Shaping up the Pentagon

Now that the special session of Congress has taken an unusually careful look at the administration's defense budget - going so far as to reject proposed funding for MX weapons procurement - lawmakers and the general public should be no less zealous in looking at another aspect of the US military establishment: reform of the inefficient command structure. As we noted on this page earlier this year, Gen. David C. Jones (who recently retired after a four-year stint as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) is calling for such reform. But General Jones is only one of a growing body of national security experts who believe that the intense rivalry between the services - the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps - is a key factor fueling the Pentagon's spiraling defense budgets and frustrating the type of comprehensive long-range strategy and planning most needed to ensure a strong military posture.

This lack of coordination has led to such incongruities as the fact that the US Navy has one of the largest overall defense budgets although it is one of the smallest services in terms of manpower; that in numbers of aircraft the US Army has an air force comparable to the US Air Force; and that interservice functions like the airlift and sealift programs tend to be ignored in the tug and pull of the services for defense dollars for big ticket items like the MX missile (for the Air Force), new attack carriers (for the Navy), new M1 tanks (for the Army), new AV-8B Harrier vertical takeoff jets (for the Marines). The rivalry for defense funds between the services often overshadows the larger rivalry with the Soviet Union.

Granted, there is something to be said for preserving a modicum of old-fashioned competition within the military - to ensure innovation in an institution that by its very nature tends to be rigid and bureaucratic. But the struggle for dollars now underway can no longer be justified at a time of soaring deficits.

The Pentagon might well consider the following reforms:

* Strengthen the authority of the chairman of the five-member Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), as recommended by General Jones. That could mean providing for an assistant chairman responsible to the chairman and boosting the chairman's now modest staff.

* Limit the role of the four service chiefs to administration rather than planning.

* Provide for greater interservice command experience.

* Give the National Defense University greater jurisdictional supervision over the various service war colleges. Staffs should rotate between the colleges. Courses should be geared to considerations of national - as distinct from service-oriented - strategy.

* Upgrade the Pentagon's Office of Program Analysis and Evaluation (set up by Robert McNamara back in the Lyndon Johnson presidency), giving it a more strategic, long-range mission. Each proposed weapons system should be examined on its fiscal merits, as is currently the case. At the same time analysts should always be looking for features of commonality in weapons programs. That means, for example, seeking aircraft that could be adapted for use by both the Navy and Air Force.

Restructuring the Pentagon to make it more efficient need hardly be viewed as tampering with a sacrosanct national institution. The JCS was set up only in 1942, patterned largely after the British military command structure. Given the civilian control of the military provided for in the US Constitution itself, the nation's political leadership should be exploring all possible ways of making the military as efficient as possible. That means doing something about quelling the rivalry within the Pentagon that is now affecting the nation's economic-well being - and possibly the nation's security as well.

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