New chief at the Pentagon

LIKE all senior non-coms in the military, John Tower should know who the slackards are in his outfit and how to get things done without a lot of bureaucratic fuss. Mr. Tower, a bosun's mate who kept his petty officer status in the Naval Reserve for years, will need those skills and more in his new role as Pentagon chief. He inherits a US military that is better equipped and better trained than a decade ago, when Jimmy Carter began to turn around a ``hollow army.'' Ronald Reagan poured money and pride back into military service, and it shows.

But the outgoing commander in chief also failed to root out ``waste, fraud, and abuse,'' as he promised, and as the Pentagon procurement scandal so painfully shows. And his main man at Defense - Caspar Weinberger - was hardly discriminating in his weapons purchases.

Nor did Mr. Weinberger ever try to knock heads among the services, letting them each have pretty much what they wanted without getting rid of the petty rivalries that so often mean costly duplication of sacrosanct ``roles and missions'' as well as hardware. Rather than the more modest and steady buildup that was necessary, the Reagan administration - with the help of John Tower, then a senator, and other hawks - went for double-digit increases during its glory days.

The result was predictable: Congress eventually sat on military spending and the services suffered exactly the kind of up-and-down budget cycle that experts warn against.

What now for Tower?

First, he'll have to prove that his years in Congress as a Pentagon buddy and his recent business ties to defense contractors won't prevent his making the necessary hard choices.

He should ax a few questionable items right off the bat to show he means business. Better to do that then nibble at programs or stretch them out, which only costs more in the long run. And far better than going for the ``easy'' cuts in less glamorous training and support programs, which undercut military readiness and sustainability. Once a teen-age sailor on a gunboat during World War II, Tower should know that ammunition, spare parts, and peacetime practice can be just as crucial as the latest high-tech gadget.

``The bottom line,'' as Tower himself said, ``is that we must provide at least as much if not more defense for less money.''

Second, Tower - along with the rest of the national security team, James Baker at State, CIA chief William Webster, and national security adviser Brent Scowcroft - should reassess US military goals and strategies.

The world has changed a lot in eight years. It's not quite soon enough to declare victory in the cold war, but the Russian bear has pulled in his claws - not all the way, but certainly enough to make a difference.

Real nuclear disarmament now seems a distinct possibility, as is the scaling back of superpower forces abroad. If the United States is threatened at all - and the wisdom of its people certainly indicates this - it is by economic competition from abroad. The more likely threat of violent attack is from terrorism and other forms of ``unconventional war.''

All these changes demand a fresh look at what the US military forces should consist of, how they should be trained and armed, and where they should be deployed.

Preserving the peace - and using military might when necessary - will still be very expensive. But there are plenty of good ideas about how to get a more efficient and more effective defense force that responds to today's military, diplomatic, and economic challenges.

John Tower's job will be to consider these ideas, come up with others, and act the stern and wily chief petty officer in making them work.

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