• U.S.

DEFENSE: Feet in the Fire

4 minute read

Attempting to settle one of the Pentagon’s bitterest interservice quarrels, Secretary of Defense Neil McElroy last week outlined a “master plan” for U.S. continental air defense. What it amounted to was a shaky compromise between rival antiaircraft missiles, the Army’s Nike-Hercules and the Air Force Bomarc. The solution satisfied hardly anyone, and the grumbles both from Capitol Hill and the Pentagon reflected an increasingly apparent fact: for Neil Hosler McElroy, sometime president of Procter & Gamble, one of the longest of all Washington honeymoons is ending.

Big (6 ft. 4 in., 210 Ibs.), easy-moving Neil McElroy, 54, got off to a dazzling start as Defense Secretary. Taking over from “Engine Charlie” Wilson in October 1957, five days after the first Soviet Sputnik soared into orbit, he gave the Army a prompt go-ahead to shoot its Jupiter-C into space while the Navy was still fumbling with its Vanguard. He ended the economy ban on overtime work in missile plants, lifted Wilson’s numbing hold-down on spending for B-52 bombers, Strategic Air Command fuel, basic research. On orders from President Eisenhower, McElroy worked out and steered through Congress a reorganization plan that, on paper at least, took a long stride toward unified control of the Defense Department (TIME, April 14, 1958 et seq.).

Failure in Homework. But even as his successes were applauded, there was a growing Pentagon feeling that Neil McElroy was not doing his homework. He was impatient with briefings lasting more than 15 minutes, was hard put to read the reports that began piling up on his desk, made frequent trips to U.S. military installations around the world when he might better have spent more time in his office. Presenting the defense budget to Congress this year, he seemed distressingly unfamiliar with important details of one of the world’s most complex jobs, made several inept slips, e.g., he said the first U.S. ICBMs would be operational in July 1959, when in fact the target date was January 1960. Moreover, McElroy undermined his own Washington prestige by confirming rumors that he planned to leave his $25,000-a-year post in late 1959 or early 1960 and go back to Procter & Gamble, where he earned $285,000 a year, plus hefty fringe benefits.

Atop his other troubles, McElroy lost the services of two men whose expert knowledge has been great help. Lung cancer temporarily sidelined Joint Chiefs Chairman Nathan F. Twining, now convalescing from surgery. Shortly afterward, experienced, science-trained Deputy Defense Secretary Donald A. Quarles died of a heart attack.

Master Plan. Then the Army-Air Force continental-defense brawl broke out. McElroy had brought it on himself. On Capitol Hill last May, questioned about the rivalry between the Bomarc and the Nike-Hercules, he made an awkward admission: “We have not done very well in making a decision.” It would not “bother” him, he added, “if you held our feet to the fire and forced us.” Delighted to scorch the feet of a Republican administration, the Senate Armed Services Committee whacked $17 million out of an Army request for $22 million to build additional Hercules sites. The House Appropriations Committee followed up by chopping $163 million out of the $447 million that the Air Force wanted for Bomarc. The committees were not trying to decide which missile was better: they were holding feet to the fire to force a decision. McElroy’s “master plan” last week was the result.

Predictably, the plan was an air-defense “mix” that included roles for both Hercules and Bomarc. With its longer range (200 miles, with a 400-mile version planned), the 47-ft. Bomarc is ticketed for “area defense,” covering wide arcs of sky. The job of the 27-ft., 80-mile-range Hercules is “point defense,” guarding particular cities and military bases. But, on the theory that the big problem in a few years will be defense against missiles rather than bombers, the “master plan” calls for cutbacks in both Hercules and Bomarc programs—a total of $1.5 billion over the next few years—plus a $137 million boost in the Army’s Nike-Zeus anti-missile program. Thus the plan was a continuation of indecision not only as between Bomarc and Nike-Hercules but as to the basic nature of U.S. continental defense.

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