Butcher Knives Won’t Do It

Feb. 1, 1990

On the cover of its December 11 issue, US News & World Report asks: “After the Cold War, Do We Need an Army?” The editors conclude that the nation ought to keep the Army–but not in its present size and configuration.

Elsewhere, doubts are rising thick and fast about the continued requirement for aircraft carriers, ballistic missiles, fighter wings, and manned bombers. Pundits argue about whether the defense budget should be cut by a quarter rather than by half.

The underlying notion here is that the US military may no longer have much of a mission left. A popular view of the future imagines armed forces that are small, simple, and cheap, designed mainly for commando raids and little dustups in remote corners of the globe.

That vision is flawed. It does not nearly cover the requirements of national security, and it underestimates the expense and difficulty of so-called “low-intensity conflict.”

US interests continue to expand internationally. What happens abroad is of more direct consequence to us than it was as recently as ten years ago. Our interests need more protection than we can give them with hang gliders and butcher knives.

The TASS News Agency announced in Moscow on December 15 that the personnel strength of Soviet armed forces is 3,993,000. That figure is 37,000 lower than the Pentagon’s latest on Soviet manpower. By either count, it is a large force, and it is well equipped with modern tanks, missiles, and combat aircraft.

If history were frozen at this moment, the accurate number might be of limited concern. The Soviet Union is determined to pacify the West. The last thing it wants is a confrontation. But who knows how soon the great nations might find their objectives or interests in conflict again? The military balance would then matter very much.

The threat is not disappearing so much as it is diversifying. Numerous World countries have ballistic missiles, and others are acquiring them. Nuclear weapons technology is spreading. The time is not too far distant when some future Khomeini or Qaddafi will be able to target the site of his choice in Nebraska as readily as the Soviet Union can today.

As history demonstrated in Vietnam and Afghanistan, small nations can fight rather effectively. The super-powers have no monopoly on high-technology weapons. Paul D. Wolfowitz, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, reminds us that “potential adversaries in the Third World are no longer trivial military problems,” noting that Iraq has almost as many tanks as West Germany does. We are on the threshold of epic change. World population will double by the year 2050, with developing nations accounting for ninety-one percent of the increase. Nigeria, Pakistan, Brazil, and Indonesia will have surpassed the US in population, and Bangladesh, Iran, Ethiopia, and the Philippines will be immediately behind us on the list. We are about to see a redistribution of power–and aspiration for power–worldwide and an enormous shift in the demand for resources.

The visionaries are correct on one point. US armed forces will become smaller. Right or wrong, the nation has reached a consensus to reduce its military strength. But as we will discover eventually, the major missions– from nuclear deterrence to the clash of tank armies–remain. It may be necessary, however, to employ force with more precision and from a greater distance.

Even before the demise of the Soviet empire in eastern Europe, the United States was insisting that its armed forces take a prominent role in the war on drugs. Judging from expressions of public approval, the recent operation in Panama is an example of the kind of action the nation wants, and perhaps expects, from the military. That operation may have resembled “low-intensity conflict” in that there was restraint in tactics, but it was conducted by a large force with standard military equipment and the advantage of a US military base in the area.

We cannot count on overseas bases for the forward deployment of our forces in the future. It will become necessary to project American power from American shores. Aircraft carriers may be the answer in many instances, but they are limited in the force packages they can carry, and they cruise at speeds of only thirty knots. There will be a premium on forces with long range and high yield, getting by with austere logistics and support.

Greater accuracy will be important, too. Such terms as “surgical” strike and “pinpoint accuracy” are too often used as a careless sort of shorthand to mean that today’s weapons are vastly more accurate than their predecessors. Taken literally, those labels overstate it quite a bit–especially on a dark night in a strange place. Tomorrow’s forces will need a precision that approaches the “surgical” and the “pinpoint,” and they won’t get it with bargain-basement technology.

From top to bottom, the forces of the future will have to be much better than those of the present. As overall numbers decline, there will be progressively less tolerance for marginal quality or capability.

Realistic security requires a balanced mix of land, sea, and air forces, well-trained and superbly equipped. They may be smaller, but it is unlikely that they will be either very simple or very cheap.