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Making weapons that work

Charges that the Pentagon is relying excessively on complicated, delicate, and expensive weapons systems are not new. Many defense analysts have been saying this for the past several years, including Colorado senator Gary Hart and former Carter administration speechwriter James Fallows, who set out the case for a leaner, more cost-effective Pentagon in his 1981 book ''National Defense.'' But when a panel of--would you believe?--15 generals and five colonels raises many of the same complaints in a detailed new study of military procurement practices, the public should take special notice.

The 20 high-ranking officers, all from the Army and Air National Guard, blame shortages of military equipment on ''the current trend of purchasing high-cost, high-technology systems that have uncertain reliability and significant difficulties of maintenance above the operator level.'' The panel urges the Pentagon to buy simpler, more reliable weapons--as well as adopt a leaner force structure for the active Army. The Army, unfortunately, is currently taking just the opposite route, towards a larger and more complicated divisional structure.

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There are two issues here. One is the budgetary problem, now being thrashed out in the back corridors of Washington as Congress and the Reagan administration seek ways of slashing the fiscal year 1983 deficit. Any successful effort to reduce the deficit will require substantial cutbacks in defense. But there is also another consideration that should not be overlooked.

That is the possibility that the US is now producing weapons so complicated that they are increasingly unable to perform the basic tasks they are designed to do. The irony is that the United States may in effect be buying less--not more--defense with such costly procurement programs.

Take aircraft. The national guard panel notes that in constant fiscal year 1982 dollars the Air Force spent $6.9 billion in 1955 to buy 1,415 aircraft. But in 1980 it spent $9.4 billion to buy 407 aircraft. In short, more taxpayer dollars for far fewer planes. Do those aircraft, at greater cost, really provide the US better defense? The military panel says no.

That is not to say that some procurement projects will not require extremely sophisticated, and perhaps costly, equipment. Presumably laser weapons, now in the development stage, would fall in such a category, as would communication equipment or military satellites. But such systems should be rare exceptions.

Lawmakers would be well-served by a careful reading of the panel's conclusions as they go about the budget-cutting process. It is not a matter of pruning the military establishment to the point of endangering national security. It is a matter of selecting those weapons systems that do what they are supposed to do --provide the most efficient defense at the best possible price.

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