This essay was originally published in the October 20, 1980 issue of Time Magazine, which can be viewed online here
Has the Pentagon chief become too political?
Harold Brown enjoys a reputation for bringing a cool, scientific detachment to his job as Secretary of Defense. All the more surprising, then, that he has plunged into partisan politics this election year with the zest and hyperbole usually expected of more conventional politicians. In fact, Brown himself has become something of an issue. Indignant Republicans charge that he has painted far too rosy a picture of the state of U.S. defenses. Undeterred, Brown journeyed last week to politically important Texas (26 electoral votes) on an ostensibly nonpolitical mission to answer critics who claim that the U.S. military is woefully unprepared. Quite the contrary, insisted Brown. The U.S., he said, is “ready to go to war, if need be, and we are increasingly able to sustain our forces in combat.”
Doubts about U.S. military readiness have been raised not only by Ronald Reagan and other outside critics of the Administration, but by several of Brown’s top-level military subordinates. Before a House subcommittee last May, Army Chief of Staff Edward Meyer testified that he was seriously short of trained troops that could be quickly moved to Europe in case of war. Because of the lack of manpower, Meyer declared, the U.S. has a “hollow Army.” In September, Air Force Chief of Staff Lew Allen Jr. told the Air Force Association that the U.S. has “serious deficiencies in its armed forces vis-àvis those of an increasingly powerful Soviet adversary.”
Earlier this month Admiral James Watkins, Vice Chief of Naval Operations, warned the Senate Armed Services Committee that the U.S. fleet is stretched intolerably thin. Said he: “Over the past two years, the number of ships reporting marginally combat ready and not combat ready has been increasing steadily.” Because of the loss of trained manpower, said Watkins, “I consider it to be the most serious personnel readiness situation that I have seen in over 31 years in the Navy.” The Joint Chiefs are particularly worried about the shortages now that Carter has declared it is U.S. policy to protect the Persian Gulf from Soviet meddling. There is a possibly perilous gap between intention and capability about which Brown was questioned during his first stop of the day, at the Army’s Sergeants Major Academy at Fort Bliss in El Paso.
Addressing the Rotary Club and-Chamber of Commerce in El Paso, Brown said in his familiar flat, slow-cadenced style that “allegations about U.S. weakness in the area of readiness are misleading.” These flaws, he continued, are measured against “some ideal standard” that ignores the “shortcomings of our adversaries.” According to U.S. ratings, the Secretary said, two-thirds of the Soviet army would be considered unready to fight. Still, Brown neglected to mention that even if that is the case, the Soviets have 57 combat-ready divisions, or three times the U.S. number.
Brown claimed that charges of unreadiness were exaggerated. One example he cited: five out of the seven U.S. aircraft carriers that are unavailable for combat are undergoing overhaul; the remaining two could be quickly returned to duty. Responding to the claim that fewer than half of the 2,100 U.S. tactical jet fighters are fully “mission capable,” Brown maintained that the figure is misleading because combat readiness would be given top priority in wartime. Said the Secretary: “The vital question is not how various military units score in our status reporting or readiness rating system. The important question is: Are we able to go to war if necessary and to fight effectively? Let me assure you, the answer to that question is yes.”
Brown ticked off some of the gains in military preparedness during his tenure: a tripling of spending next year, to $1 billion, for spare parts for the Air Force; the shipment of enough equipment to Europe to enable the U.S. to dispatch four divisions to the Continent within two weeks, in contrast with only one division in 1976; by the improved ability of the U.S. to move forces to the Persian Gulf by placing seven supply ships in the Indian Ocean and by negotiating the right to use ports and airfields in the region in an emergency. Brown properly gave credit to the Ford and Nixon Administrations for initiating many of these efforts. After the speech he told TIME: “We’re better off than we were four years ago, but you can’t say we’re stronger vs. the Soviets than we were.” That is certainly true, since the Soviet Union continues its military buildup at a faster rate than the U.S. Why, then, was the Carter Administration, soon after taking office, so willing to cut $4 billion from Ford’s proposed Pentagon budget for fiscal 1978? Replied Brown: “What we were doing in 1977 was scrubbing what we had inherited. Probably we should have waited a while and taken a more careful look before we did it.”
No sooner had the Defense Secretary taken issue with his critics on U.S. readiness than a Pentagon memo was leaked that seemed to confirm their worst fears. Major General James H. Johnson, vice director of plans and operations for the Joint Chiefs, instructed a subordinate to hold up a readiness report because Brown had “expressed concern that our current . . . formats only emphasize the negative aspects.” The Secretary, Johnson added, has asked for “greater emphasis on the positive factors.” Though Brown had been grousing for weeks about the readiness rating system, he did not dictate the embarrassing memo. It was, said his spokesman, Thomas Ross, a “screw-up.”
Acting as the Administration’s political point man seems to be out of character for Arch-Technocrat Brown. The White House insists that it did not urge him to join the fray. Said a senior Carter adviser: “We didn’t have to push him a bit. That doesn’t mean that we’re not delighted that he decided to jump in.” Brown likes his job and wants to keep it; that means, of course, re-electing Carter. Brown also has his own record to defend. Declared the Secretary: “The President has said to me, ‘Don’t do anything that you think is incompatible with the nature of your office.’ He has not told me to go out and defend my stewardship. But he didn’t have to. My stewardship has been attacked, and I’m going to defend it.”
But as Brown surely knows, there is a point beyond which a Secretary of Defense should not go, even in defending his own record.