard fighter aircraft, even though the specific effectiveness of both the Air Force and Navy fighters would thereby be lost. In this one case, narrow-minded bureaucratic impulses have served us well (the “common” fighter yet remains to be seen), but the pursuit of standardization in combat units and in equipment has otherwise done much harm, by restricting our combat repertoires (we have no mountain infantry and no arctic infantry, although each is needed), and by depriving -us of the safety against technical countermeasures that only a diversity of equipment can provide.
Compare, for example, our antiaircraft forces with those of the Soviet Union. We equip all our ground forces with only one type of antiaircraft gun, one type of shoulder-fired antiaircraft missile, and just one type of full-size missile, which is supposed to intercept enemy aircraft in a wide band of altitudes, from the very low to the medium-high. The Russians, by contrast, have a wide variety of antiaircraft guns and missiles, each specialized in some way or other, with the low-altitude SAM-7’s, SAM-8’s, SAM-9’s and SAM-10’s, the high-altitude SAM-2’s and SAM-5’s, and medium-altitude SAM-3’s, SAM-4’s, and SAM-6’s. Our efficiency-oriented defense establishment, which has been spending vast sums for a decade to develop a truly optimal, all-purpose missile (“Patriot”), would recoil in horror before such wasteful diversity, and our congressional committees would never for a moment tolerate the gross inefficiency of all those different weapons and launchers, each of which requires its own expensive stock of spare parts and its own costly training and maintenance provisions.
But now consider not peacetime efficiency but rather effectiveness in combat. The Russian pilot who has to cope with our one missile may save himself if he has the right package of radar countermeasures, or else if he can fly too low for its specifications, or too high. But the American pilot is faced by a bewildering variety of weapons and has little chance indeed of evading them all. Even with the best of countermeasures he is not safe, since there are just too many different radar devices working against him, and some of the Russian missiles are guided by heat-seeking sensors, or even by plain visual guidance. And neither can the American pilot hope to fly high enough or low enough to evade the whole array of weapons, since with such diversity the Russians can have a missile specialized for very high altitudes, as well as shoulder-fired SAM-7’s, various cannon, and a vast number of simple antiaircraft machine guns, which threaten even the pilot who dares to fly at treetop height.
Bookkeeping is one thing and strategy another—and we have too much of one and too little of the other. For example, “interservice rivalries” have given us three quite different aircraft for the close air-support role: the Army’s attack helicopter, the Air Force’s A-10 (grossly overdesigned but still useful), and the Marine’s vertical takeoff Harrier. Instead of appreciating the value of this diversity for different terrains and different enemies, many in Congress are campaigning against the “wasteful duplication” of the three aircraft.
One could go on in this vein, but it should by now be obvious that the contradiction between civilian efficiency and military effectiveness is truly fundamental. The former belongs to the world of cooperative and constructive things, and is guided by the pursuit of optimality under benign assumptions (design a car that will work off the road, at extreme heights and in extreme weathers, and whatever else it may do it will not be fuel-efficient). The latter, by contrast, belongs to the world of conflict, where things must work under great stress (to go from A to B is easy enough, until one must do so under fire), and where above all there is an active will systematically seeking to undo all that one tries to achieve.
It is only when we fully recognize this central fact that the enormity of the defect built into our system of defense can be recognized. Under the pressure of a vast congregation of external agencies, of which Congress itself is only the most important; and under the internal pressure of civilian officials who know not war and think that it is reducible to economics, as well as of “demilitarized” military men who have lost sight of the essentials of their profession, our Defense Department and the armed forces themselves are not merely distracted from the large issues of strategy by the petty questions of micro-management, but they are in addition directed to pursue the wrong goal, namely, civilian efficiency. It is not surprising to find, therefore, that the best of our forces are precisely those which are most obdurately traditional and least “intellectual” (such as the Marine Corps in general and parts of the Army). For they have been the least affected by those pressures, and by the advent of “systems analysis,” which in effect institutionalizes the fatal displacement of war-effectiveness by mere efficiency. In the meantime, while so much attention is given to the 5 percent or 10 percent that efficiency issues define (and that wrongly), the core questions that only strategy can answer continue to be neglected—and they of course determine the utility of our entire effort.
One need not at this late stage belabor the poverty of our strategy—which after all reflects our beneficial national emphasis on individualism and welfare. Nor can we repudiate our preference for one-thing-at-a-time pragmatism, which indeed works so well for us in most areas of life, with strategy being almost alone in requiring the contrary method. But even if our nation is too constructive to be greatly strategical, even if we are too happy and too safe to devote earnest attention to the uses of force in peace and in war, there is a minimum of strategic competence that we must attain, and unfortunately we have not achieved even that for a long time.
It is, for example, amazing to contemplate the fact that we have not managed to frame a naval strategy worthy of the name now that the Soviet Union is actively challenging our ability to use the oceans in the event of war. In the pronouncements of our naval leaders one finds, to be sure, the odd reference to Mahan’s works and to his central theory—fittingly enough a theory long ago refuted. One finds also the frequent reiteration of the obvious: that sea transport remains indispensable for the United States since the American continent is bounded by wide oceans, while air transport can only carry small quantities (the entire 1973 airlift to Israel delivered less than one fair-sized ship could have done). But after that, what passes for “strategy” comes to an end, and there are only long lists of desiderata in the way of men and machines.
None of this can tell us what we urgently need to know: how can the United States recover that genuine naval supremacy which is one of the premises of our entire world policy? Since our chief antagonist on the planet happens to be lodged in the core of Eurasia, and does not strictly need to use the oceans while we must cross them to protect our vital interests, it is a true, outright supremacy that we need: anything less would mean defeat.
But we cannot hope to regain our naval power just by building ships. It is so much easier to deny the use of the sea than to assure safe passage that for each unit of resources the Soviet Navy spends we might have to spend ten or more. It is only by strategy that the unfavorable exchange can be avoided—just as the British so successfully did. Since our naval personalities are fond of evoking the memory of Britain’s once decisive naval supremacy, they might usefully begin to learn its real lessons. What Mahan celebrated in his well-wrought prose was not the true mechanism that made Britain supreme at sea but merely its visible result—a superior fleet. Submarines aside, the superior force of battleships could indeed, by definition, keep the enemy’s battleships impotent in port or sink them if they ventured out. Thus the enemy’s cruisers could not challenge British cruisers for fear of the battleships. And the cruisers could in turn keep the enemy’s destroyers from operating, so that finally a few British destroyers actually at sea would easily suffice to impose a stringent blockade on the enemy, even while Britain’s own oceanic traffic would continue unmolested.
Until the advent of the submarine, the architecture of naval power that Mahan described was valid, and his work was useful insofar as it explained clearly why the handful of big battleships would actually make all the difference even if they remained in port, totally inactive throughout a conflict. But Mahan missed the fundamental point. How did Britain acquire its superior battle fleet in the first place? Certainly it was not by an economic superiority, for otherwise the era of British naval supremacy would have lasted a mere fraction of its long span, those few years when their early progress in the industrial revolution could actually have allowed the British to outbuild any European coalition ranged against them.
The true source of British naval supremacy, which Mahan missed, holds a lesson that is still valid for us. It was the statecraft that kept the major powers of Europe divided into hostile camps which made Britain supreme at sea, because the high cost of the Europeans’ large armies precluded the building of powerful navies too. It was the ceaseless effort of diplomacy, the subsidies, the small but disruptive interventions, the bribes—and the willingness to change sides if their own allies became too powerful—that made the British so powerful at sea, and not the mere building of ships. (There was also a further and long-lived triumph of public relations in the successful advertisement of this policy as the “maintenance of the balance of power”—a phrase with benign connotations of parity and fairness which usefully disguised a policy that amounted to the stimulation of perpetual conflict.)
Needless to say, we cannot directly copy the British method, for neither our NATO allies nor the Chinese (let alone the Japanese) will seriously challenge the Russians on land and in the air to the point where they would have to restrict drastically their naval expenditures to pay for all else. But there is an alternative in our own domain, upon which a serious naval strategy might be soundly based.
Ever since 1945 the understandable Russian emphasis on the protection of the homeland from air attack has been manifest in the willingness to allocate huge resources for strategic air defenses. Our bomber forces of the 1940’s, 50’s, and 60’s were not cheap for us, but it is safe to estimate that for every dollar of resources that went into those forces the Russians spent four or five times as much, for thousands of fighter-interceptors, elaborate radar networks spanning perimeters of thousands of miles, more than 12,000 antiaircraft missiles, and countless guns. But from the mid-1960’s our bomber force has continued to decline in numbers, and in 1972, through the ABM treaty, we ourselves precluded a most useful drain on Russian resources. In the futile attempt to build defenses against ballistic missiles, the Russians would undoubtedly have spent vast resources which have gone instead into forces much more threatening to us, and notably their Navy. Acting in a fashion wholly unstrategical, we pursued for two decades the mirage of “strategic parity,” losing in the process the very great reciprocal force-building advantage that the Russian propensity to defend their airspace was giving us.
Now that we are building a new bomber at long last, as well as developing the yet more advanced “stealth” aircraft, and also deploying large numbers of cruise missiles, we have an excellent opportunity to rekindle the Russian interest in strategic air defenses—although it is only the abrogation of the ABM treaty that would give us the more powerful benefit of diverting really huge Russian resources into ballistic-missile defenses.
Since even for a Soviet Union that has finally become a military empire there are limits on the proportion of total resources that can be allocated to the armed forces; since the Soviet economy no longer grows at all rapidly; and since strategic defense has the highest priority while the Soviet Navy must have the lowest, there is every reason to believe that an energetic build-up in our own strategic-offensive forces would result in a sharp decline in the resources given over to the Soviet Navy.
What this means for our naval strategy is obvious enough. The key to the restoration of our supremacy is not to outbuild the Russians but to force them to build less altogether, since we must now spend several dollars for every dollar-equivalent spent on the Soviet Navy (whose role of sea-denial is naturally much easier than our role of sea control), while, on the other hand, every dollar spent on bombers and strategic missiles is likely to take away several dollar-equivalents of resources from the Soviet Navy.
Again, it is no accident that the appearance of substantially more ambitious and costly ships in the Soviet Navy (such as the Kiev aircraft carriers, the Kirov nuclear-powered cruiser, and the huge Oscar cruise-missile submarine) followed, with the usual ten-year building lags, our own disastrous renunciation of the competition in strategic-nuclear weapons—the one area of armaments where we have an inherent comparative advantage. And if we now want to recover that naval supremacy which remains indispensable, we have no other way to follow than the British scheme in a modern guise. But that is not the strategy we are offered; there is instead a call for a “600-ship Navy” on the grounds that our present “460-ship” Navy does not suffice. There is no doubt whatever that we need more ships, but to ask for numbers in so vapid a fashion only invites the still more vapid suggestion that we mass-produce large numbers of small ships. That would indeed be appropriate if our purpose were to defend our coasts or even shipping at sea. But it is not by small ships that our naval supremacy can be restored; it is only by forces so clearly dominant that they do not have to defend at all—and that is something that only a reciprocal strategy can achieve.
Those who know our Navy and are familiar with its relentlessly institutional outlook may regard with amusement the implied prescription that our naval leaders should themselves proclaim a strategy under which bombers and strategic missiles would have first priority—if need be at the expense of their very own ships. One may likewise doubt that the admirals of the Royal Navy in its great days ever understood why the Crown’s ministers were so generous in offering British gold to foreign kings or even Spanish peasants in revolt, while being so miserly in outfitting their own ships. But then the Way of Strategy is not given to all—and certainly not to those who would approach its truths from the perspective of a narrow-minded bureaucratic interest.
Now that the United States faces a strategic predicament of unprecedented difficulty, partly because of the pervasive effect of our loss of nuclear superiority, and partly because the Soviet Union has leapfrogged the boundaries of containment with its array of long-range intervention forces, and client troops, and with its outposts of aggression in Cuba, South Yemen, Vietnam, and Angola, the time has finally come when we can no longer get by unless we can devise truly strategical solutions, not only for our naval problem but for all our most pressing security problems. The simple, straightforward “logistic” approach followed since 1941, whereby all threats were to be defeated by mustering a sheer superiority in materiel and firepower, can only now guarantee defeat in the face of an opponent that can outgun us in all areas of the world adjacent to its territory.
In the Persian Gulf, for example, the full consequences of being greatly outnumbered are now upon us. By conservative estimates, the Soviet Union could employ twenty-five divisions in a move to the sea across Iran. Assuming ample warning,4 we could respond with a maximum of four divisions. It will be understood, of course, that the reality of Soviet intentions, whatever that may be, is scarcely relevant. Our problem would remain even if it could somehow be shown that not one member of the Politburo has ever suggested any move against the Gulf. For unless we can credibly counter the potential threat, it can all too easily become actual. And should the Soviet Union reach the Gulf it would ipso facto obtain control over the flow of oil from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and the rest. Those countries are not our allies but only our clients, and just as they look to us for protection now, they would promptly offer their clientship to the Russians, if Soviet power advanced to their doorstep across Iran uncontested by us. Since most nations in Western Europe, as well as Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, cannot do without the oil of Arabia, there would be little point in defending the security perimeters of Europe and East Asia if the Soviet Union were allowed to gain effective control over their oil supplies. In other words, the entire structure of Western security would be subverted by the extension of Soviet power to the Persian Gulf.
In such circumstances, it is essential that we insure that the region is well protected, and we certainly cannot risk our great stake on the presumption that for some reason or other the Soviet Union will refrain from doing what it could now do so easily. To be sure, some insist that the Russians will do nothing in Iran because they already have their hands full in Afghanistan. But one statistic suffices to demolish that theory, with its implied comparison between our own ruinous war in Vietnam and the leisurely imperial pacification now unfolding in Afghanistan: the ground forces now in Afghanistan amount to 2 percent of the Soviet total.
In the event of a Soviet invasion of Iran, the obvious and necessary American response would be to establish coastal lodgements on the Iranian shore of the Gulf, with a forward shield in the long chain of Zagros mountains beyond the coast. But how can we make such a move with any confidence when our maximum of four divisions would have to face an offensive of twenty-five?
Characteristically, there is nothing new about this imbalance of forces. Given the geographic advantage of the Soviet Union and its long-standing possession of an army much larger than our own, the ratio of forces would have been just as adverse ten, twenty, or thirty years ago. The great difference, however, is that we cannot any longer seriously rely on nuclear deterrence—which in the past would alone have sufficed to make a Soviet invasion unthinkable. Moreover, we have lost the further advantages of an uncontested naval supremacy and of a crushing air superiority—which we would certainly have had ten, twenty, and thirty years ago.
True, our surface naval force could still clear the seas of any Soviet forces afloat (thanks to the much-criticized large aircraft carriers). But the Navy’s ability to help out on land by giving air support is now prejudiced by the threat of missile attacks launched from Soviet long-range aircraft, and even more by the Soviet submarine fleet—these twin threats making all combat deployment in the region hazardous, and prohibitively so within the Gulf itself. Similarly, our first-line Air Force fighters still retain a wide margin of advantage in air combat, and given adequate bases nearby they could keep Soviet fighter-bombers from harming our ground troops. But again our airpower could not provide prompt, positive help for the ground battle because of the great strength of the Soviet antiaircraft units that would accompany each army formation. Our own ground forces have traditionally relied on powerful air support to make brute-force firepower tactics work, but in fighting the Soviet Army little of it would be forthcoming—unless and until the Soviet air defenses were first suppressed in a preliminary campaign.
Some will argue that we need not worry any further about the imbalance of forces and the resulting strategic and tactical problems. Any combat with the Soviet Army, some will say, would very quickly turn into a nuclear war, eventually intercontinental with weapons launched homeland-to-homeland until terminal destruction.
It is odd that those who dismiss the need to confront this and many other military problems by evoking the inevitability of a global nuclear war if any conflict occurs at all, still think of themselves as fervent advocates of peace and humanity. For in refusing to sanction an adequate effort in conventional defense they are in effect advocating our own immediate resort to nuclear weapons—which may indeed put us on the path to mass destruction.
Then there are those who believe—or affect to believe—that we need not prepare seriously for non-nuclear war with the Russians because they themselves would begin using nuclear weapons right away. It is certainly true that Soviet forces include nuclear weapons down to rather low echelons. But if it were their intention to fight us by tactical nuclear weapons from the very outset of a war, why do the Russians make the vast effort of updating and expanding their conventional forces?
The strategy that one may properly infer from the current pattern of Soviet force-building does not suggest an “all-nuclear” war scheme but precisely the opposite: the increasingly powerful intercontinental nuclear weapons of the Soviet Union are meant primarily to inhibit any use of our own. Similarly the greatly enhanced theater and tactical nuclear weapons are intended to deny us any resort to those weapons in protecting interests overseas. And finally, the Soviet Union’s superior ground forces are to fight and win without having to rely on nuclear weapons themselves, while we for our part can no longer defeat them by air power or appeal to the “higher court” of nuclear weapons. Only this aim can explain the rapid (and very costly) upgrading of the Soviet conventional forces with much new equipment in a broad armament effort which has accompanied the equally impressive build-up in nuclear weaponry.5
These circumstances obviously call for a novel approach to the whole problem of defending Arabia and the Gulf. Since a conventional U.S.-style deployment of Army and Marine divisions would merely guarantee our eventual defeat by the sheer weight of numbers, we must either develop a novel theater-defense strategy based on drastically revised tactics, or else we must seek some indirect alternative, such as a naval offensive that would altogether remove the contest from a part of the world where the Soviet Union has the great advantage of a direct territorial contiguity.
Either solution calls for much concerted strategic thought and operational planning by senior civilian officials and military officers working in concert. For if one starts with the present tactical repertoire and takes it as the only possible set of tactics, it is impossible to construct a plausible strategy for a land defense. But on the other hand, the military hierarchy will not offer alternative tactics (such as, for example, a light-infantry mountain defense) unless a strategy is first formulated that demands those very tactics.
Conversely, for an indirect naval response (for which the desired tactical repertoire is already in place) it is the strategy of the option that must be fully explored in all ramifications, including for example the response of our allies. How would they react to a defense of their oil supplies, if it required us to launch a worldwide attack on Soviet naval power?
Perhaps such solutions are feasible and desirable and perhaps they are not. But we must find some solution, and that will not happen until we can go beyond the minutiae of micro-management to focus instead on the intricate dialogue between strategy and tactics. It so happens we do have some excellent tacticians in the Army’s Training and Doctrine command, but their novel ideas will not be employed in our plans until that dialogue can uncover the new strategies which tactical innovation makes possible.
In theory we already have an institution dedicated entirely to such thinking and planning, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and their multi-service “joint” staff. But this organization embodies all the proclivities that one finds in an alliance of nations, whereby the severe choices that strategy imposes must always be compromised to accommodate a divergence of service interests. Officers detached for a tour in the joint staff from their parent service are under great pressure to take care of service interests in their work. After all, their career and promotion depend not on what they do for the Joint Chiefs, but what their own service thinks of them. Since every plan has some budgetary implications, since every force-decision and command arrangement will affect the bureaucratic interests of each service, obsessive attention is given to the allocation of fair shares for all. This is ruinous for our strategy. It precludes hard choices and all one-service solutions, even when these are most obviously needed.
Thus, for example, there is no reason why the Rapid Deployment Force should consist of units drawn from all four services under a multiservice command, with all the different layers of authority and all the complications thereby entailed—when in fact the Marine Corps alone could do the job, with other service elements attached if required, but under Marine command. That would greatly simplify the conduct of war operations, but it would also of course deprive the Army, Air Force, and Navy of a high-visibility and budget-enhancing role (and of numerous billets for generals and admirals). The “joint” system could never sanction such a thing: regardless of the patriotism of its members, the institutional purpose is not to plan for victory but rather to reconcile interservice rivalries—at any price.
The natural consequence of doing things “jointly” is to degrade everything to the lowest common denominator, for a meeting ground of diverse and competing institutions is no place for subtle strategic discourse or operational originality or tactical innovation. Worse, the “joint” system leads to the outright perversion of military plans and operations to accommodate divergent service interests. In this respect, the Iranian rescue attempt was the very model of what we can expect from the “joint” way of doing things: service interests were very fully safeguarded (only the Coast Guard went unrepresented in the gathering at Desert One), with each being present for its share of eventual glory; there was a luxurious abundance of commanders and command echelons, all set to argue with one another as unplanned events called for decisions; there was plentiful variety in such things as communication procedures, so that the Navy helicopters were under strict radio silence (some talk would have greatly helped in the sandstorm) while the Air Force crews chatted away; and finally the plan itself with its rare combination of unimaginative complexities could only have been formulated by the classic committee, its unique achievement being the violation of every single principle evolved in forty years of commando operations. The different services must of course be coordinated in some way; but there is a perfectly good alternative to the disastrous institution that civilians have built for our forces: it is called a General Staff,6 and it works.
The poverty of our strategy is not, however, entirely unrelieved. Quite recently, the much-publicized decision on the MX intercontinental ballistic missile demonstrated how much can be gained when the relentless progression of bureaucratic decision is interrupted and reversed by solid strategic thinking.
In January 1981, when the new administration arrived on the scene, the engineering bureaucracy in the Air Force and their colleagues in the Defense Research and Engineering Under-secretariat and, of course, the senior Air Force commanders and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs (an Air Force general) were all set to start the so-called “race-track” deployment scheme. Under this scheme each of 200 MX missiles was supposed to be provided with its very own ring-road in the desert, each road having 23 shelters among which the one missile could hide. This was the famous MX/MPS scheme chosen by Jimmy Carter. With a new administration known to be strongly “pro-defense” and whose leaders were also reputed to be inexpert, the engineers and bureaucrats and the Air Force chiefs were quite confident that the MX/MPS would be approved in short order.
Naturally the rumor had reached the Pentagon that President Reagan and his Defense Secretary, Caspar Weinberger, were less than euphoric over the MX/MPS scheme, but it was assumed that those gentlemen would soon come around to the view that there really was no alternative. The scheme, to be sure, was rather expensive (estimates floated between $30 and $50 billion, both too low), and it did look rather absurd, with all those costly roads and shelters for only 200 actual missiles.7
But even if costly and very intrusive, the MX/ MPS was mechanically sound. By moving about between the 22 shelters, each MX missile could be masked by 22 decoys at any one time, which meant that the Russians would need 4,600 accurate warheads on target to destroy the system—and indeed many more, to allow for malfunctioning warheads and those off course.
As far as the bureaucracy was concerned, there was no other way of preserving the American land-based ballistic missile force, with its special virtues of accuracy (as compared to submarine-launched missiles), promptness, and assured penetration (as compared to bombers), and ready controllability (submerged submarines are sometimes hard to reach, and their missiles cannot be retargeted as freely and reliably as in land-based forces). In sum, the bureaucratic process had offered up the MX/ MPS and no other alternative was ready, so that an administration that proclaimed the urgency of closing the “window of vulnerability” would have only that one choice.
Actually the MX/MPS was the conjoint product of two great forces, each of which grew ever more powerful during the 1960’s and 1970’s, usurping the place of strategy itself. The first of these was the quest for arms control in the American style—that is, as an end in itself rather than as a tool of strategy. This great urge was propelled both by the internal pressure of the government’s own arms-controllers (many of whom have dedicated their whole professional life to that pursuit) and even more by the external pressure of media and public opinion. Forever seduced by the alluring prospect of breaking the “mad momentum” of the “arms race”—as if it were some physical phenomenon and not the natural symptom of a competition between two systems of power and of values—the public remains insistent in its delusion, even while recognizing that there has been no “arms race” at all for many years, but only a one-sided Soviet military aggrandizement to which we have made a feeble and always belated response.
It was the imminent prospect of an arms-limitation treaty which would limit numbers that determined the size of the MX missile itself, making of it a large weapon with ten warheads, since only a “limited” number would be allowed. And similarly, it was the necessity for “verification” by satellite photography that shaped the specific features of the MPS deployment. In fact, that scheme was designed to cope with two separate Russians. The Good Russian, the sincere arms controller, had to be helped to identify each genuine MX missile, so that he could count them to insure our compliance with the treaty. But then there was the Bad Russian who would also want to identify each genuine MX missile, not to count them but rather to attack them with his own increasingly powerful missile warheads.
The MX missiles would thus have to be both visible and invisible, and the MPS scheme was an attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable: first, by allowing the missile to move between the shelters—but only within a closed-loop road, whose entrance would eventually be blocked by a great mound of earth once the system was assembled; second, by providing 23 shelters and decoy missiles for 22 of them—but then also having a sliding roof for each shelter, so that with prior notification all the roofs could be slid back in one ring-road at a time, thus allowing the Good Russian to “verify” that each 23-shelter site did indeed contain only one true missile.
The other great force that shaped the MX/MPS scheme was the unguided engineering ambition that luxuriates in the absence of sustained strategical discipline, or the serious pursuit of the operational art of war. An Air Force that has abandoned strategy to civilian experts, and which at the senior level has only a pro-forma interest in tactical and operational matters, has naturally become a science-and-engineering organization, devoted to the increase of technical performance for its own sake. As the only long-range ballistic missile in the Air Force’s keeping, the MX became the vehicle for all the various innovations that were found to be technically exciting over the years, from carbon-carbon fiber structures to all the latest refinements in propulsion and guidance.
The weapon thus produced by the perverse intercourse of arms controllers and engineers is naturally a very large missile, much too large to be moved about on normal roads by normal vehicles. Although usually described as “mobile,” it is merely movable, and then only by means of a huge transporter of special design.
This shortcoming of the MX is of crucial importance because in the presence of a Soviet missile force powerful enough to destroy thousands of targets even if both small and well-protected (and notably our missile “silos”), the simplest response would be precisely to build small and truly mobile missiles. Technically unexciting, but also cheap and reliable, a one-warhead missile (the MX has ten warheads, each separately targetable) could easily be made small enough to be moved about freely by truck, rail, helicopter, or by the common run of transport aircraft as well as by barge, large boats, all ships, or for that matter converted icecream vans. Thus the protection of the weapon by mobile concealment could be most easily and cheaply provided.
This path of development, however, was resolutely blocked by the arms controllers. Faithful to the pretense that the Russians would have to “verify” our missile force by satellite photography alone—as if they could not know just exactly how many missiles we were building by reading the Congressional Record, the technical or general press, or merely Pentagon news releases—the arms-control lobby insisted on having a large missile of classic form, which could not be hidden easily in the general flow of civilian traffic, or even moved about freely by ordinary military aircraft. And of course the engineering fraternity in the Air Force would have despised the notion of a missile that would be totally prosaic and entirely simple by the standards of such things (and also of course inefficient, since the ten warheads of the MX make it very “cost-effective”—until one faces the problem of deployment).
Finally, our senior military leaders also opposed the small missile. They recoiled before the public-relations problem of what they described as the “civilian interface,” namely, the possibility of protests if nuclear missiles being moved about were involved in road accidents and so on. Since safety devices and arming restraints on our nuclear weapons are so highly reliable that the danger of a detonation is truly negligible, that should have been a manageable difficulty—given a willingness to confront the matter squarely and to educate the public (the very thing that we are now asking European leaders to do for the theater nuclear forces, which would also have to move about in civilian areas).
With the natural solution of small, truly mobile missiles thus long ago closed off, Caspar Weinberger and his advisers were offered the MX/MPS as their only choice, a scheme mechanically sound and bureaucratically desirable but also strategically disastrous.
First, the cost of the 200 ring-roads, 4,600 shelters, and 4,400 decoys would have absorbed a great part of all the added money that the administration could hope to provide to restore our entire military strength across the board. Secondly, the cost-overruns and scandals that 200 separate major construction projects would unfailingly entail would have brought that much nearer the day of the inevitable reaction against higher defense spending.8
But the MX/MPS also had a third defect so fundamental that it alone should have sufficed to condemn the scheme. The very first rule of strategy is to evade the major and special strengths of an enemy (and then seek to attack his weaknesses). Yet the MX/MPS would have done precisely the opposite, by erecting an array to stand directly in the path of the greatest Soviet strategic strength. By building the 4,600 shelters, we would have provided the very targets that best suit Soviet land-based ballistic missiles, which are in turn the most powerful element in their strategic-nuclear array.
At present, to be sure, the Soviet missile forces could not yet destroy all the 4,600 separate aiming points of the MPS. But as we know full well, once the rigid industrial structure of the Soviet Union is finally geared up, it does produce very effectively indeed. By starting work on the MX/ MPS, we would therefore have invited the Russians to do what they do best: mass-produce weapons of established design. Having thus stacked the deck against ourselves, we were then supposed to cope with the threat by negotiating arms-control limits that would have kept the number of Soviet silo-killing warheads under the danger line—and that, of course, was precisely the great virtue of the MX in the eyes of some. It is often said that the advent of nuclear weapons has invalidated all the old wisdoms of war, but in this case, the most elementary of tactical principles would have served us well. In the presence of massed, accurate firepower, wide dispersal and free mobility are called for (i.e., many small missiles), and not the aggregation of valuable forces into a system of fixed targets.
Finally, the MX/MPS had the well-advertised defect of requiring large amounts of land (or rather several thousand small plots across vast areas). And this land would have been needed in a part of the country where the national defense is held in high regard—but where the preservation of the wilderness is equally valued.
Had Caspar Weinberger walked the path that the defense bureaucracy had marked out for him, and then settled down into the usual routine of micro-management, to seek marginal cost savings in the building of roads and shelters and to insure that no one would steal the odd bag of cement, the nation would have been provided with a solid if short-lived solution to the problem of Minuteman vulnerability. Our strength in land-based ballistic missiles would then have been reliably preserved, at least for several years—but only at ruinous cost. All our other military forces would have been deprived of funds greatly needed, and the loss would eventually have been compounded, since political support for defense in general would have been seriously eroded had the MX/ MPS been built. The enormity of spending tens of billions of dollars for the housing of just 200 missiles, and the grotesquerie of all those roads and shelters (and sliding roofs) could not truly have been explained away by skillful public relations because the fundamental idea behind it all was itself strategically unsound. By adding strength in one narrow sector of capability while undermining our military strength across the board, the MX/MPS was in fact a sublime example of a weapon scheme that the engineer might find irresistible, but which the strategist must refuse.
In the circumstances the crucial move was to reject the MX/MPS, even if no fully satisfactory alternative could be found. The small missile certainly could not be available soon enough: it takes years to engineer such a weapon, even if based entirely on proven technology, while the time of danger is now upon us. As for the other genuine long-term solution, the provision of ballistic-missile defenses, it was ruled out by the 1972 ABM treaty—and even if that unwise agreement is to be repudiated, that could not be done abruptly and so early in the life of the new administration.
Hence the MX itself had to be built, for it was the only new land-based missile actually ready for production; but without the MPS, there was no fully plausible way of basing the new missile. Weinberger attracted much criticism and some ridicule by proposing a bundle of technically dubious solutions, from the super-hardening of missile silos, to the exploration of deep-hole basing, to the “big bird”—a long-endurance aircraft which could keep MX missiles safe from attack, on airborne alert.
None of these schemes was a known quantity, for none had been engineered and studied in detail. None was likely to be cheap, though of course any and all would have to be cheaper than the MPS. None perhaps was seriously meant, but in the meantime even if placed in vulnerable Minute-man silos, the MX would offer some residual strike-back capability. If fifty MX missiles were built, and no more than five would survive a Soviet attack, those five could still launch fifty warheads, and that alone would be a not insignificant force for retaliation.
Eventually, either the small missile or a silo-defense ABM will inevitably be accepted to preserve our land-based missile capability over the long term. But in the interim, Secretary Weinberger’s makeshifts will do, just as in wartime the fight against German submarines was waged by converted fishing boats and improvised merchant-ship carriers, and not by the optimal antisubmarine vessels that the Navy might have desired, and which could not have been ready until long after the war.
Now that the predicament of weakness is upon us, now that we must finally pay the bill for the scientific mismanagement of the McNamara years, for all the bureaucratic follies of our armed forces in Vietnam, and for the carnival of self-hatred and elite irresponsibility that followed, we cannot assure our security by means of large defense budgets alone. Without them nothing can be done at all, but we also need a fundamental reappraisal of our strategy since our plans, our fossilized alliance arrangements, and the very structure of our armed forces are all based on outdated premises—and notably the implicit assumption of superiorities that we will not soon regain. New strategic solutions must therefore be found, and often they will only be suggested by new operational methods and new tactics—which only the active and persistent interest of our most senior officials can elicit.
But this great and urgent task cannot be accomplished unless the Congress in its wisdom drastically redirects its own attention, from the small issues to the large, from micro-management to strategy. The Constitution prescribes that Congress should manifest the will of the people in our defense policy as in all else, but surely the will of the people is more subverted than exercised when it is delegated to staff members who in turn seek to interfere in the most minute matters, upon which no body of electors could possibly hold any opinion at all. No great harm is done when a Congressman intervenes to protect constituency interests, but once the military base back home is well secured, once the contract for the needy producer is duly obtained, let the remaining time be given over to the broad issues that truly count, and not to the petty matters that Congress now belabors, thus compelling the Pentagon to do likewise.
What this republic badly needs in its defense establishment is the wisdom of strategy and certainly not better “management” or yet more “efficiency.” That is why we must reject the suspect prescriptions of James Fallows and his ilk, who would launch us on a quest for cheap solutions to problems that admit none, and for more things to cut from the budget (that being the purpose all along). And that is why we must firmly resist those politicians who refuse to fund our greatly overdue rearmament even while proclaiming their new-found enthusiasm for a “strong America,” and who resolve the contradiction between true opinion and public stance by claiming that it is the “fat” they want to cut.
If the price of a wise strategy, of better operational methods, and of more ingenious tactics is indeed the neglect of micro-management, then so be it. We would then have good reason to welcome a little more “waste, fraud, and mismanagement” in the Pentagon.
1 E.g., for Fiscal 1982 the House Appropriations Committee recommended inter alia that the Air Force not proceed with parts replacement for the J57 engine for the KC-135 tanker; instead it proposed that JT3D engines be purchased until GE/SNECMA CM56 engines become available.
2 In Vietnam, a feckless military leadership was content to treat the fighting units as mere organizational aggregates filled by an endlessly rotating flow of individuals each serving his own twelve months—so that our soldiers were asked to fight and die among strangers. Considering this atrocious practice, what is amazing is that the troops fought at all, not that there were some desertions or acts of violent indiscipline. In the Iranian rescue attempt the fundamental error was willfully repeated. In that parody of a commando operation, men of four different services were involved (Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps)—when serious planners would have hesitated greatly before even mixing the men of two different companies from the same battalion.
3 In 1973 the Israelis seeking emergency resupply could not believe how little we had in hand. Since then, underestimated budgets have continued to be balanced during the fiscal year by cuts in the purchase of ordnance and ammunition, and our stocks of such “consumables” remain very small.
4 Which would only be forthcoming if the Soviet Army chose to recall reservists to fill the ranks of the divisions already deployed nearby, as opposed to leading the advance with full-strength divisions brought in from elsewhere.
5 In the last ten years alone, we have seen the introduction of a whole new array of armored vehicles, the very expensive conversion of much Soviet artillery from classic towed pieces to self-propelled weapons, and the substantial (and especially costly) upgrading of antiaircraft forces already very strong. In the air, the mass of cheap day fighters of the 1960's has been replaced by much more capable aircraft with considerable offensive potential.
6 I.e., a body of officers who have risen high in their respective services to a given entry point; upon joining the General Staff, their future career is entirely within its own ranks and wholly independent of their services of origin. A sentimental affiliation will naturally remain, but soon enough the “non-service” General Staff would develop its own corporate spirit, and thus a substantial independence from service particularism.
7 These missiles would have provided 2,000 separate warheads, in direct succession to the 2,100 warheads present on the 1,000 Minuteman missiles, now made vulnerable by the inexorable increase in the number of Soviet warheads, and their accuracy.
8 We do have a clear record in such matters: the five-year surge of World War II, which was followed by a disastrously abrupt abandonment of effort; the three-year Korean-war upsurge, which might well have prevented that war had it come sooner; and the Kennedy build-up that was exhausted by 1964—more or less when the Russians began to build their strategic-nuclear forces in earnest.