Goliath and the Exocet. Have Americans gone soft?

DO Americans trust too much in technology to protect the nation's security? The USS Stark incident is a reminder that human beings - not machines - are ultimately decisive in war. When did United States armed forces last perform with skill, daring, and effectiveness? The question puts into perspective the inability of the Stark to fend off two Exocet missiles and raises doubts about the thrust of the US defense program.

Historians must think back quite a way to recall battles in which US forces operated in a superior fashion. What leaps to mind instead are the embarrassments - the bumbling invasion of Grenada, the clumsy shelling by battleships of suspected terrorists in Lebanese hillsides, and the failure of the Iranian hostage mission.

US forces fought well at times during the Indochina war, but the last outstanding US military operation was probably the amphibious landing that Gen. Douglas MacArthur directed at Inchon on the Korean coast in September of 1950.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff feared the move too risky and refused to approve it until North Korea's advance southward had been halted, whereupon General MacArthur forbade any further US retreat. When the Joint Chiefs continued to stress the risks, MacArthur declared: ``We shall land at Inchon and I shall crush them.'' In late August, Washington approved MacArthur's plan and soon he was proceeding with two blows - landing at Inchon to sever the main line of North Korean communications while mounting another attack across the 38th parallel.

Without specialized landing craft the Inchon, attack would have been unthinkable. But battles and wars cannot be won solely by technology. Humans must still decide when and where to turn on the systems and what to do if they malfunction.

The Stark's problems show how dangerous it is to place confidence in high-tech devices. The Stark's sensors work best against attackers kind enough to approach from the rear. But the Stark's commanders failed to turn her stern to the attackers; her radars were blinded.

Even more important than the fact that the Stark's captain stopped off in the head was the lack of a sound rationale for sending US forces into this combat zone. Why are US ships keeping sea lanes open for oil intended mainly for Europe and Japan? The US claims neutrality in the Iran-Iraq war, but it has tilted toward one side and then the other. US strategy seems no more sound than the earlier scheme to curry favor of Iranian ``moderates'' by shipping them arms.

Despite a $2 trillion arms buildup under President Reagan, the US staggers around the world's battlefields like a clumsy Goliath, its heavy armor unavailing against the smooth stone hurled at its exposed forehead by a small David. Washington, like Moscow after the Cessna incursion, explains that ``there are blind spots in our defenses'' - the same answer the Philistines probably gave after their giant was struck down and then beheaded with his own sword.

To entrust our safety to advanced weapons comes naturally to a nation of inventors and pragmatists. The US produced the first ironclad ships, the first modern submarines, the machine gun, and the first atomic bomb.

America exploited its industrial and technological strengths, as well as its geographical remoteness, to save US lives during World War II - keeping US deaths to 1/40th the Soviet total. Demobilizing after the war, Washington threatened massive nuclear retaliation against challenges to Western security. The Pentagon has gone on to threaten tactical nuclear warfare and ``decapitation'' through selective targeting.

The US also sought to apply high-tech warfare in Vietnam, though with limited success. In the '60s I occasionally asked soldiers headed for Vietnam if they had been trained in judo or some other kind of hand-to-hand combat; few were. ``We plan to shoot the enemy before he gets close'' was the common reply.

Later investigation showed that many US troops were killed never having fired their weapons, sometimes because they jammed. Americans did not lose in Indochina from lack of advanced weaponry; and Hanoi did not prevail because its tanks and airplanes were superior. The outcome was decided in large part by intangibles such as cost tolerance, the ability to persevere through pain and difficulty.

The Soviet Union has also made an idol of technology. The last time the Red Army performed brilliantly was probably in 1943, when it launched a broad counteroffensive at Kursk-Orel. Stalin's generals employed a massive deception - dummy planes, tanks, and trenches - to leave Hitler unsure just where Soviet forces were deployed. They lured him into attacking and then beat him at his own game: panzer warfare backed with tactical air support.

While the Soviets performed efficiently in invading Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Kabul in 1979, they encountered little resistance. Now they are stalemated in Afghanistan - not for want of helicopters and flame throwers, but because the mujahi-deen, like the North Vietnamese, fight as though they have little to lose - and only heaven to gain.

Indeed, the Soviets' performance is poorer than the Americans' in Vietnam. The late 1980s for the Kremlin resemble the late 1960s for the White House. Despite party control of the Soviet media, cost tolerance begins to wear thin as the burdens mount from this prolonged bloodletting. Soviet society today is much softer than during World War II; the inability of the Soviet military to respond quickly to the South Korean airline and Cessna incidents reveals just the tip of a mushy iceberg.

Americans, even more than Russians, tend to emphasize just one factor - armament - hoping that technology will provide a panacea. ``Star wars'' and ``smart weapons'' sound like painless security belts, but the US will need a lot more than lasers and kinetic weapons to ensure its vital interests.

If $2 trillion won't do the trick, what does the US need? A wise security policy would strive to protect and enhance our way of life and basic values. Our deepest requirement is wisdom. Since modern war is highly destructive, we should fight only for important reasons and when other means have been exhausted.

If serious disputes cannot be resolved peacefully, we should strive to engage at a time and place favorable to ourselves. If on a collision course with some foe, we should enlist our allies in a fighting coalition.

A WISE security policy would respond to domestic as well as external challenges. The deepest threats to our way of life stem, not from inferior or insufficient equipment, but from human factors such as leadership, physical and moral strength, daring, wisdom. How can we be secure when our society is overdosed on drugs and alcohol? When literacy is a rare commodity? When racism erupts even in colleges? When patriotism is more slogan than action? And when presidential decisions are weighed, not for intrinsic merit, but for how they play on the evening news?

Probably we should stop depending on ``volunteers'' and reinstitute a draft that would tap all sectors of society. The ideal might be a national-service corps requiring all men and women to serve society for two years in military or other ways. If we must fight, let us proceed with well-laid strategies and adequate capabilities. Spare us more presidential eulogies of ``heroes'' sent to unknown places for unknown reasons to serve as sitting ducks for unknown killers!

Walter C. Clemens Jr. is a professor of political science at Boston University and a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. He is adjunct research fellow at the Harvard Center for Science and International Affairs.

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