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Why Is the Pentagon Ignoring Its Board of Wise Men in Preparing for the Next War?

Reprinted with permission from the February 5, 2000 issue of the National Journal.

Congressional Republicans and Democrats this election year will try to outdo each other in heaping money on the Pentagon. But their game of “Can You Top This?” avoids asking the hard and troubling questions about our national defense, including these:

  • Why are we sacrificing the seed corn of future weaponry-research and development dollars-to feed today’s demanding and already-fattened hogs-Cold War-era weapons and commitments?
  • Why is the Pentagon ignoring its own outside board of wise men in preparing for the next war?
  • What happens if foreign firms, which now make an increasingly large share of vital parts for American weapons, decide not to deliver them in the middle of the war?
  • How much is too much to pay to recruit and keep one volunteer soldier just to avoid the political pain of going back to the draft?

Not since the late Rep. Les Aspin, D-Wis., chaired the House Armed Services Committee in the late 1980s has any congressional body seriously questioned where national defense policy is going and why. Although Congress commissioned the Pentagon to evaluate itself in 1997, the resulting Quadrennial Defense Review endorsed existing policies. Surprise, surprise.

Editor’s Note: George C. Wilson is a respec1ed columnist and book author with significant experience in defense journalism.

The Pentagon’s own budget numbers-which are as nonpolitical as traffic lights-are signaling trouble. One set of numbers shows that the current hogs in the Pentagon budget are eating up development dollars, the seed com money that scientists and engineers need to design weapons that will give the American soldier the edge on tomorrow’s battlefield.

Don’t blame the Anny, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps for this. Blame President Clinton as commander in chief and the lawmakers who went along with him. Although they rightly continued on with President Bush’s downsizing of the military in response to the ending of the Cold War, they neither demanded that the Europeans take over missions in their own backyard nor shed the U.S. role of international policeman. Clinton instead, with Congress’s blessing, ordered American military commanders to cover the same old global hotspots, plus some new ones, with a smaller and older force. This policy of doing more with less wore out people and equipment, and provoked an exodus of skilled troops. Pressed to find money to pay for this high tempo of operations, generals and admirals robbed the future-looking accounts, such as research and development, to finance the here-and-now patrolling, flying, and steaming. Most of that day-to-day spending money is lodged in the Pentagon’s operation and maintenance account.

For all their talk about keeping the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps ready to fight, politicians have shortchanged both the research and the operations-and-maintenance accounts ever since the Cold War ended in 1989. The Pentagon’s green book of figures issued by the comptroller shows that spending on research dropped 21 percent in the post-Cold War period, from $47.4 billion in 1989 to $37 .4 billion in 1999 in comparable fiscal 2000 dollars. Operations-and-maintenance spending in the same 11 year period dropped about 15 percent, from $115.7 billion to $98.5 billion.

The Defense Science Board, the Pentagon’s friendly panel of wise men whose charge is to peer ahead for the Secretary of Defense, recently warned that the research picture is even bleaker than those Pentagon figures portray. This is because private industry has also been spending less of its own money on military research since the Cold War ended. In their struggle to survive, defense firms have been fighting for Pentagon projects that will bring in big bucks quickly-fast-return contracts such as upgrading a tank, ship, or plane. The companies figure that because their designers’ futuristic paper sketches will not reach the profitable metal-cutting stage of IO years, if ever, why spend company money now on far-out research that might not boost the bottom line?

In addition to this dual hit to research spending, military leaders have asked contractors to keep making the old and comfortable Cold War weapons-what the Pentagon calls its “legacy systems”. “The result is severely depressed U.S. military technological innovation and a defense industry devoted primarily to the development of [armed] service-preferred legacy system replacements-not necessarily what the services need to meet emerging strategic challenges,” lamented former Pentagon research director Donald A. Hicks in introducing the 137 page report of his Defense Science Board task force in December 1999. The board’s reports are widely unread on Capitol Hill.

The Defense Science Board, far from being anti-defense-because its members come chiefly from the military industrial complex-also sketched out a worrisome mismatch between the preparations the Pentagon and its potential enemies are making for the next war. The board concluded that the armed services are preparing co fight the last war and are spending too much of their money on a Maginot Line of Cold War weapons that future enemies will be able to make end runs around.

Specifically, the board says enemies are planning to destroy or disable the launching pads and corridors that U.S. forces use here and abroad to get to the battle: air bases, seaports, and overflight rights.

“By 2010-2020,” the Defense Science Board warned, “potential adversaries, exploiting a truly global military-technical revolution, will likely have developed robust capabilities-conventional and unconventional-for disrupting U.S. homeland preparations to deploy to the theater of conflict; denying U.S. forces access to the theater; degrading the capabilities of the forces the U.S. does manage to deploy; and in the process raising, perhaps prohibitively, the cost of U.S. intervention.

A 1995 study by the board estimated that lesser powers could disrupt, if not derail, U.S. expeditionary forces by spending about $20 billion over IO years on ultra-quiet diesel submarines, anti-ship cruise missiles, sea mines, and land attack missiles “expected to be available in the thousands” on the international arms market early in the new millennium. Nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons also could be used by smaller powers to deny access to the battlefield by U.S. forces.

Part of the foundation for this compelling but largely ignored forecast is the new and uncomfortable reality that the leaders of the world’s militaries can ferret out one another’s secrets, including how-to-instructions for making weapons, by mobilizing the Internet. Also, the really important ingredients of modern weapons, like software and space-age electronics, can be bought by anybody on the commercial market. The Defense Science Board took note of these new realities, declaring that “technological leveling” will be the engine that drives the ability of enemies to deny America access to ports and airfields. “Globalization is irresistibly eroding the military advantage the U.S. has long sought to derive through technology controls,” the board concluded.

So how should President Clinton, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, and members of Congress respond to these new realities? By not letting the armed services continue to break their bank accounts by building their Maginot Line of Cold War weapons. In the view of the board, the continued reliance on Cold War “legacy” weapons “has a clear and high opportunity cost”: The Pentagon will lose the “investment agility” necessary to shift research dollars quickly into weapons that will counter the “challenges posed by global military-technological leveling.”

The Defense Science Board did not name the weapons that it believes are taking the armed services to the poorhouse in Cadillacs. Pentagon figures, however, show that legacy systems that are eating up scarce dollars include the Army’s M-1 tank (of which the service bought 8, 100 at $5 .6 million each, even though its active forces could use only 2,530 of them); the Navy’s 30 new nuclear powered attack submarines (Virginia class-projected to cost $65 billion, or more than $2 billion each); and the Air Force’s F-22 fighter (estimated to cost $62.7 billion for 341 planes, or $184 million each).

Another side effect of the globalization of technology is that the Pentagon is buying an increasing portion of its weapons parts from foreign firms, or firms whose nationalities are increasingly hard to determine-such as Daimler Chrysler. This raises another question that lawmakers are unlikely to address as they throw money unquestioningly at the Pentagon this year: What happens if a foreign government bans weapons sales to the United States to protest an intervention or peacekeeping operation it doesn’t like?

Finally, all signs point to Congress’s focusing on what more it can do this election year for men and women in uniform, and for veterans. Dividing the number of service people on active duty into the Pentagon’s personnel account provides one measure of the escalating cost of the AH-Volunteer Force. In 1973, when draft calls stopped, annual personnel spending per service member came to $41, 000 in fiscal 2000 dollars. By 1999, that cost had shot up to $51 ,000. And still the armed services are having trouble attracting and holding volunteers. Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, dared suggest last year that the government may have to reason to some form of conscription to fill the military’s billets. But don’t expect anybody to utter the word “draft” this election year. Regarding defense, the operative word is “more.”

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