The Great Defense War

This essay was originally published in the October 27, 1980 issue of Time Magazine, which can be viewed online here

At issue: How prepared is the U.S. military for a fight?

The war in the Persian Gulf and the election campaign at home have added new urgency to a debate that has been going on for months over the state of U.S. defenses. The dispute pits U.S. Defense Secretary Harold Brown against his top generals and admirals, Republicans against Democratics. Ronald Reagan insists that the U.S. has become No. 2 in military power, while Jimmy Carter maintains, as he did last week to voters on Long Island: “We are the strongest nation on earth, militarily. If adversaries attacked the U.S., they would be committing suicide.” The fundamental question: How well prepared is the U.S. to make use of its military power to protect its interests anywhere in the world?

No one denies that the balance of military power has changed since the U.S. last directly confronted the Soviet Union with a display of force in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. In the past ten years alone, the Soviets have spent $150 billion more than the U.S. on their military forces; they have achieved nuclear parity with the U.S. and considerable superiority in manpower and many conventional weapons. Even so, Brown has taken to the hustings to argue that the U.S. is not nearly as weak as many contend: “A comparison with Soviet readiness, using the same standards, indicates that we’re not so badly off.” The Soviets predominate in offensive weapons, he concedes, but the U.S. excels in defense. “The Soviets have many more tanks, but we have many more antitank weapons. Which is more important? If you’re launching a blitzkrieg, tanks are. If you’re trying to defend against one, antitank weapons are at least as important, probably more so.”

The Soviets outnumber the U.S. 2 to 1 in manpower. But Soviet conscripts typically serve in their units for no longer than a year and thus might not perform effectively in the chaotic conditions of battle. Since command from above is absolute, individual soldiers and even officers are discouraged from taking action on their own—a potentially serious drawback, since personal initiative can sometimes turn the tide of battle.

Brown believes that the U.S. demonstrably leads the Soviet Union in certain areas. Advanced techniques in data processing give the U.S. a substantial advantage in precision-guided weaponry, like long-range cruise missiles, and a major advantage in antisubmarine warfare. Despite the Soviet introduction of improved ballistic missiles, the U.S. still has 10,000 nuclear warheads, compared with the Soviets’ 6,000. Says Brown: “I would say that the trends are not now in their favor because we are modernizing submarine-launched missiles, we have a new class of Trident submarines and a new ballistic missile on the way. We’re another five or more years away from, but surely on the road to, an ICBM replacement that will be as capable as any of theirs—and survivable. Theirs are not.”

To many other strategists, including top military leaders working for the Defense Secretary, this scenario is too optimistic. They are especially concerned about the next few years when increasingly accurate warheads on Soviet SS-18 and SS-19 missiles may give the Kremlin the capacity to launch a successful first strike against the U.S. land-based ICBM force. U.S. submarine-launched missiles, capable of devastating Soviet cities, will still serve as a powerful deterrent, but many Pentagon planners think that the critical “window of vulnerability” will not be closed until 1986, when cruise missiles and the MX missiles are deployed. During this period, they fear, the Soviet Union may be tempted to believe it has overall military superiority and therefore adopt a more aggressive world posture. Says a top U.S. general: “The threat is great. The risks are increasing.” There are three main areas of concern:

PERSIAN GULF. U.S. military experts fear that the U.S. lacks the power to back up Carter’s pledge to protect the vulnerable Persian Gulf. Says Jeffrey Record, a senior fellow at the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis: “There is nothing we could do to block Soviet forces from an invasion of Iran’s northern provinces, any more than they could block us from an invasion of Baja California.”

It is Brown’s view that “our ability to move into the region has improved enormously. We had nothing five years ago, when the U.S. depended on the Shah to protect its interests.” To carry out the new policy, the Joint Chiefs produced a new command: the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force (RDF). It consists of 250 officers and senior NCOS at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., and 200,000 soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen who would come under their command in case of an emergency.

Many of the elements of this force are in place. The Navy has sent 33 craft, 17 of them warships, to the Indian Ocean, where they outnumber 29 Soviet vessels, twelve of which are fighting ships. Seven specially fitted cargo ships are stationed at Diego Garcia and equipped with enough supplies to keep a 12,000-Marine amphibious brigade fighting for a month. Agreements have been made with Kenya, Oman and Somalia to start construction next year of port facilities and airfields that U.S. forces can use in a crisis.

Still, the RDF is not making very rapid progress because of interservice rivalry and red tape. Marine Lieut. General P.X. Kelley, the determined but frustrated commander of RDF, must spend as much time bickering with Pentagon brass as he does solving problems in the field. At the top of his list of requirements, for example, is equipment to produce large quantities of drinking water. Should his troops be dispatched to parched Saudi Arabia, each man would need twelve gallons a day to keep going. At the moment, all kinds of devices are being considered, including one that would condense water from desert air.

Even when the RDF gets fully organized, there are grave doubts about how quickly it can be moved to a trouble spot like the Persian Gulf. Says Kelley: “If you get there fustest, you’re there with the mostest.” But would the RDF arrive first with the most? Brown estimates that the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, which the Pentagon rates as the sharpest, most combat-ready unit in the U.S., would take several weeks to reach its destination because it lacks enough cargo planes to transport its equipment. A Marine division would take even longer to arrive by sea. A small war might be ended, disastrously or otherwise, by the time these forces were on the scene. Warns an Army staff officer: “With piecemeal efforts, you run the risk of piecemeal defeat.”

WESTERN EUROPE. The US is in better shape in a region where it has been prepared to fight alongside its NATO allies for 25 years. Says Brown: “The alliance has substantially improved its military capabilities. There’s a big difference between now and 1975.” He cites with pride the ability to send four U.S. Army divisions to Europe in case of war instead of the one that was available when he took office.

But the Warsaw Pact nations have a big edge in both troops and tanks. Moreover, supplies are so limited that the U.S. Army could not engage in a major tank war for more than eight weeks without either risking defeat or having to resort to tactical nuclear weapons—a perilous decision that could result in an all-out nuclear exchange. Says Thomas A. Callaghan, director of the Allied Interdependence program at the Georgetown Center for Strategic and International Studies: “That is too high a price to pay to retrieve a military disaster that might have been avoided by strong conventional forces.”

Yet those forces are not available. The NATO members have only a limited ability to rearm, resupply or even communicate with one another. Says U.S. Under Secretary of Defense Robert Komer: “We still plan, configure, size, train and equip our forces nationally, as if each of us were going to fight the common enemy alone. This is a recipe for disaster.” The Carter Administration has successfully pressed its allies to take some steps toward integrating NATO’s forces. The President and Brown also won agreement from each NATO member to increase its annual defense spending by 3% in real terms. Says Callaghan: “You’ve got to give them credit. They’ve really tried. If you look back, there’s been a lot of progress. But if you look ahead, it’s just the end of the beginning.”

FAR EAST. Once Carter abandoned his campaign promise to withdraw troops from South Korea, U.S. military strategists concluded that the balance of power in the region was no longer in jeopardy. Says John Collins, a senior specialist in national defense at the Library of Congress: “All told, a rough state of equilibrium now prevails between U.S. and Soviet forces in the Far East.” Brown believes that the balance of power has even tipped toward the U.S. because of a hardening of attitude toward the Soviets by both China and Japan. China now pins down a quarter of the Soviet air and ground forces along its border, and Japan is planning a larger defense effort in response to the Soviet deployment of troops in islands to the north of Japan.

The U.S. faces troubling prospects overseas at least in part because it has a critical shortage at home of trained, competent, motivated military personnel. None of the services, with the exception of the still gung-ho Marines, can keep enough of their best people. Re-enlistment rates are diving. The Army loses 30% of its personnel every year, many of them senior enlisted men. The Air Force currently needs 2,100 pilots and 400 navigators. The number of nuclear-trained engineers re-enlisting for a third time in the Navy has dropped to 7%; a 60% rate is considered necessary. To keep pay scales from falling further behind private industry, Carter signed a bill in September providing for an across-the-board pay increase of 11.7% for all the services, as well as a boost in certain allowances.

U.S. military readiness is also impaired by a failure to modernize weaponry at an acceptable rate. A Pentagon budget document was leaked last week predicting that U.S. ground forces could not meet the Administration’s goal of catching up with the quality of Soviet arms by 1985 and surpassing them by 1990. Addressing the Association of the U.S. Army last week, General Frederick Kroesen, commander of the U.S. Army in Europe, warned: “If we go to war tomorrow morning, we go with an obsolescent Army.” He noted that his troops will long be using artillery pieces that are “not much improved over what we had in World War II.”

Equipment is often not being properly maintained. After the Office of Management and Budget had already cut funds for military operation and maintenance $500 million last year, Congress sliced off another $1 billion. Says a Senate staff expert on defense: “There’s nobody on the Hill watching operation and maintenance. These have no constituency.”

Moreover, certain industries, like aerospace, are booming with civilian business and have little capacity to fill military orders. The waiting time for parts may stretch over months, or even years. It takes 15 to 18 months to fill orders for ammunition, three years to receive landing gear for jet fighters. Says a senior Air Force general: “There is some residual belief in the country that we could repeat what we did in World War II and turn out aircraft by the thousands almost overnight. It takes three years to build some airplanes now.”

While the Pentagon is urgently calling for a bigger budget, money does not solve all problems. Some members of the Rand Corp., the West Coast think tank, believe that defense policies cannot be improved until the U.S. develops a coherent worldwide strategy. They maintain that too much spending is on an ad hoc basis, a reflexive response to an immediate crisis. A new armored personnel carrier, for example, was developed by the Army to carry weaponry big enough to knock out the new Soviet T-72 tank in Europe, but the carrier is too large to be transported in a C-141 cargo plane to potential crisis areas like the Persian Gulf.

In defense of his own policies, Brown insists that no Administration can get too far ahead of public opinion. Soured on the military by the Viet Nam War, America was in no mood for major increases in defense spending until quite recently, perhaps 18 months ago, by which time the Carter Administration was backing bigger Pentagon budgets. Says Brown: “It’s one thing for a voice in the wilderness to be proclaiming a buildup. It’s another to create a political consensus. That takes time.”

Brown has a point. The Carter Administration cannot be blamed for a neglect of the U.S. armed forces that goes back more than a decade. But it would be wrong to ignore the generals and admirals who are sounding serious warnings about our defense forces at a time when national policy is going to require that those forces be ready to fight.

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