Defense: Buck Rogers or common sense?

The US Congress, cheered on by both major party presidential nominees, seems intent on doing almost everything wrong with respect to national defense. Short of an improbable outbreak of common sense, we are likely to get what we do not need and not get what we do need.

What we do not need are more complicated new weapons systems of dubious reliability, especially the MX. What we do need is the capability to make the systems we've already got work and the force structure to give us some credibility in dealing with a threat less awesome than the end of the world.

True, Congress has taken steps to improve military pay and benefits, a necessary condition to stopping the drain of skilled technical personnel from the armed services. But it is also whooping and hollering to approve not only the MX but just about every other Buck Rogers idea the military industrial complex can dream up.

The concept of the MX was born from the discovery that improvements in the accuracy and payload of Soviet missiles have made the American land-based missile force vulnerable to a Soviet first strike. This presumed vulnerability has come to be accepted as the premise from which strategic discussions start, but it is in fact highly dubious.

The American land-based missile force consists of 1,000 Minutemen and 53 Titans. Leave aside the Titans; they are a bigger threat to Arkansas than to Moscow. To assume Minuteman vulnerability to a first strike, one has to assume Soviet capability of hitting 1,000 targets within a very few minutes and with pinpoint accuracy. One also has to assume Soviet confidence in that capability with respect to weapons which have never been fired except in tests.

Even if one makes these assumptions, the US would still have the Polaris and Poseidon submarine-launched missles and the airborne nuclear warheads carried by the Strategic Air Command. If the Minutemen are indeed vulnerable, it would make far more sense to augment the force of missile-launching submarines and maybe even to develop a new strategic bomber to replace the B-52 than to develop the MX.

Consideration of US defense needs is seriously inhibited by the tendency to get bogged down in the sterile numbers game of what the US has versus what the Soviets have.This obscures the more important question of what the US needs -- that is, of what the American armed forces are likely to be called on to do -- regardless of what the Soviets may have.

A year ago, President Carter was announcing a more conspicuous American naval presence in the Caribbean. So far, this has not amounted to much more than the Coast Guard patrolling the Florida Straits in a vain attempt to keep Cubans in Cuba.

Later, the President extended the American protective unbrella to the Persian Gulf, announced creation of the Rapid Deployment Force, and promised a greater naval presence in the Indian Ocean.

All of this stretches the Navy very thin; and what with its other responsibilities in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Mediterranean, it was stretched thin to begin with. If the Rapid Deployment Force ever has to be deployed, it will stretch the Army and Marines too thin as well -- not to mention the Air Force whose job it will be to get them wherever they are going.

Meanwhile, NATO forces in Western Europe require attention, and 40,000 American troops are sitting in an unstable situation in Korea.

These are the problems of force structure, equipment, and weapons which need to be addressed in this political autumn of 1980. That they are being almost totally ignored by Congress and the presidential candidates (less ignored, it must be said, by John Anderson than by Carter and Reagan) is symptomatic of a serious weakness in the American political system.

The theory of that system is that periodic elections provide an opportunity to sharpen and define issues so that the people can make a choice among alternative policies. In fact, the approach of an election has the oppsite effect. The federal government starts a new fiscal year today because Congress did not want to face the issues involved in budgetmaking before an election; it preferred to paper them over and postpone them. While Congress is caught up in (and is contributing to) a near national hysteria over defense, only Secretary of State Edmund Muskie is still saying that SALT II ought to be ratified. In a way, it's too bad he's not still in the Senate.

One can only hope that somehow we will get from here to January and that some of the programs we are now being promised will then go the way of Jimmy Carter's 1976 pledge to cut the Defense Department budget. The danger is that by that time too much money will already have been appropriated for the wrong things to turn it around.

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