US defense -- some bad answers

The state of the American armed forces will be high on the agenda, and right so, when Congress returns to work later this month. There is a serious question whether the all- volunteer force is working, or can be made to work at an acceptable cost.

The NAvy's ships are becoming fewer and older while experts argue over whether its new ships ought to be a few big ones or more little ones.

The Air Force is discovering so many bugs in its hottest plane, the F-15, that one-third to one-half of them are inoperational on any given day.

The armed services as a whole are perhaps the nation's biggest victims of inflation. Horrendous cost overruns have become routine. But even so, the biggest -- and growing -- single item in the defense budget is pay and allowances.

The NATO force structure is still essentially what was designed in the 1950s and 1960s. Steps were taken to correct this last month with agreement to install medium-range missiles in Western Europe and to remove some of the 7,000 American tactical nuclear weapons.

But this is the only item in a long list of defense problems that is addressed in the President's new proposals. The other major elements in that package are the MX missile and the "rapid deployment force." These are bad answers to the wrong questions.

The Mx follows from the administration's conclusion that improved accuracy of soviet missiles is increasing the vulnerability of Minuteman missiles based in the United States and that this, in turn, raises the prospect of a Soviet first-strike capability.

There is no reason to doubt that Soviet missile accuracy is improving, but there is every reason to doubt that this threatens the Minuteman. For this threat to be real, both we and the Soviets would have to believe that they could hit 1,000 small, widely separated targets almost simultaneously. It is hard to imagine that either Carter of Breshnev really believe that, or that their successors will believe it in the foreseeable future.

This act of credulity is matched only by the equally wild belief that the MX will work. The idea is to haul a missile around a bunch of otherwise empty launchers in Nevada and Utah so that the Soviets won't know which launcher holds the missile. It's a science fiction version of the old shell game. Rube Goldberg would have been proud of the contraption, but it's sad, in a way, to see otherwise sensible people take it seriously.

The rapid deployment force is in part the result of frustration over the hostages in Tehran and in part a response to Soviet-Cuban adventurism. The idea is not a new one. Something very similar was proposed by the Johnson administration and scuttled in the Senate mainly by the late Richard Russell, then chairman of the Armed Services Committee and one of the strongest friends the Pentagon had. The idea is not any better now than it was then.

The trouble with it is that it is not an adequate answer to the problem it is supposed to solve -- that is, turmoil in the third world. Despite the fact that the Iranian Government has given the United States a casus bellim in the strict sense of international law, military action has rightly been viewed as the least effective option and the one most dangerous to the hostages.

As part of the rapid deployment force, the President wants a fleet of maritime prepositioning ships" which would be crammed with supplies and anchored near where the planners think they might be needed. But where, exactly? What countries are going to accept them? Who is going to protect them from terrorists, mobs, and other unfriendly people? They would be more likely to incite turmoil than to calm it.

The turmoil is not a military problem; it is a social, economic, and political problem. Given the peculiar mix of rigidity and fragility in most of the third world's social, economic, and political systems, and given the increasing strains to which these systems are subject, it is hard to see the turmoil getting anything but worse. In particular instances, it may get so bad that lightning military operations are called for -- to evacuate Americans, for example.

The Army and the Marines need more mobility, but Congress will perform a public service if it looks at the rapid deployment force a long time.

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