There was an Invisible umbrella of air power over the Lebanese beaches when the Marines landed there last month, a fact largely ignored in the torrent of words written and printed concerning the implications of US military intervention in the bubbling Middle East cauldron. The strategic Air Command dropped no bombs. In fact, as of this writing, no SAC bomber has entered the Middle East air space. But there is little doubt that SAC’s marshaled might, on an alert status at bases throughout the Free World, has played and is playing a big role in the calculations of Moscow and Cairo.
Were the Kremlin unconvinced of SAC’s current ability to pulverize the Soviet Union it is highly doubtful that the Marine landing force would have been met at the beaches solely by holidaying sun worshippers. Indeed, were it not for the threat of SAC, the landing would have been a suicidal gesture on the part of our own government, an open invitation to begin a war that we surely would lose.
The Middle East crisis serves to point up a fact that is easy to ignore or avoid. These are dangerous times. And our ability to react effectively, diplomatically as well as militarily, in such times of crisis is determined almost one hundred percent by the current condition of our force in being. And the effectiveness of that force, in turn, must be gauged by our ability to put bombs on target regardless of enemy opposition and by our demonstrated willingness to do so should the situation so dictate. Without this ability and this willingness our other forces lose their effectiveness, and we face the Soviet chess masters with only a handful of pawns.
If our action in the Middle East serves merely to focus attention on the problem of the force in being it will have accomplished a most useful purpose. For the force in being has suffered serious erosion, both in relative quantity and relative quality since the end of the Korean War. The nub of it is money, or the lack of it, exacerbated by an unwillingness to make hard-and-fast decisions between competing and expensive weapon systems. The latter, we trust, will be alleviated to some extent by adoption of the major features of the President’s Pentagon reorganization plan. At least the machinery will be there, even though wisdom and decisiveness are two qualities that cannot be legislated. And wise decisions can make the money stretch farther.
But the basic problem must be resolved in a bolder approach to defense financing than is now being evidenced on either side of the Potomac.
Secretary of the Air Force James H. Douglas outlined the situation almost two years ago, when he told the American Legion National Security Commission:
“There have seldom been more difficult problems for military judgment than that of phasing new missile systems into a modern Air Force.”
Since that statement much has happened to confirm this assessment although little has been done to solve the problem.
Large Soviet satellites and small American ones have orbited overhead. Test missiles have thundered from their launching pads in Florida and in the Soviet Union. Our initial missile units are becoming operational. There have been brave statements that “New weapons make it possible to reduce the size of the force.”
Unfortunately, the real truth is that the prospect of new weapons – tomorrow, next year, the year after that – is being used to reduce the force in being of today. In the flash and roar from Cape Canaveral it is difficult for many of our national planners, let alone the bulk of the American people, to realize that for the next five years at least, perhaps for the next decade, our security will be centered in conventional manned aircraft of one type or another.
It is a grave temptation, at this point, to play with futures at the expense of the present. Missiles and rockets, satellites and space capsules, are sexier than B-52s or C-133s. And, from a government planner’s point of view, they are cheaper than today’s weapons, since, beyond development costs, they do not have to be paid for today. What isn’t said, of course, is that the development costs go down the drain if the “new” weapons are never bought in quantity.
There are several current examples. The Navaho project was canceled – without an operational missile ever being produced – at a cost of some $700 million. About a billion has been spent on the Snark – truly intercontinental and very nearly operational – but we will wind up with only a handful of a weapon, which admittedly depends on mass employment for its effectiveness. The Bomarc program is in jeopardy, on the dubious ground that the antimissile missile is “in the Mill.”
Granted, there are better weapons in the mill than Navaho, Snark, and Bomarc. But it is equally reasonable to assume that there are also better weapons in the mill than Atlas, or Titan, or Polaris, or Nike-Zeus, or even minuteman. There will always be better weapons in the mill, even if we’re talking about an intercontinental death ray.
This is how the vicious cycle of dealing in futures erodes the combat strength of today. If the trend continues we will never have an adequate force in being, and national security, like 1932 prosperity, will always be “just around the corner.”
There are no cheap and easy solutions. The need for superior force in being is a continuing one because the threat is continuous and growing. Even now, Mr. Khrushchev is brandishing his intercontinental ballistic missile, or the threat of its possible existence, as a diplomatic weapon. If, trough erosion of our own force in being, we cannot reply to such threats with conviction and determination, this nation will be finished as a major power, and the Free World will go down the drain, with or without open conflict.
We cannot make a choice between today’s weapons and tomorrow’s. We need today’s weapons today and tomorrow’s weapons tomorrow. And if the cost of living under these circumstances seems high, there’s a cheap alternative – the death of free institutions everywhere in the world.