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Military mythology

To listen to some of the rhetoric emanating from Washington is to conclude that the United States is a dangerously weakened military power which has become easy prey for Soviet imperial ambitions. The rhetoric is understandable. It occurs whenever the armed forces are vying for higher defense appropriations. But exaggeration does not contribute to the kind of rational, objective analysis called for today as the US seeks to put its defenses in order. The public should not be taken in by overdramatization.

* Item. One key decision confronting President Reagan concerns building of the MX missile. For a long time now, under both the Carter and the Reagan administrations, the official rationale given for the missile has been the so-called vulnerability of America's stationary ICBMs to a Soviet surprise first strike. Reagan officials now say there is nothing the US can do in the next four years about this "window of vulnerability" -- hardly a comforting thought if the assessment of American weakness is accurate.

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But is it? SALT, proponents have long disputed the concept of vulnerability, but their voices have been lost in today's more militant mood. Now, however, the theme is picked up by the Strategic Review, a Washington-based military journal with impeccably conservative credentials. The magazine states that there is no technological support for the view the Russians could be expected to his accurately even one Minuteman silo let alone 1,000 of them and that the Soviet "threat" is not a substantiated fact. In other words, the "vulnerability" of Minuteman seems in effect to be a myth.

IF this is so -- and the respected International Institute of Strategic Studies in London comes to virtually the same conclusion -- it would clearly be absurd for the US to pur tens of billions of dollars into a new countervailing weapons system. At any rate, military decisions ought to be based on concrete facts not on dubious theoretical assumptions.

* Item. Another area of concern is the Soviet naval buildup. But when Navy Secretary John Lehman says that the US has lost naval superiority and that it will take at least six years to draw equal and nine years to regain the US advantage, he strains credulity. The American people are dishearteningly left with an impression of American naval weakness and inferiority.

Is this so? There is no denying that the Soviet Union has become a global naval power, able to challenge US forces in a way unthought of two decades ago. The American Navy today is stretched thin, especially given its added commitments in such regions as the Indian Ocean. Problems of personnel, equipment maintenance, and weapons supply have been well documented. Few quarrel that increased investment is needed to bring the US Navy to a sufficient state of preparedness. Yet it is doubtful any American admiral would exchange US forces for those of the supposedly superior Navy of the Soviet Union. On the contrary, in many critical areas -- antisubmarine capability, for instance -- the US is unquestionably supreme.

It is a matter of defining with greater balance and less emotionalism what the areas of weakness are and what should be done about them. Earlier this year Adm. Thomas Hayward, chief of naval operations, similarly voiced concern about the America's narrowing "margin of comfort" with respect to the Russians. But he declined to attribute to the Russians a significant naval edge. It was the trends which he stressed needed to be reversed.

All of which is to say that the defense debate could profit by less heat and more light. Mr. Reagan is already being constrained by the realities of larger-than-anticipated budget deficits to look carefully at military spending. It is to be hoped this brings forth a professional examination of the issues -- and judgments based on verifiable military need.

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