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Let the Military Debate US Defense Needs

Congress could make better spending decisions if the branches had to justify to one another the value of hardware and programs

DESPITE President Clinton's promise to hold the line on further defense-spending cuts, there will also be no increases, and even Department of Defense officials admit they will have to find some $20 billion in order to fund projected force levels over the next few years. Others put the figure closer to $50 billion. When asked where the money would come from, a senior defense department official giving the budget briefing conceded that he did not want to even think about it.

There is a relatively easy solution to the problem, one suggested over three years ago by the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, when he called for a ``missions debate'' among the armed services. However, despite a few rather insipid attempts, that debate has never taken place. Instead, another commission has been mandated that will probably take the usual year and come up with a typically wishy-washy report. A better solution would be to let the services - the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines - themselves, or perhaps their respective think tanks, go at it. For the first time, such a debate is possible, because it can be based on solid, empirical data rather than nebulous concepts of deterrence.

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During the cold war, when the Soviet Union's nuclear arsenal and its huge army were the major concerns, nuclear deterrence was first among priorities. However, with the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war, deterrence has moved to the back burner.

A debate can now be based on facts, not fiction, albeit once-dangerous fiction. There have been some 300-odd wars and crises since the end of World War II, more than enough empirical evidence on which to base a good debate. Based on the evidence, major cuts could probably be made in all the services, but particularly in the Air Force, followed by the Army.

At the top of the list would be the vulnerable land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles. The 500-ICBM force could easily be cut in half, and, depending on events, probably to as low as 50 to 100. Some should probably always be kept for deterrence, but the current number is excessive.

Land-based stationary ICBMs have been vulnerable almost from their inception. Hardening their silos helped for a time. But with the development of larger and more accurate Soviet ICBMs, they once again became vulnerable. For years the main rationale for ICBMs was their accuracy, enabling ``hard-target kills.'' But with the development of the equally accurate Trident II sea-launched ballistic missiles in the mid-1980s, ICBMs have become redundant. Yet the Air Force is planning a major ICBM modernization program. What a waste of scarce resources!

Bombers are another cold-war relic. Bombers do have conventional as well as nuclear capabilities, but a look at the empirical evidence of their use since World War II produces scanty evidence in their favor. On the other hand, carrier-based Navy aircraft are used all the time. An Air Force study released a few years ago was reduced to listing ``flyovers'' as evidence of Air Force planes' utility. The Navy's Center for Naval Analyses had no such problem justifying the use of carrier-based planes.

Except for the aging 1950s-era B-52s, our bombers don't seem to work these days. Study after study by the General Accounting Office (GAO) has criticized the B-1B, and even the Air Force has decided to place some of them in reserve. There also have been reports of problems with the new stealth B-2; the first time one of these $2 billion planes crashes, there will be an uproar. The Air Force wants to keep approximately 184 bombers. Based on empirical evidence, half easily could be placed in mothballs with the other half split between active and reserve forces.

There are other Navy-Air Force debates, such as whether sea-lift or air-lift capability is most needed. A look at crises since World War II shows few where the United States responded within a week; in that time, sea lift can reach most places. The Air Force has spent a fortune on large cargo planes, such as the C-5 and the expensive and troubled C-17 program, for seldom-seen contingencies.

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One justification for these large planes has been that they can carry a tank. The problem is that in the places where armor is really needed, such as in Europe or against Iraq, the few tanks carried by C-5s or C-17s would mean little. This author has a gut feeling that any GAO study of cargo carried in C-5s would show very little that could not be carried by smaller transport planes.

The Army saw the handwriting on the wall in the mid-1980s and started to ``lighten up,'' creating some light infantry divisions. But they are now trying to challenge America's traditional light forces, the Marines.

The problem is that Army divisions can operate without resupply for only about 72 hours, while Marines, because of their configuration and naval support, can operate at least 30 days. Recognizing the problem, the Army has recently gotten its own ``navy,'' some prepositioned ships, which has created another redundancy. Of course, why we still have so many troops in Europe in this new post-cold-war world is anyone's guess.

While the Navy would seem to be the winner in any interservice missions debate, based on the empirical evidence of the last 49 years, they are not without their own problems.

At the top of the list are submarines. Why is the Navy planning to spend over $3 billion to develop a less-capable submarine that will be more expensive than current models? Why is the Navy spending $5 billion to get a little more capability in its supposedly low-end F/A-18 aircraft? During the cold war such incremental increases might have been justified, but not today.

The Navy is planning to build a large, expensive, new amphibious ship, designated the LX, even though all the empirical evidence would point to building smaller, cheaper, and exportable landing ships. Worse, why is the Navy retiring some perfectly good landing ships? The answer is so that they can afford LXs.

In short, there is a need for a ``missions debate.'' Why has Senator Nunn not pursued the issue more vigorously? An explanation sometimes given is Nunn's antipathy to naval matters, but this author suggests another: the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols law mandating interservice cooperation.

Politicians like to accuse the military of ``fighting the last war,'' but Goldwater-Nichols, which went into effect at the end of the cold war, may be an example of ``legislating the last war.''

While Nunn was calling for an interservice missions debate, a law was being implemented mandating just the opposite. Any admiral today trying to lead a missions debate as suggested by Nunn would be quickly fired, and certainly not promoted. To be promoted today, you have to play the joint game - it's the law.

Because of Goldwater-Nichols, any defense department or Joint Chiefs missions report is meaningless, as will probably be the report of any commission. According to some press commentators, then-Joint Chiefs chairman Colin Powell ``stiffed'' Nunn with one required report that justified all service missions. The new commission will probably do the same. Many of the members are the usual suspects.

A better solution would be for the services themselves to debate their missions. Better yet, unleash their respective think tanks, the Navy's Center for Naval Analyses and the Air Force's RAND, which also contains a small Army center. Let them go to it. An ``Oxford style'' debate on C-Span might make interesting watching for the American people.

In short, let a real debate, and the cutting of redundant missions, begin. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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