A general Accounting Office (GAO) study recently detailed the failures of so-called "smart" weapons during the Gulf war. Nothing too surprising about that. Most Americans remember, for instance, the highly inflated claims made for laser-guided bombs and Patriot anti-missile missiles.
But before dismissing all such "precision" munitions as Pentagon big-spending gone awry, it's worth recalling that the smart bombs, Tomahawk attack missiles, Stealth fighters, and other Gulf war weaponry represented a somewhat shaky first generation of such implements of war.
In theory, these weapons make as much sense as tools of destruction ever can. They're designed to pinpoint military targets; thus they promise to reduce damage to civilian populations. They should also save military lives by more efficiently destroying targets and, in some cases, replacing manned airplanes.
In practice, there have been some successes: Tomahawk attacks against Baghdad's intelligence headquarters (following an Iraqi threat on George Bush's life), for instance, and similar attacks against Bosnian-Serb targets. In the Gulf conflict, however, the Pentagon's enthusiasm for its high-tech arsenal often overran performance. Tragic examples of mistargeting and missed targets made headlines.
The central question is, How much money should be devoted to creating new, more effective generations of smart weapons? Congress is showing this year that it's not capable of cutting the Pentagon's budget by even the amount that generals and admirals are willing to accept. And you can be sure every smart-weapon system has a legion of smart lobbyists defending it.
Balance and reasonableness are key. Programs such as extensive domestic anti-missile defenses and the mega-expensive B-2 Stealth bomber skew budgets and defy reason in current conditions.
Other high-tech systems, such as the Tomahawk, which has a proven ability to hit distant targets and a much lower price tag than the planes it can replace, make sense.
Forces have to be modernized, but that doesn't mean unchecked, technology-driven buying sprees. Some missions will be better served by lower-tech, more-reliable gear.
The GAO findings are a needed sober note. US military spending has declined over the past decade, and should not reverse direction unless some specific new threats arise. That calls for tough, smart choices in Washington. Dodging those choices - either by funding all smart weapons, or, less likely, rejecting them all - risks damaging either the national economy or the national defense.