The real defense issues

Recently the Senate passed a record defense bill of $136.5 billion. It incuded some weapons programs we would be better off without, such as the F-18 naval aircraft. But it also added some programs which could take the United States in new directions, programs such as small aircraft carriers, nonnuclear submarines, and light armored vehicles.

Compared to its predecessors, it's not a bad bill. But despite the new Republican majority in the Senate, it's not very different from previous defense bills. That is what makes it dangerous. We've become so used to certain patterns in defense bills and in the way Congress looks at defense that the great deficiency of this bill is likely to be overlooked. The deficiency is the absence of correlation between the equipment programs funded in the bill and what history suggests is important for an effective military for winning wars.

The bill provides more of the same general kinds of ships, planes, and tanks we have been designing and buying for decades. The changes in defense bills year to year are not in the kinds of weapons, but in their technological complexity. And we pay for the technological complexity with soaring program costs and declining readiness.

The history of war suggests we should seek rather different characteristics in new weapons:

* Emphasis on change in kind, not just change at the margin. A plane or tank which performs 10 percent better than its predecessor creates few problems for our opponent. We need to focus on change which creates whole new situations, change which makes many of the opponent's assets, forces, and tactics obsolete.

Historical examples include the rifled musket, quick-firing artillery, the machine gun, the submarine, and the tank. Opportunities for this kind of innovation are hard to find, but finding them is even harder for those fixated on reproducing "more of the same" with slightly greater performance at the cost of more complexity and money.

* Quantity. In war, numbers count. Germany had the best fighter aircraft and tanks in World War II. But it had relatively few of them. American and Soviet tanks and planes, individually inferior but far more numerous, rolled over them. With its emphasis on $3.5 billion aircraft carriers, $650 million submarines, $40 million fighter planes, and $2.5 million tanks, this year's authorization bill makes it unlikely we can have the numbers we need. Less costly initiatives in the bill, such as light carriers, diesel submarines, and light armored vehiles, are steps in the right direction, but such programs are still few and seldom get institutional military support.

* What one might call "usability": the ability to function in bad weather, in the mud, in the hands of real soldiers, without much maintenance -- in short, the ability to work in war. Much of our equipment does well in tests, in peacetime, under controlled conditions. But how will all of its complexity, and resultant fragility, fare in war? Clausewitz warned that in war all things are simple, but even the simplest thing is extremely difficult. As our poor readiness rates show, using and maintaining much of our equipment is not simple even in peacetime.

Even more fundamental is the fact that battles and wars have usually not been won on the basis of equipment characteristics. More important have been such things as unit cohesion, doctrine and tactics, the command system, officer selection and education, and the institutional structures of the armed services. The Congress gives these factors little consideration. Does this mean the Armed Services Committees of the House and the Senate are satisfied with our current but outdated "firepower/attrition" doctrine in land warfare, that we have evaluated it against the "maneuver" doctrine and found it superior? That they truly believe an officer education system which teaches little military history and much management is most likely to develop officers who understand the art of war? That the bureaucratic organizational model of three of our four services results in the institutional behaviour a successful military needs?

Or has our defense debate, in the Congress and in the Pentagon, simply failed to focus on what wins wars? I think this is in fact the case. No one is to blame; this is the kind of situation that develops largely unnoticed.

But a growing number of people, grouped loosely under the banner of "military reform," have noticed and are seeking to change the terms of the debate by asking the right questions and raising public awareness of the real defense issues.

I believe the reformers will succeed, and that the defense debate of the 1980 s will be fundamentally different from the "more is better vs. less is better" debate of the past decade. It will focus less on management, on funding levels, and on what the services want, and more on the strategy, doctrine, and concepts. It will be driven by those who ask in the areas of defense what President Reagan asked the Congress in his recent address on the economy: "Isn't it time that we tried something new?"

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