• U.S.

Arming for the ’80s

44 minute read
George J. Church

The trillion-dollar question: What kind of defense to buy?

The issue is nothing less than how best to deter a Soviet nuclear attack on the U.S. The complexities are so tangled that they have preoccupied Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger almost from the day last January that he moved into the E Ring of the Pentagon, and they have given countless anxious moments to Commander in Chief Ronald Reagan as well. But the legislative timetable permits no further delay. So, before Congress breaks for its monthlong August recess, the Administration hopes to disclose what kind of missile and bomber forces it proposes to deploy to maintain U.S. retaliatory capacity through the rest of the 1980s and probably well into the 1990s.

Whatever the decision, it is certain to touch off a loud postrecess wrangle in Congress, which must put up the money —perhaps $100 billion eventually. But that multibillion-dollar controversy will be only the first in a long series of tormenting decisions that will involve nearly every aspect of the Administration’s plan to commit a staggering $1.5 trillion over the next five years to the biggest peacetime military buildup in U.S. history. Additional arguments are in immediate prospect, or already in progress, about everything from the size of aircraft carriers to the size of pay raises for Army noncoms and Navy petty officers.

Convincing the nation that an ultraexpensive rearmament program is necessary and deciding on its approximate size were the opening, and easiest, steps in getting the buildup going. Now comes the far more difficult job of making hard choices about exactly what that mountain of money should be used to buy—and what ought to be bought first.

The chances are that one of the initial decisions to be announced will involve intercontinental ballistic missiles. The nation’s land-based missile force—1,052 Minuteman and Titan missiles stored in silos scattered across seven states—is widely feared to be vulnerable to a Soviet surprise attack. Reagan and Weinberger inherited from the Carter Administration a plan to shuttle 200 MX (Missile Experimental) launchers, carrying ten warheads each, among 4,600 shelters along a vast “drag strip” in Utah and Nevada.

The MX would be bigger, more powerful and more accurate than a Titan or Minuteman, and the Soviets, in theory, would never know which of the shelters to target with their missiles if they decided to attack. The scheme has been criticized both because of its cost—in excess of $75 billion—and because it would tear up enormous chunks of America’s West. (The drag strip would occupy an area the size of New Jersey.)

Three conservative Republican Senators from the region, Reagan’s friend Paul Laxalt of Nevada and Orrin Hatch and Jake Garn of Utah, have come out against the plan—so have leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon Church), an especially powerful force in Utah. In addition, Weinberger reportedly is concerned that the Soviets, unless restrained by a new SALT agreement, could use the eight years it would take to complete the land-based MX system to deploy enough of their own intercontinental warheads to wipe out all 4,600 of the shelters.

A presidential study commission headed by Dr. Charles Townes last week presented its recommendations to Weinberger, but its report—still not final—only intensified the debate within the Pentagon. The commission members could not agree on any one strategy. The approach that seems to be gaining Weinberger’s favor is a two-step policy:

1) Deployment of a pared-down number of MX missiles—100 is the figure most frequently mentioned—in the Southwest, but not along the drag strip, which Weinberger increasingly fears would be too costly. Instead, some Townes commission members and Air Force officers propose grouping the missiles and their shelters in “valley clusters”: for example, in one area, five missiles might shuttle around a cluster of 50 shelters. That cluster plan, proponents contend, would still make it difficult for the Soviets to target the missiles but would require far less money and destroy much less land than the dragstrip.

2) Placement of some future MX missiles in the air to be launched from a specially designed new plane, tentatively christened the “Big Bird.” In a 1974 test, a missile was dropped by parachute out of the cargo doors of a C-5A Galaxy; presumably the Big-Bird system would work about the same way. At the first sign of a crisis, some Big Birds, each carrying one or two missiles, would take off; by staggering the flights, a number of planes could be kept aloft continuously, essentially invulnerable to Soviet attack. This “Air-Mobile” deployment system would take many years to perfect; the plane has yet to be designed, and the MX missile would have to be modified to get rid of its first-stage booster rocket and to make it smaller than the 71-ft. behemoth designed to be launched from the ground. Moreover, some form of land-based MX deployment would have to precede an Air-Mobile system if the U.S. is to retain any hope of persuading European countries to accept the stationing on their soil of American theater nuclear weapons targeted on the Soviet Union. The Europeans would argue that they should not accept the risk of harboring new land-based missiles unless the U.S. does so as well.

The Administration is contemplating several other ideas to diversify U.S. missile forces and protect them from Soviet attack. One is to resume development of antiballistic missiles to guard MX clusters, and perhaps Minuteman and Titan silos. (ABM’s, however, could not actually be deployed unless the U.S. renounces or renegotiates the SALT I treaty with the Soviet Union that was signed in 1972.) Another idea is to put nuclear warheads on flocks of what seems to be the most interesting weapon in the entire U.S. arsenal: the cruise missile. In contrast to ballistic missiles, which are guided to a point in the sky and then fall as artillery shells do, cruise missiles, like pilotless airplanes, are guided all the way to their targets. They can be fired from almost any kind of vehicle roaming the land, sea or air. But the U.S. military has just begun to explore the strategic implications of mass deployment of cruise missiles.

The second big immediate decision, which could well be announced simultaneously with or even before the MX program, might seem easier, since its cost is less and it entails no environmental problems. But it is four months overdue. Weinberger initially expected to reveal in March what sort of intercontinental manned bomber the U.S. would build to replace its aging fleet of 316 B-52s, whose mission it is to retaliate against the U.S.S.R. if a nuclear strike is ever mounted. But here the Secretary ran into a dilemma that bedevils all such programs: whether to wait for the development of hot new technology, at the price of forgoing a weapon that could be used quickly, or order arms that could be put into production rapidly, at the cost of settling for something less effective than a later one could be.

From the start, the Secretary wanted both: an entirely new bomber, incorporating “Stealth” technology (curving, streamlined shape and special materials among other things) that would make it almost invisible to Soviet radar but would not be available until the early 1990s, and a new version of the B1, which could be ready by roughly 1986 and would be capable of penetrating Soviet airspace. These B-1s could be converted into flying platforms to launch small missiles once a Stealth penetration bomber became available. This B-l would not simply be the already obsolescing plane that Jimmy Carter canceled in 1977; among other technological improvements, it would be equipped with new radar to find and fix on targets and electronic gear that could foil Soviet radar. But planemakers and Air Force officers presented Weinberger with three entirely different proposed B-1 configurations and offered wildly conflicting estimates of the time and cost required to get each into the air.

At one point, Weinberger reportedly was about to give up on the B-l and recommend concentrating entirely on Stealth. But then the Air Force leaked word that it would even accept a cut in fighter production to get a Bl. Republican leaders in Congress insisted to Weinberger and Reagan that modernizing the bomber fleet could not wait on the development of Stealth technology. So the Pentagon seems about to go back to the B-1-plus-Stealth plan.

The Administration will portray these huge and immediate bomber-missile decisions as part of a coordinated strategy to preserve for years to come a nuclear capability that would be impervious to Soviet attack and ensure the capacity to strike back with devastating force. But there are certain to be strong objections in Congress. While many powerful legislators favor the Bl, others fear it will swallow as much as $25 billion that, in their view, would be better spent rushing Stealth technology. And there are 35 MX deployment plans that have been mentioned in Congress.

The Administration argues, not without cause, that a massive military buildup is necessary as both a deterrent and a symbol of U.S. resolve to combat Soviet adventurism. However, some military experts, including former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and onetime SALT Negotiator Paul Warnke, contend that Reagan and Weinberger have exaggerated the nation’s present and future strategic vulnerability. Others argue that the MX and B-l are weapons designed solely for the least likely war the U.S. may have to face: a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union. Even if available today, these armaments would not deter Kremlin-inspired aggression in a limited theater of operations —Central America, say, or Poland. Meanwhile, the Administration has yet to clarify what it intends to do, beyond spending money, on an equally urgent problem: how best to strengthen the nation’s rundown conventional forces.

The needs here are extreme. If it came to a fight, the military pessimists contend, the U.S. couldn’t lick a stamp. That is not so. But America’s armed forces have planes that cannot fly for lack of spare parts and warships that are being kept in port by a shortage of sailors to crew them. U.S. Army units in Europe, by some estimates, would run out of ammunition after only two weeks of conventional war. Worst of all, perhaps, the U.S. has an announced commitment to oppose by force any Soviet move toward the Persian Gulf oilfields, but today might have to resort to tactical nuclear weapons to block such a thrust.

These frightening deficiencies are the result of a decade of neglect, following the winding down of the debilitating U.S. involvement in Viet Nam. Increases in military spending fell below the rate of inflation from 1969 through ’77, and nosed upward in real terms only slightly thereafter. This erosion of the nation’s ability to defend itself was, in a way, a bipartisan policy that began with Richard Nixon, who boasted that he was the first President in 20 years to devote a greater share of the national budget to social programs than to defense. Gerald Ford proposed some modest increases in real defense spending, but they were trimmed back by the overwhelmingly Democratic Congresses of his day. Jimmy Carter closed a Minuteman assembly line, canceled the neutron bomb and delayed cruise missile production. The public’s insistence on “no more Viet Nams” and a hope that détente with the Soviet Union would make war unlikely contributed heavily to the military-spending hold-downs and stretch-outs. And if that did not constitute trouble enough, the Pentagon added to the problem by squandering billions of dollars on new weapons systems that developed embarrassing flaws.

By the start of the 1980 election campaign, however, the climate had changed drastically. The humiliating failure of the Blue Light rescue mission in the deserts of Iran in April 1980 burned an impression of military incompetence deep into the American mind. In a single decade the nation had not only lost a war, it could not even cope with the seizure of its diplomatic personnel by a revolutionary government in Iran. With that, the public suddenly took heed of a troubling fact: the Soviet Union had engaged throughout the 1970s in a substantive buildup in all forms of its armament.

The importance of statistics on the U.S.-Soviet military balance can be, and is, debated endlessly and inconclusively. The trouble is, the numbers do not reveal qualitative comparisons. For example, the Soviets have nothing to match a brand-new U.S. spy plane, the TR-1, that went into service last week; its cameras from an altitude of some 80,000 feet can draw a picture of enemy movements 200 miles beyond a battlefield. Though the Soviets have more submarines, the U.S. can easily detect where they are—whereas the Soviets, so far as is known, have never tracked even one of the 2,000 voyages that U.S. missile-firing submarines have made, some of them very close to the U.S.S.R.’s shores. In sum, the Soviets are not ten feet tall, nor are American forces midgets.

Nonetheless, two key facts emerge. First, the Soviets have built up their military forces far beyond anything that would be needed to protect themselves from outside attack. Second, in any conventional war involving Soviet forces, the U.S. would not be operating in what American officers describe, apparently without irony, as the “benign environment” of the Korean and Viet Nam wars. In both those conflicts, the Navy convoyed troops and supplies to far-off battlefields without opposition and the Air Force maintained almost unquestioned command of the skies. In any future war in which the Soviets might intervene, U.S. ground troops are likely to come under heavy bombing and the Navy would face a true challenge at sea.

Put all these trends together and the ’80s become, in Weinberger’s words, “the dangerous decade.” The U.S., he insists, must scrap its strategy of preparing for l½ wars (Viet Nam was the half). It must get ready to fight against Soviet or Soviet-inspired thrusts in several areas at once—the Persian Gulf, Central America, Africa and Central Europe, say. Does that mean 2½ wars? Weinberger shies from using fractions but says, “We must be able to defend ourselves in wars of any size and shape and in any region.” Some critics counter with the argument that the U.S. cannot police the world and that such simultaneous wars are not likely. The fact is that U.S. weakness makes them much likelier. Moreover, Weinberger insists, military planners can no longer assume that a conventional war would last only 60 to 90 days before ending or going nuclear, but instead must prepare for conflicts of indefinite duration.

To do all that takes money on an almost unimaginable scale. The $1.5 trillion Reagan intends to devote to the military from fiscal 1981 through ’86 would be enough to pay off the entire national debt, with $300 billion left over. It would finance a full year’s output of goods and services by so mighty an industrial power as Japan. It comes to more than $10,800 from every American who paid taxes on 1979 income.

For the moment, the national consensus in support of a stronger military is the broadest that has existed in at least a dozen years. Indeed, the early stages of the Reagan defense program have been moving through Congress with barely a whisper of dissent. The Senate in May approved a $136.5 billion weapons-buying budget for fiscal 1982, which starts Oct. 1, by a vote of 92 to 1. The House last week followed with a vote of 354 to 63 —and this at a time when Congress is agreeing to deep cuts in federal spending for food stamps, Medicaid, aid to education, Social Security and many other social programs.

But to keep the consensus functioning, the Reagan Administration will soon have to answer a long string of critical questions. What kind of global strategic doctrine will govern the deployment of U.S. forces? What kind of weapons are needed to carry out that doctrine? What is the proper mix of spending between strategic nuclear forces and conventional forces? Between sophisticated new weaponry and operations and maintenance—the unglamorous and often neglected budget account that covers such essentials as ammunition, spare parts and training? What kind of pay-and-promotion policy will attract recruits, and what will keep the skilled technicians who fly the planes, sail the ships, fire the artillery? Can an adequate force be fielded without the draft, which both the Administration and Congress dread? Finally, can U.S. industry, for which military production is essentially a sideline, turn out weapons in the quantity required by the buildup that Ronald Reagan contemplates?

The Army alone will have to replace several whole categories of weapons—tanks, helicopters, antiaircraft and tank-destroying systems —in the next few years. It is also wrestling with the question of how to integrate the present structure of big divisions, supposedly capable of fighting anywhere, with new, smaller units that would specialize in, say, desert or mountain warfare. Says the Army’s Chief of Staff, General Eugene C. Meyer: “This is going to be a watershed year. Decisions about what the Army is going to be for the next 20 years will have to be made.” For Navy planners, choices of what kinds of ships to build, as the fleet comes up to 600 vessels by the end of the decade, will have especially long-lasting consequences. A Nimitz-class nuclear-propelled aircraft carrier ordered this year (and the Administration wants to start three of them, at a cost of $25.5 billion to $31.5 billion, counting planes and escort vessels) would not join the fleet until 1990. However, it would be launching planes for perhaps 30 years after that.

Many Senators, Congressmen and defense analysts worry because the Reaganauts have shown little willingness to make hard choices according to some definite strategic plan. Some questions they want answered: To what extent will greatly increased arms sales abroad starve U.S. forces of badly needed equipment? Should the Administration really be adopting a bold, fight-everywhere strategy while stressing America’s current military vulnerability? What priority should be assigned to nuclear vs. conventional weapons when it seems clear that not enough money will be available, even under Reagan’s spending plans, for the military to do everything it wants in both realms?

Instead of grappling with such problems, the critics fear, the Administration is preparing to spend indiscriminately for everything the Pentagon can think of—missiles, ships, planes, tanks, guns, ammunition, spare parts, training, military pay—in the hope that money alone will solve all problems, which it emphatically will not. Complains Democratic Senator Gary Hart of Colorado, who is among the leading defense experts in Congress: “We are just going to spend more everywhere. The Administration’s long-term strategy is still a tabula rasa.” Says Senator William Cohen, a Maine Republican: “They have not totted up the bottom line and set priorities.”

If the Administration persists in this helter-skelter approach, warn some of the most fervent hawks in Congress, the present consensus for heavy defense spending could evaporate as quickly as it arose. Says Texas Republican John Tower, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee: “We can maintain this level of support only as long as we do it right.”

The principal reason is that the bills for pell-mell military spending could well become insupportable. Oregon Republican Mark Hatfield, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is concerned that “defense spending may cause inflation and the strangulation of capital resources needed by nondefense industry.” Some liberal economists share that concern. Lester Thurow of M.I.T. contends that Reagan’s defense program could “wreck the economy.” Thurow fears that the rearmament will gobble up scarce materials, engineering skills and research talent needed by civilian business—especially those industries, such as electronics and computers, that are expanding rapidly in a generally lackluster economy. This would both weaken the nation’s global competitive position and cause inflationary shortages. Says Thurow: “You will see the wages for engineers go through the roof in Boston, Dallas, Fort Worth, Los Angeles, San Francisco. Certain types of equipment will get very expensive.” The resulting pressure, Thurow argues, could be contained only by a rate of productivity growth greater than the U.S. has experienced in 16 years (productivity actually declined in 1980). Or it would have to be paid for by tax increases on private consumption—but Reagan proposes to cut income tax rates 25% over the next three years.

Thurow’s worries are challenged by Herbert Stein, a chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Nixon. Defense expenditures, Stein argues, will be partly offset by Reagan’s deep cuts in social spending. Income tax reductions will prompt enough saving and investment to spur productivity growth. In any case, Stein and like-minded economists point out, even in fiscal 1986, at the end of Reagan’s planned military buildup, defense outlays will consume only about 7% of the gross national product—no more than in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the U.S. enjoyed noninflationary prosperity.

This last calculation, however, assumes that defense bills will be no larger than Reagan estimates—an assumption open to serious question, given the past history of Pentagon cost overruns and the debatable forecasting record of economists. The ballooning has already begun. The anticipated cost of a new infantry fighting vehicle for the Army has doubled from $900,000 to $1.8 million each; the expected price of SOTAS, a helicopter-borne radar system designed to spy out troop movements far behind enemy lines, more than tripled from $8.7 million to $28 million per unit. Many Congressmen fear that unless military outlays are controlled by some strictly enforced set of priorities, they will soar far beyond the projected $1.5 trillion. What if the defense bills fall due in an economy still beset by high unemployment and inflation? Then, says Georgia’s Sam Nunn, a Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee and a vociferous advocate of a stronger defense, “it won’t take the public any longer to sour on defense than on the Great Society.” Similar worries have been set forth by the increasingly vehement voice of the military reform movement, a loose coalition of military officers, civilian defense consultants, and some Senators and Congressmen who span the political spectrum from right-wing Republican to liberal Democrat. The reformers do not question the need for more spending. Says Edward N. Luttwak, of Georgetown University, one of the most hawkish members of the movement: “We have underfunded defense so much so long that it would be almost impossible now to spend more and not do some good.”

But in seminars, articles in technical journals and a hard-hitting book, National Defense, by former Carter Speechwriter James Fallows, the reformers have developed a stern critique of how the Pentagon has been spending its dollars. They accuse U.S. military planners, among many other sins, of designing weapons that are marvels of electronic sophistication but break down frequently and are hard to handle; of following a kind of Maginot Line “firepower attrition” strategy rather than preparing for a war of maneuver; of training officers in the techniques of bureaucratic management rather than the history and art of warfare. Their central point: the Pentagon can spend every dollar the Government can tax, borrow or print, and still lose battles with the Soviets—or even the Iraqis—unless it changes its ways.

The reformers’ contentions are open to dispute. Unless the U.S. proposes to match the Soviets tank for tank, it must rely on high-technology weapons to “fight outnumbered and win,” as the Army’s official field manual puts it. Still, the reformers have caught the ear of an influential group of legislators: Cohen, Hatfield and Alaska’s Ted Stevens among the Senate’s controlling Republicans; Hart, Nunn and Michigan’s Carl Levin among Democratic Senators; Republicans Jack Edwards of Alabama, Newton Gingrich of Georgia and New York Democrat Joseph Addabbo in the House. By immersing themselves in the technical arcana of defense arguments, they have won the respectful attention of their colleagues.

While going along for the moment with Reagan’s plans, the reformers insist that the Pentagon justify every expenditure and offer alternative approaches for some weapons systems, rather than presenting Congress with this-is-it-or-else choices. Congress is beginning to “fence in” military appropriations—that is, to vote money for a defense project only on condition that the Pentagon come up with solid evidence that it is practicable, potentially effective and not likely to suffer stunning cost overruns. Says Senator Hart: “If it doesn’t make sense, if it’s not cost effective, if they can’t answer our questions, then we won’t buy it, no matter how much we agree with the need for it.”

Those congressional rumblings have been heard. Says Weinberger: “While money was and is needed to revitalize our defense establishment, I can assure you we have not, and will not, base our defense expenditures on a ‘more of everything’ approach.” In the fiscal 1981 and 1982 budgets, he says, “we needed to do so much so quickly that the priority problem did not loom as large as it will in the future. Now, for ’83 we are coming upon situations that will require some choices.” Beyond the B-l and MX, some of the major choices involve:

The Rapid Deployment Force. It is supposed to be the spearhead of a new global strategy that breaks free of the old obsession with preparing for a war in Europe to counter more varied threats. Weinberger often speaks of the U.S. as an “island nation” heavily dependent on imports of strategic materials. For example, 90% of the chromium needed for jet engines comes from Zimbabwe or South Africa; 90% of the cobalt vital to mining and machine tools is imported, mostly from Zaire. All are vulnerable to Soviet troublemaking or internal difficulties that could shut off supplies. The most serious threat is to the Persian Gulf oilfields, which supply 40% of the free world’s imported petroleum. When the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan raised fears of a move by the U.S.S.R. toward the gulf, Carter announced plans to create a force that could quickly be dispatched to trouble spots halfway around the globe.

It is now 18 months later. The R.D.F. consists of exactly 242 officers operating out of a once abandoned bunker and six trailers tucked away in a steamy corner of MacDill Air Force Base near Tampa. There the officers are drafting plans to combine Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine units that might be assigned to them in a crisis—up to 200,000 men in all—into an effective expeditionary force, and they are tackling their task with a zesty disrespect for bureaucratic tradition. Marine General P.X. Kelley, the R.D.F.’s first commander (he is about to be succeeded by Army Major General Robert Kingston), pared down lists of the supplies that his troops would lug into battle. Kelley even discovered that an Air Force ground crew is regularly supplied with ten times the quantity of beer and soft drinks that Army forces get. Units assigned to the R.D.F. will lose such amenities.

Right now, however, the R.D.F. seems to be planning for Mission Impossible. Its orders are to concentrate initially on countering a Soviet invasion of Iran. Kelley reluctantly admits that the R.D.F. has no hope of pouring in enough men and materiel to halt the substantial forces that the U.S.S.R. could thrust across its border with Iran. The best the R.D.F. could do would be to land a small “tripwire” force around the oilfields in southern Iran, which the Soviets could not crash through without inviting either massive bombing attacks by American B-52s and FB-111s flying from forward bases in a friendly country, or—the worst-case scenario—the use of nuclear options by the U.S. Some military experts argue that Soviet gains in the Middle East or Southwest Asia are more likely to be achieved by leftist subversion of established regimes than by armed aggression. Valuable though the R.D.F. may be, it would hardly have the capacity to prevent the pro-Western rulers of Saudi Arabia, say, from being toppled by radical Arab neighbors or by an internal, popularly supported revolution. But it may make those who would like to risk such a venture hesitate.

Weinberger shortly will give Kingston some actual troops to command: the 56,000 soldiers of the Army’s 18th Airborne Corps, now based in Fort Bragg, N.C. Still the R.D.F. faces serious shortages both of manpower—most of the other units earmarked for it are also supposed to be available to reinforce NATO in an emergency—and of equipment. More than that, the airlift and sea-lift capacity does not exist to carry R.D.F. troops into battle as quickly as might be required.

This inability to move troops has been developing for a decade, mostly because the Air Force and Navy have given transport a low priority; neither service can summon much enthusiasm for providing a taxi service for the Army and Marines. The number of planes available to fly troops and equipment dropped by 258, nearly a quarter of the force, during the 1970s. The Military Air Transport Command had all it could do last fall to fly a mere 1,400 soldiers to Egypt for a training exercise, Operation Bright Star. The number of cargo ships fell by 297, nearly half the fleet, in the past decade. After the Viet Nam War wound down, the Navy retired a whole generation of World War II-vintage cargo vessels and concentrated its limited funds on building fighting ships. The U.S. has enough amphibious craft to enable a Marine assault group of about 60,000 men to storm a defended beach, but not to land the heavy equipment they would need for a substantive battle. Consequently the R.D.F. could not fight its way ashore to start a major campaign; all present schemes for its deployment assume that it will be invited in by a friendly government. That might happen in the case of Saudi Arabia but, to put it mildly, it is a dubious proposition in Iran.

Plans to make the R.D.F. rapidly deployable are still rudimentary. The Air Force once proposed to build 130 huge C-X transport planes at a total cost of $17.2 billion, but characteristically wanted to design a plane that could both fly between continents and hop from one battlefield to another, and that could carry heavy tanks and artillery yet land on short, rough runways. In May, the Senate Armed Services Committee, fearing that such a supertransport would take forever to build, all but cut off funds for development. The Air Force is now talking of building an unspecified number of new C-5A Galaxys (it has 77 now). But these planes can land only on long runways, which might be unavailable to the R.D.F.

The Reagan Administration is trying to get around the transport shortage by negotiating rights to preposition supplies in Somalia, Kenya and Oman so that the R.D.F. could pick them up on its way into the Persian Gulf region. The Administration also hopes to talk a friendly nation, perhaps Egypt or Oman, into supplying a permanent base for R.D.F. units. That will be far from easy and may be politically hazardous. Providing the R.D.F. with a base might brand a friendly government as a U.S. puppet in the eyes of its neighbors—and its own people. President Anwar Sadat, the closest U.S. ally in the Muslim world, has said flatly that he does not want a U.S. base in Egypt, and no other country in the region seems willing to offer one—except Israel, where the U.S. would not want to station troops, for fear of further angering moderate Arab countries.

Weapons Policy. The M-l Abrams tank, which went into operation this spring, has been proudly described by the Pentagon as “the keystone of the U.S. Army modernization program.” According to various experts, the new tank illustrates either everything that is right or everything that is wrong with U.S. weapons policy. More likely it illustrates both at once. Though the M-l still has some technical problems, veteran tankers who have driven it say it is a superb machine, better than anything the Soviets can field. The M-l can whip around battlefields at 45 m.p.h., fire accurately on the run while other tanks have to slow down to aim their guns, and can survive a series of direct hits by antitank missiles.

But the M-1 was also in development for 18 years, during which the Army had to get along with inferior tanks. It costs $2.5 million per vehicle today, a price so high that Reagan had to add almost $1 billion to his budget so the Army could buy 1,289 over the next two years. (Estimated cost of the best Soviet tanks, the T-64 and T72: $700,000 each.) The M1’s advanced turbine engine gulps fuel at the staggering rate of 3 gal. per mile. Its armor (60.3 tons) makes it so bulky that it cannot be carried aboard any cargo plane except the Galaxy, the biggest thing on wings. Even a Galaxy can haul only one Abrams. Result: the M-l can be used only in areas to which it can be sent leisurely by ship, meaning Europe and possibly Korea.

The superweapon philosophy that guided the development of the M-l has ruled the Pentagon since the end of World War II. In part, it reflects the Pentagon emphasis on preparing for a war of massed firepower along conventional front lines in Europe. More important, military reformers charge, the Pentagon has fallen into a “goldplated mousetrap” of always holding out for the final, supremely costly “last 10%” in technology that might give a weapon an unconquerable edge in battle. Even some military officers agree with this criticism. Says retiring Major General Volney Warner, chief of U.S. Readiness Command: “We have been captives of technology. There is always some development promised tomorrow that we ought to hang on to a weapons system, so that system stays out there ten, eleven, twelve years being perfected and meanwhile we are stuck with old and ineffective weapons.”

Soviet weapons-development policy, by contrast, is to freeze early on a design that can be ordered quickly into mass production. Soviet equipment has lots of flaws: its major tanks are subject to engine overheating and transmission breakdowns; their inside space is so cramped that their crewmen cannot be more than 5 ft. 5 in. tall and can load the gun only with their left hand. Quips a U.S. Army report: “The Soviets are in deep trouble if they ever run out of strong left-handed midgets.” The Soviets do not seem to be worried. They are turning out tanks at a rate of 2,000 a year.

Less complex Soviet weapons, such as rifles and machine guns, tend to be easily produced and highly reliable. The AK-47 Kalashnikov is the most esteemed and bestselling assault rifle in the world today, partly because it uses standardized ammunition available almost anywhere. The U.S. Army’s M-16 is far less attractive on international arms markets; it has never lived down a much deserved reputation, earned in Viet Nam, for jamming frequently.

Turning the Pentagon even partly away from its you’ve-got-to-have-the-finest philosophy will be difficult, and it is unclear how hard the Reagan Administration intends to try. Says Weinberger: “While we are to some extent prisoners of decisions made long ago, and we thus far must purchase the weapons systems now on the assembly lines, we certainly are not locked into the defense policy of the past Administration.” On the other hand, he defends the policy of developing sophisticated weapons. His argument: “We are now facing very much more sophisticated, complex, accurate Soviet weapons. It is not fair, nor is it useful, to send anyone up against equipment of that kind in very unsophisticated, very crude but very numerous counter-weapons.”

One of the liveliest defense arguments rages around the Navy, which expectably has been assigned a high priority under Weinberger’s concept of the “island nation.” The Secretary calls the Navy “our primary instrument to project our military power to distant, but vital, regions.” To project power, the Navy is wedded to battle groups centered on giant aircraft carriers, preferably nuclear propelled. The Administration wants to expand the number of major carriers from 13 now to 15 by 1992. Allowing for replacement of carriers scheduled to retire, that would require starting three new Nimitz-class (93,400 ton) carriers in the next three years.

The huge ships, which can host at least 90 fighter-bombers, have tremendous striking power, can stay at sea for months and, according to one Navy study, could be knocked out of action only by six missile hits. But given the time they need in port for maintenance and the Navy’s preference for using them in tandem, even a 15-carrier fleet could keep only five or six task forces at sea at the same time. Also, military reformers argue that the sinking of a single Nimitz-class carrier could tilt the naval balance to the U.S.S.R. in an entire theater of war. They advocate numerous smaller, lighter carriers that could do their power-projecting into many more places more quickly. The Navy, says Senator Hart, has regarded such pleas “with an attitude bordering on contempt.” It has even refused, Hart says, to provide the Senate with design plans and an analysis of such carriers, despite the fact that the Senate specifically demanded the information.

Indeed, according to military reformers, the Navy’s plans play directly into a Soviet sea-warfare strategy that is designed specifically to sink big new carriers. Admiral Sergei Gorshkov, commander of the Soviet navy, has written that “a single submarine is capable of destroying a major surface ship with a salvo of cruise missiles.” And the Soviets’ “Oscar”-class submarines, put into service last year, can dive deeper and swim faster than anything the U.S. has produced.

The U.S. Navy has been slow to adopt cruise missiles for offensive purposes, even though one admiral asserts: “Cruise missiles are categorically the most revolutionary development in naval warfare since nuclear power.” The Navy is trying to make better use of missiles now, but in a way that still illustrates its big-ship fixation: it proposes to take two, and eventually four, World War II battleships out of mothballs and fit them as floating missile platforms. That will be neither quick nor cheap. Recommissioning the New Jersey, which has been docked at Bremerton, Wash., since the end of the Viet Nam War, would cost $326 million, but that would be just to get it afloat. Equipping it to launch 100 missiles would raise the total cost to $1 billion, according to Norman Polmar, compiler of the authoritative guide The Ships and Aircraft of the U.S. Fleet. Polmar argues that “cruise missiles can be put on virtually anything that floats.” He advocates dispersing them among lots of cruisers and destroyers.

That is only one of the innovations that military reformers are demanding. Some others: smaller, lighter fighter planes that, they contend, would be easier to maintain and keep in the air than supersophisticated craft; light tanks for the Rapid Deployment Force that could fit snugly into most cargo planes; greater use by all services of V-STOL (very short takeoff and landing) planes, like the Marine Corps’ highly successful Harrier.

Readiness. The Reagan Administration claims to be trying strenuously to put all the armed services in shape to fight immediately. The fiscal 1982 military budget bill passed by the House last week contained $63.3 billion for operations and maintenance, vs. $52.4 billion for procurement of new weapons.

Still, there are strong grounds for doubting that Reagan and Weinberger have got the balance quite right. The operations and maintenance figure, big as it is, represents a rise of 13.8%, adjusted for inflation, over 1980; that is less than half the 29.2% increase in the money allotted for buying new weapons. And the services need every penny they can get for spare parts, training and ammunition. The Pentagon comptroller’s office estimates that the Air Force alone is short around $4 billion worth of spare parts; that is a major reason why 40% of the 563 U.S. F-15 fighter planes are unable to fly at any given moment. Even the Strategic Air Command, all of whose bombers should be ready to take off instantly, has a lengthening backlog of undone maintenance work. The Army’s antitank gunners have so little ammunition that they can fire only one live round a year in training exercises. There are no figures for how far the Reagan budgets will go to solve these problems.

Reserve and National Guard units are supposed to play an important role supporting regular troops, which would take heavy casualties in the early days of a conventional war fought with modern weapons. Most weekend-warrior units are not only undermanned, but their equipment is often so crude as to make training exercises a joke. Example: National Guardsmen use ancient radio equipment that still has 1950s-era vacuum tubes. If ordered to Europe, as they would be in case a war broke out, they literally could not talk to the regular Army units they supposedly would fight beside.

One key decision will provide a clue to whether the new Administration is serious about building up the reserves. The Carter Administration stockpiled supplies in Europe that regular Army troops supposedly could pick up on their way into battle. Reserve units were repeatedly told that the new equipment they had hoped to get for training was being sent to Europe for the stockpile. Weinberger has already said that he will continue the European stockpiling program, but has not specified at what level. Unless the program is reduced in fiscal 1983, top military brass will be unable to believe that the Administration intends to do anything much about equipping the reserves.

Manpower. This may be the most critical problem of all. As Republican Senator Roger Jepsen of Iowa puts it: “We can spend billions annually on the most modern and sophisticated weaponry, but in the final analysis it is the infantryman, sailor, pilot and medic that will determine our nation’s strength.” For the moment, all the armed services are meeting their enlistment goals and the quality of recruits has improved dramatically. From October through March, 68% of all volunteers joining the Army were high school graduates, vs. only 37% a year earlier. The increase coincided almost exactly with the effective date of an 11.4% rise in military pay passed by Congress last year.

But no one believes the problem is solved. Many young men and women undoubtedly are joining up because the civilian unemployment rate is a high 7.3%—which means, ironically, that success for the Administration’s economic program could spell trouble for its military manpower plans. If decent civilian jobs are available for high school graduates, there will be fewer volunteers for the armed forces. Reagan’s plans could require adding an estimated 200,000 people, perhaps as early as 1985, to the 2,094,000 who were in uniform last Jan. 1. Worse, low re-enlistment rates have left all the services with critical shortages of skilled career people—pilots, electronic technicians, Navy petty officers, Army noncoms. A rise in enlistments does nothing to relieve this problem.

But the Administration is pinning its hopes for attracting more recruits and keeping skilled people in uniform on further increases in military pay and benefits. The Pentagon and Congress are agreed in principle on raising pay for soldiers, sailors and airmen again on Oct. 1. The form of that increase is a subject of serious dispute. The House Armed Services Committee wants to apply a 14.3% increase uniformly to all ranks in all services. The House Appropriations Committee and the Senate Armed Services Committee prefer a raise targeted toward holding career people. In the case of the Army, for example, their plan would hike pay on a sliding scale from 7% for recruits to 22% for top sergeants. (New recruits now get $500 a month; top noncoms with 26 years’ experience draw $1,800.) The Reagan Administration has decided that it would go along with a targeted pay-raise bill, but with some misgivings. Warns Lawrence J. Korb, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower: “We should avoid actions which could be construed as leading to a military establishment manned by various elite groups with the remainder being second-class citizens. We must prevent the erosion of the concept of unit cohesion and the rise of the notion that the military is just another job.”

Reagan has appointed a special Administration task force to study ways to preserve the all-volunteer armed forces, and its top priority is military pay. But whatever kind of military pay bill passes Congress, it is questionable whether the services can ever pay their specialists enough to match the top salaries that civilian employers offer. One example: Duval Price, 26, of Wichita, Kans., joined the Air Force right out of high school. He worked for six years on the Titan II missile system at McConnell Air Force Base near his home town, then walked across the runway to a Boeing plant when his enlistment was up and got hired as an avionics engineer at double his service salary. In the Air Force, says Price, his unit was “undermanned, the morale was low, and there was no initiative given to the lower technicians.”

To hold people like Price, some inducement other than pay is needed. Attention is focusing on a revival of the G.I. Bill of Rights, which sent millions of ex-servicemen to college at Government expense but was canceled in 1976.

What kind of bill, though? An offer of generous payments toward a future college education might tempt more high school graduates to volunteer for the military—but it also would practically invite them to quit once their initial enlistments were up. Making benefits transferable to sons and daughters might encourage mid-grade career people to stay on. Among other unanswered questions: Should the size of the payments be geared to a serviceman’s rank, or seniority, or skill, or what? The Administration, while vowing to present a new G.I. bill, has put off until next year deciding just what kind of legislation to propose.

In the background of all military-manpower discussions hovers a word that no one wants to utter: draft. The Administration, for the moment, is firmly opposed. Says Weinberger: “I see no need for a peacetime draft.” Even military opinion is sharply divided. Some commanders favor the draft as the only way to bring into the services the educated white middle-class youths that they are not now attracting (the military forces are the only major segment of American society in which blacks have on the average more education than whites). But many senior officers dread the idea. They fear that the draft would rekindle the intense hostility toward the military that plagued the armed forces for years during and after Viet Nam. Nonetheless, a growing number of officers and, most reluctantly, Congressmen believe that a draft may be unavoidable.

Defense Production. The defense industry’s shortcomings could turn the whole rearmament program into a paper tiger. Defense contractors can produce weapons even at today’s slow pace only with ruinous cost overruns. The contractors blame the military for constantly revising plans; the Pentagon blames the contractors for slovenliness and inefficiency. Meanwhile, production lead times stretch out: the order-to-delivery time for Pratt & Whitney’s F-100 aircraft engine, for example, has lengthened from 19 to 38 months in the past two years. Experts warn that the industry does not have the capacity to build arms at the pace that Reagan wants. General Alton D. Slay, head of the Air Force Systems Command, told Congress in December that “even if we go all out for mobilization of our resources,” the U.S. “would not begin to see significantly larger numbers of planes flying for at least three years.”

Defense industry contractors will need 10,000 machinists and tool-and diemakers by 1985 just to make up for attrition and continue the current inadequate level of production, and they are equally desperate for engineers. Subcontractors are abandoning defense production in alarming numbers, partly because the Pentagon has insisted on funding military projects for only one year at a time, making it difficult for executives to raise money and tool up their plants for sustained, profitable production. Some 1,500 of the 6,000 subcontractors participating in one defense program dropped out in a single year. The deficiencies in defense production are so severe that they have distorted national strategy. One reason that the Pentagon for years has been planning for 60-to 90-day wars is that it did not believe the defense industry could turn out supplies for longer conflicts.

Deputy Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci promises multiyear funding of weapons contracts. That could lure back into defense work some subcontractors who have quit in disgust, and the military budget bill passed by the House last week approves the idea. The Defense Department is also likely to ask Congress for about $500 million in fiscal 1983 to help defense contractors expand production, and $1 billion a year thereafter. Some of the money would probably be used to design and buy Government-owned production machinery for use by defense manufacturers. The Administration is drafting a bill to clarify and broaden its powers to assist defense contractors in preparing for mobilization, but the provisions to date are hazy.

The problems of strengthening the nation’s military forces are almost endless. Vast amounts of new money will help, but money simply is not enough. The Administration is right when it contends that it had to get the military buildup started quickly, but avoid rushing into huge decisions that will strengthen or weaken the nation’s defenses for years to come. That excuse, however, will not last beyond fiscal 1982. By the time it presents the 1983 budget to Congress next January, the Ad ministration will have to sort out its ideas on what kind of Army, Navy and Air Force (and Rapid Deployment Force) the nation needs for the rest of the 1980s, what weapons they will wield, what kind of strategic doctrine they will be asked to carry out, what sort of manpower policy will fill the ranks, and what assistance the defense production industry needs.

If all that is done properly, Rea gan and Weinberger have a once-in-a-generation chance to forge a lasting consensus for a forceful military policy. For the first time since the early 1960s, no voices of any political consequence are calling for substantially lower defense expenditures; most of the arguments are about how much more to spend, and especially for what. But the opportunity could all too easily be missed. One word used with monotonous regularity in the Pentagon and Congress to describe the present consensus for military spending is “fragile.” Congress and the nation will strongly support increased military outlays—if the Administration sets clear priorities for a sustained build up. But that support will be quickly lost if the rearmament program is perceived as nothing more than a crash attempt to solve America’s serious national defense problems by merely throwing money at them.

—By George J. Church. Reported by with Johanna McGeary and Roberto Suro/Washington, with other U.S. bureaus

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