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What's wrong at the Pentagon

THAT something is terribly wrong at the Pentagon is now clear to every American as the unfolding stories of waste and extravagance in military procurement become part of the daily news. This did not happen overnight, however, nor in the last year or so. The problem has been building steadily for years, but it has been aggravated by the way the Pentagon has been handled during the Reagan years. When President Reagan took office, he rightly pledged to reverse a dangerous situation in which the Soviet Union had been permitted to gain substantial military superiority in both conventional and nuclear forces. He recognized that the danger of global war is not from a calculated Soviet attack on the United States or one of its principal allies. The danger is a war that could occur from a Soviet miscalculation -- a Soviet perception that it has such marked military superiority and that the US and its allies are so weak and divided that the Soviets could take some expansionist step without fear of triggering a forceful US reaction. If our vital interests were adversely affected, however, we would be obliged to react, and then ``the balloon'' could go up. So Americans strongly supported Mr. Reagan's decision to rebuild our military strength and restore the balance of power on which peace so heavily depends.

Now that support is rapidly fading as each day brings new evidence of waste and mismanagement in the handling of the huge military budgets of the past four years. The feeling is growing that it is futile to go on spending so much on a defense buildup that only squanders billions of taxpayer dollars that could be better spent in other useful ways. So let us look at the present mess and what should be done to correct it.

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The Pentagon naturally places the blame on greedy and unscrupulous defense contractors. They are certainly in part responsible for overcharging and padding bills, and they should be penalized. But it was the Defense Department that entered into these contracts and had the responsibility of monitoring them. It neglected that responsibility and the ``caveat emptor'' (let the buyer beware) principle on which our free-market system operates. Why did this happen and who is responsible for the present mess?

The President's lack of experience in the operation of the defense establishment and his hands-off style of delegating great responsibility to his subordinates have certainly contributed. The present flawed Joint Chiefs of Staff system, whose defects have been recently underlined by a former JCS chairman, Gen. David C. Jones, is also in part to blame. Under this system the chief of each of our armed services wears two hats: He is a member of the JCS but also the representative of his branch of the service. In developing weapons requirements, the head of each service branch simply tries to obtain for his service as much of the defense budget as he can, as if there were an inexhaustible cornucopia of taxpayer dollars to pay for any and all weapons and military gadgetry his service desires. When the individual service requests reach the JCS level, there is the inevitable bargaining among the members on the basis of ``you support my request and I'll support yours.'' The result is, of course, a defense budget based on the total of individual service requests, rather than an allocation of limited resources on the basis of a fundamental strategic concept that recognizes there is a limit on what can be spent and allocates the resources among the services accordingly. The JCS system should be modified as General Jones and other senior military figures recommend. That would take time, however, and the basic cause of the present disorder is not so much the system but the way it has been allowed to operate under Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger.

It is no secret, of course, that Mr. Weinberger had hoped to be named secretary of state, so that he could formulate and be the spokesman for American foreign policy. It is also no secret that as secretary of defense he has spent more time visiting foreign countries, and making important and sometimes controversial foreign-policy statements, than any of his predecessors. This may have been the reason that, instead of assuming responsibility for the overseeing and administration of the vitally important defense buildup on which our national security and peace so heavily depend, he delegates this major responsibility to the deputy secretary of defense. He should assume that responsibility now, for anyone who has worked with the Defense Department knows that if the man at the top is not interested enough to be personally involved, the sky's the limit. Henry Southgate's ``Many Thoughts of Many Minds,'' published in 1864, perhaps said it best: ``If the master takes no account of his servants, they will make small account of him, and care not what they spend, who are never brought to an audit.''

So first and foremost, the secretary of defense must assume direct responsibility for the administration of defense spending. In so doing he should ``bring to audit'' those in the Pentagon, including those with stars on their shoulders, who are in good part responsible for the mess, rather than make a scapegoat of an admiral in far-off San Diego who reportedly was not even assigned there when some $900 ashtrays were procured. As part of that audit he should examine at once the so-called ``revolving door,'' whereby senior military officers working on defense contracts retire and receive lucrative jobs with the very defense contractor with whom they have been working once the contract is signed. President Eisenhower, who knew infinitely more about the Defense Department than either President Reagan or Secretary Weinberger can hope to know, recognized the danger when he warned Americans to beware ``the military-industrial complex.'' This is a warning that Secretary Weinberger should take to heart.

Douglas MacArthur II is a retired career ambassador who worked with the Pentagon on the development of the NATO force goals and command structure and served as political adviser to General Eisenhower at SHAPE.

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