The Pentagon's Worst Enemy Is Itself

Cold-war thinking dominated the recent quadrennial review, ruling out a truly forward-looking plan

Will the Pentagon be ready to deter - or, if necessary, fight - 21st century wars?

If the Defense Department sticks with the view of the future posited by its Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), America will get a military in 2005 that looks very much like the one we have today, what we had almost a decade ago in Desert Storm, and what we wished we had had two decades ago. So far as the Pentagon's concerned, it's business as usual.

If the world were the same as it was a decade ago when there was a Soviet Union, the QDR's "vision" of what we need might not be too bad. But take away the notion of a static world, and the QDR - which was to be the initial step in the national discussion on the kind of military we need - is a hesitant, stumbling beginning.

Saving the old military

Rather than seizing the opportunity to move quickly to a new, qualitatively superior military, the Pentagon has chosen to save as much of the cold-war military as a flat budget will allow. Arguing there is no alternative but to maintain enough capability to fight two "major theater wars" - essentially the way we would have done 20 years ago - the Defense Department has opted to keep a slightly thinned-out version of today's force structure, replace the equipment that is wearing out, and add some big-ticket new tactical aircraft. It says it can do this with the money it hopes to save with reductions in the reserves and the support infrastructure.

A defense built on the QDR will keep most of the special interests inside the five-sided building from grumbling too much. The Army keeps its current number of active force divisions. The Navy hangs onto its current level and mix of combat ships, and gets most of the new version F/A-18s it demanded. The Air Force gets the F-22 replacement for its F-15s. The Marines keep their active duty numbers well above what even the Bush administration once said was more than enough. The services will maintain pretty much the same number of flag and general officers.

The biggest gap is the failure to consider seriously how the United States could leap ahead by incorporating existing revolutionary military technologies into its force structures and doctrine. Defense Secretary William Cohen says it isn't so - that the course chosen was the best among the options of making no changes and making so many as to be unable to meet current demands. But the military is always changing, however glacially, and no one wants to suddenly abandon today's commitments. It's simply the old bureaucratic trick of proposing ridiculous extremes to make the option you've already decided on appear best.

So eight years after the Berlin Wall fell, the nation still awaits a serious assessment of where we should go in national security affairs. Recent Progressive Policy Institute reports outlined a more detailed approach to what our military doctrine and forces should look like.

It called for:

* Accelerated integration of advanced technologies, offering dramatically better (1) intelligence collection, surveillance, and reconnaissance, (2) command, control, communications, and intelligence processing, and (3) longer-range, accurate, precision weapons;

* Reductions in Army active force structure to allow more rapid organizational change;

* Tiered levels of readiness to allow greater experimentation with different ways of fighting;

* Consolidation of air power assets;

* Modest ballistic missile defenses;

* Greater reliance on reserve components for overseas presence and peacekeeping.

This approach would lead over the next decade to a more flexible, coordinated military geared toward likely threats - one that takes advantage of our technological superiority while costing less than we spend today.

Opportunity squandered

Unfortunately, the Pentagon's QDR failed to consider such possibilities, preferring to justify past decisions rather than address the future head on.

By simply confirming the past force structure and operational doctrine on the assumption of future savings, the department has set the stage for either a hollow military or a significant rise in the defense budget early next century. More important, it has squandered an opportunity to do much better.

It is essential that the American people and their representatives address significant options to the status quo. That was the intent of Congress when it created an independent National Defense Panel to pose an alternative to the QDR, which will now go to work. We need the in-depth, serious discussion on the future of American military affairs that the Pentagon shrinks from undertaking.

* James Blaker is a fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington.

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