Two decades ago a distinguished general brought out the call for a thoroughgoing reappraisal of America's defenses which he had retired as Army chief of staff to write. The title of Maxwell Taylor's "The Uncertain trumpet" echoes today, as doubts about the quality of American preparedness are raised anew after the military's failure to bring off its one crucial mission during the Carter administration, the rescue raid in Iran. General Taylor's specific suggestions drew controversy. But the need for clarification, assessment, the matching of military means to changing military requirements, the enlisting of the public in a national security venture that has been fully explained to it -- this need remains. We urge President Carter to take the lead in this endeavor without waiting for another general to leave office in order to sound the trumpet for him.
Neither the American people nor others dependent on US military support can take much reassurance when they hear of the administration maneuver reported last month. To stick to the letter of its pledge to increasem military spending by 3 percent in real terms for fiscal 1981, the White House and Pentagon decided to decreasem the budget for fiscal 1980. However justified the cut might be for other reasons, the public was left with the impression that actual defense needs are neither here nor there when it comes to making the books come out right.
Similarly, when legislators wanted to boost the 1981 budget by $5 billion over administration increases -- and the Pentagon says it doesn't want the money -- the public might be excused for wondering just what is needed for national security and why.
First-rate manpower is obviously demanded. From all accounts there was no questioning of the courage and military skill of the Iran raiders. As for the question of whether the breakdown of the helicopters reflected a widespread lack of maintenance abilities in the military, Mr. Carter suggested no general conclusion could be drawn: Whatever the state of maintenance and equipment in general, this mission would have had nothing but the best available.
Yet reports persist of overworked, underpaid maintenance personnel in a volunteer military that does not recruit all the manpower with all the skills it needs. Should the shape of American preparedness include substantially increased incentives for people to join the armed forces? Or should a peacetime draft be instituted rather than simply registration to marginally speed up mobilization in time of emergency?
First-rate equipment is another obvious requisite. Analyzing specific American strategic and tactical needs -- then prescribing the precise equipment and forces to meet them -- this fundamental need gets overshadowed in public discussion by how much Moscow is spending and how much Washington is spending.
Sheer spending is not the answer. It is the bang for the buck, to put it slangily. And some voices, such as physicist Philip Morrison at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, argue that deep cuts in spending could be made while improving US defenses through the use of technologically advanced weapons carefully calibrated to their uses.
Microelectronics makes possible the new "smart" weapons or "precision-guided munitions." Pentagon research chief William Perry is heading up work on a so-called "assault breaker" guided missile that could make the tank obsolete. He has said that technology is America's "strongest" advantage, that the US is moving rapidly toward three objectives: "to be able to see all high-value targets on the battlefield at any time; to be able to make a direct hit on any target we can see, and to be able to destroy any target we can hit."
The forthcoming NAVSTAR system of satellite navigation, with its great increase in accuracy, is expected to alter strategic thinking by, for example, making submarine-based missiles more accurate. Does this mean an advantage for putting the MX on a fleet of submarines rather than in the vast, complicated structures proposed for Nevada and Utah in the face of local opposition?
Such are some of the questions that might be embraced in the kind of basic reappraisal the country requires in today's changing military climate as much as it did under the impact of change 20 years ago. The manifest concern of the public in the international situation makes the moment ripe for the President and Congress to sound the call for strengthening national security with such a reappraisal -- and the shared effort to act effectively on it. Here is a test of leadership beyond budgetary politics.
One thing that has not changed over the years is the necessity of seeing national security as more than a military challenge. Rather, it is a challenge to the American people to maintain the attitudes and the standards of conduct that counter "the enemies within" and thus contribute to national security in the most basic sense. As General Taylor wrote long after "The Uncertain trumpet ," having returned to the Pentagon and left it again:
"We should have learned by experience that government cannot give us happiness -- at most, only the opportunity to pursue it. National security is a similarly elusive goal and its achievement is equally beyond the gift of government and dependent on the character and quality of the people who would enjoy it."