Candidates wage war, but who'll talk defense? Candidates quiet amid uproar over military reform

MILITARY reform in the United States is like the weather: Everyone talks about it, big commissions present reports, but neither presidential candidate is going beyond vague forecasts for the future. Talk about military reform has risen from a low grumble to a dull roar in Washington since a procurement scandal hit the US Defense Department in June. The Justice Department charges that Pentagon officers took payoffs from military contractors in exchange for inside information on government contracts. The scandal has spawned a rash of congressional reform plans.

But where do the candidates stand on military reform?

No one knows for sure.

What do Vice-President George Bush and Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis offer in defense policy as a whole?

That's another unknown.

The focus on defense in the election so far has been on hardware: the B-1 bomber, the MX missile, and the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), or ``star wars.'' The unglamorous nuts and bolts of readiness, supplies, spare parts, training, and contingency plans have been ignored.

This is because such issues have little impact on the US public, notes retired Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, a leading Republican spokesman on the military.

Instead, the campaign has heard accusations that equate military power with glamour weapons (such as the B-1) that Dukakis has opposed. On the right, Dukakis is accused of being a naive liberal who will give away the store. On the left, he faces Jesse Jacksonisms about how he should shift funds from the Pentagon to the inner city.

These extremes are irrelevant. They just won't happen - no matter who wins the election.

Why? Because massive military power - and spending - has been central to US security policy since the Korean war. The brief antimilitary backlash after Vietnam was an aberration.

Campaign oratory is obscuring the key question: What kind of policies accord with the dollar-short, manpower-lean conditions of the 1990s?

The answer that emerges from interviews with Democratic and Republican defense specialists and spokesmen is remarkably bipartisan and consensual.

Their conclusion is that there will be no drastic changes after the US inaugurates a new president. Instead, they expect to see some retrenchment and much continuity in overall policy.

No matter who wins, these defense specialists expect to see a de facto spending cap, far fewer big-ticket weapons systems, extreme caution about new Grenadas, and some attempt at military reform.

For constraint is the key word underlying the mainstream, centrist opinions expressed by all those interviewed: Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn, Robert Murray of the Dukakis campaign; and Denis Ross and General Scowcroft in the Bush camp.

They argue that a number of factors demand a wiser management of US military resources. These factors include America's economic difficulties, its declining pool of young military manpower, the spread of very destructive high-tech weapons into the third world, and public disenchantment with the Pentagon's spending habits. How does this translate into policy? Here's how Senator Nunn, Murray, Ross, and Scowcroft see it:

The President must take the lead by establishing clear, consistent priorities and sticking with them.

``We no longer can have everything we want,'' says General Scowcroft, ``as in the early '80s, when each service got a big slice of the pie.''

Fixing priorities would require a precise definition of national interests and strategy.

``Rather than the weapons you have shaping your policy,'' says Robert Murray, ``your policy should determine what weapons you need.''

No increase is likely in conventional ground forces. These are labor-intensive, hence expensive. But the 600-ship US Navy may well be cut. This would allow the Dukakis team to shift military funds to build up often-ignored intangibles: supplies, maintenance, combat readiness, spare parts, units that are under strength.

In a bipartisan display of unanimity, both Nunn and Scowcroft said that the 600-ship Navy was overbuilt. They doubt US budget constraints will permit replacement of the two carriers now nearing retirement.

Force will be used in the third-world countries far more prudently than before. Scowcroft, in particular, stressed that Mideast countries now have enough sophisticated hardware to lash back effectively. He argued against a knee-jerk reaction to any and all revolutionary situations. Only clear evidence of serious Soviet involvement, he felt, should lead Washington to even consider counter-action. Timely consultation between Washington and Moscow should, in fact, enable both superpowers to avoid the third-world morass, and thus to economize on military spending, especially at sea.

Both parties accept military reform as necessary. But when, where, how - and especially how much - is another matter.

Such moderate Republicans as Ross and Scowcroft sincerely want change. But hawkish Republicans fear that reform would spell the end of the flashy weapons - the MX missile, the B-1 bomber, and especially SDI - on which they rely to overawe Moscow and to satisfy a domestic constituency that sees high-tech weapons as the basis of military power. The hawks are not attracted to the less visible aspects of military effectiveness. They argue that Gorbachev's willingness to make concessions proves the wisdom of the military buildup of the early 1980s, no matter its cost. Here is a strong right-flank challenge to any military reform under Bush.

The Democrats have a clearer field - since the scattered sniping of their anti-Pentagon left is too visceral and unfocused to gain much support.

Amid reports of Pentagon waste and corruption, Nunn and Murray contend that broad and visible reform is vital if Americans are not to lose confidence in the military, as happened during the Vietnam war. The reform watchword is increased effectiveness at reasonable cost, and an end to the anomalies and irrationalities that make everyone scoff at the Pentagon.

Nunn looks to the reforms of the Goldwater-Nichols Reorganization Act, which he helped frame in 1986. He notes that the President chose not to implement either this act or the 1986 Packard Commission report on military reform. (The two initiatives marked the first real attempts since 1958 to reform the way the Pentagon spends money and prepares for war.)

Scowcroft and Ross blamed former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger for not implementing the Packard report. Nunn says that current Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci and Adm. Willian Crowe, Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have done their best.

``I give Carlucci good marks for trying to improve things,'' says Nunn. ``But he's not being backed by the White House.''

Nunn and Murray see Admiral Crowe as a point man for reform. If he got a go-ahead from the White House, they believe he could bring along officers who felt impelled by Vietnam to re-evaluate traditional US military doctrine (heavy firepower, advanced technology).

Will either Bush or Dukakis give that signal? So far, the issue remains wide open in a campaign full of unanswered questions.

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