Strategy for the Nearsighted

Oct. 1, 1992

When the Senate Armed Services Committee had Gen. Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on the hot seat in March, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) bore down on the subject of the B-2 bomber.

SENATOR KENNEDY: Well, who is it going to bomb

GENERAL POWELL: I can tell you who it would have bombed if I had had it about 18 months ago.

The Senator did not expect a real answer. His question was rhetorical and loaded. As he knows perfectly well, General Powell cannot predict what wars, if any, the US armed forces of the future will have to fight. Nobody can.

The implication is that unless the Pentagon can specify a clear and present danger–and prove it–we need not spend tax money to prepare for it. That idea, gussied up in different language, has appeal for the public, which is disposed to believe that all threats ended with the cold war.

Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, warns that “our citizens may understandably be reluctant to pay for defense unless there is a clear linkage between the forces and the threats those forces are designed to deal with.” Mr. Aspin’s solution is “threat-based” force planning. He makes some allowance for the unexpected but pegs his calculations basically to requirements that can be anticipated and specified.

In April, a House Armed Services Committee panel chaired by Rep. Dave McCurdy (D-Okla.) concluded that “the United States cannot continue spending billions on weapon systems that may never be used.” Let us hope that sentence was crafted in haste and does not reflect what the panel actually believes.

Some of these viewpoints make more sense than others, but taken as a whole, they add up to a strategy for the nearsighted. They depend far too much on the premise that we need to prepare only for the threats we can currently see.

In The Experts Speak, Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky remind us that the prime minister of Great Britain declared in 1936 that Germany had no desire to attack any country in Europe. In 1938, Time Magazine, complaining about the expense of $492 million a year, asked: “Where, how, and for what does the US Army expect to fight?” In 1945, US Under Secretary of State Dean Acheson saw no point at which the basic interests of the United States and Russia might ever conflict, “now or in the future.” In 1961, President John F. Kennedy labeled “crazier than hell” a suggestion that 300,000 US troops might be deployed to Vietnam.

In 1989, before Saddam Hussein became a household name, a headline in the New York Daily News hooted that the “Pentagon Needs a Few Good Enemies.” In February 1992, the New York Times accused the Pentagon of inventing war scenarios to justify its budget. In August, that same newspaper was calling for air strikes against Serbia and denouncing US and European reluctance to use military force in the Balkans.

Former Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger observes that “Americans tend to be rather romantic. The world seems a benign place, with a natural harmony among peoples only intermittently disrupted by evil men or hostile ideologies. Once those are removed, the natural harmony will be restored.”

Secretary of the Air Force Donald B. Rice says that at the peak of Operation Desert Storm, 35 other conflicts were raging around the world and that a year later, the total had risen to 40. The Oxford Research Group in Britain identifies sixty “current and emerging conflicts” in Europe, noting that “this list does not include the conflicts in the nonEuropean parts of the former Soviet Union.”

In 1984, most of us envisioned Yugoslavia as a civilized place, the picturesque setting for the Sarajevo Winter Olympics, the one where Torvill and Dean skated to a gold medal. That perhaps intensifies the shock of the incredible slaughter that has occurred in Bosnia-Hercegovina. Maj. Gen. Lewis MacKenzie of Canada, former UN commander in Sarajevo, estimates that pacification of the Balkans, “one of the most densely militarized areas of the world,” might require a million troops.

History is littered with optimistic assumptions that turned out to be colossally wrong. So what do we make of it when the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff cannot stipulate who the B-2 is going to bomb or is unable to tell us who the armed forces are going to fight? Not much, except that he has no magic window on the future.

General Powell would no doubt be among the first to agree to the importance of surveying the risks and assessing the probable threats. That is fundamental to planning strategy and force structure. It is quite another thing to decide that a contingency does not exist if it cannot be demonstrated absolutely and described in detail today.

In June 1975, Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa told a reporter, “I don’t need bodyguards.” A month later, Mr. Hoffa disappeared, and he has not been heard from since.