Whither the Defense Dollar?


National Defense, by James Fallows, New York: Random House, 1981, 204 pp., $12.95.

For the past few years there have been increasingly insistent calls for expanding the US defense budget. Typically, those arguing for more defense spending point to estimates of Soviet defense spending, apparently much greater than that of the US government. President Reagan is determined to increase defense spending significantly, and he appears to have a great deal of public support for this move.

It is impossible, however, simply to buy "more defense," since defense is not a homogeneous product. The question of what should be bought with defense spending is at least as important as how much should be spent. And since any given defense budget can be spent wisely or foolishly, it is probably more important. This book fits neatly into the current debate on defense spending, since it addresses the question of "what for?" rather than "how much?"—surely a logical progression of the debate.

In his introduction Fallows states that his book "is designed to give the general reader better ways of thinking about defense.…[It] is aimed at readers who are concerned…but have not been steeped in the details of military policy."

Fallows has succeeded in his objective. While I disagree with some of his arguments and conclusions, he unquestionably has outlined the issues starkly and in a manner accessible to the nonspecialist.

Fallows pursues three themes. The first is that national defense is in danger of losing touch with the facts and instead being governed by theory. The second is that war is different from other things people do and must be understood on its own terms. A corollary of this is that soldiering is not "just another job." The third is that the important military questions have little to do with the amount of money the nation spends on defense but rather with the things for and on which the money is spent.

These three themes are interwoven, but Fallows cites specific examples to illustrate each. The examples fall into several categories. The most important are the "managerial" approach, an overemphasis on high technology, and the "civilianization" of the armed forces.

By the "managerial" approach, he means an emphasis on efficiency rather than effectiveness. A manager is concerned with internal criteria of smooth organizational functioning, rather than with external criteria of getting the job done. As someone once put it, managerial efficiency concentrates on turning an expensive defeat into an inexpensive defeat. Both, of course, are unacceptable; it is the noun, not the adjective, that must be changed.

Fallows is particularly concerned about the effect of the managerial attitude on troop leadership. It shapes the way servicemen view their roles. It suggests that the military is just another job: the leaders can be concerned mainly with advancing their own careers, while the work force can be motivated by the same incentives used on a production line. This view is simply contrary to everything military history teaches.

I agree with Fallows regarding the pernicious effects of the managerial attitude on both officers and enlisted men. It has done untold damage to America's military readiness. Although Fallows lays the blame for it on Robert McNamara, who undoubtedly deserves a lot of blame, the problem goes back further than that. Eisenhower's defense secretary, "Engine Charlie" Wilson, contributed to it, and some of the roots can be traced to World War II and the civilian leaders who occupied high-level decisionmaking posts.

Fallows's indictment of high technology includes several aspects. There is the view that high technology is a "magic weapon" that can overcome the disparity in numbers faced by American troops. There is the problem that high-technology weapons are unreliable and so spend most of their life in the repair shop. Finally, there is the problem that high-technology weapons are more expensive than simpler weapons. We thus buy fewer of them and find we can't allow the troops to practice with them. When a single antitank rocket costs $10,000, clearly we can't allow every soldier to fire one every week to remain proficient.

Here, I have to disagree with Fallows. True, high-technology weapons have often been oversold as magic cures for being outnumbered. Once fielded, they have turned out to be poorly designed or to have conceptual flaws that make them worthless. As an example, Fallows cites the TOW antitank rocket, which requires the gunner to expose himself to enemy fire for a full 10 seconds while guiding the rocket to its target. No soldier in his right mind would do such a thing, and the weapon is likely to be thrown away rather than used in combat. But the remaining charges are a bum rap.

There is nothing inherently unreliable about high-technology devices. The problem has been that not enough money is allocated for testing the devices, and feeding the test results back into design changes, during weapons development. "Testing" is all too often perfunctory, and the first real test the weapon receives is when it is issued to the troops. As should be expected, it doesn't work. Modifying the entire production run is too expensive. So the troops are left with an inadequate weapon.

But the problem is lack of testing, not high technology. At a more fundamental level, the problem is that people can't get promoted for proving that a design is no good. There are strong disincentives for adequate testing.

The notion that the expense of high-technology weapons prohibits adequate training with them sounds plausible—but it's not that simple. In the 1950s, most pilots did their "proficiency flying" in World War II relics that were (by today's standards) cheap to fly. Even then, Congress and several administrations tried to cut the cost of proficiency flying. The services reduced the number of pilots and whittled away at the number of flying hours required annually of each pilot. By the early 1960s, pilots in certain assignments were even excused from flying but retained their flying pay. Even if airplanes were redesigned to be cheap and plentiful today, the budgeteers would still try to cut the number of flying hours.

Fallows correctly identifies "civilianization" as a serious problem. A military organization cannot be run like a factory or a university. It must establish bonds of loyalty among its members, both vertically and horizontally. If an army is to succeed at military tasks in wartime, it must be run as a military organization even in peacetime.

Fallows attributes "civilianization" to the "volunteer army," recommending the draft as a way of curing the problem. In fact, civilianization didn't start with the volunteer army but can be traced back to the Doolittle Board of 1946.

The board was an outgrowth of the draftee army of World War II. Many military practices that had been acceptable in a voluntary and professional force were deemed unacceptable in an army of draftees, so the board was instructed to "democratize" the armed forces. It produced a wide range of recommendations. Some of these, such as abolishing the salute, were not adopted. Others, such as the optional inclusion of enlisted men on courts martial when the defendant is an enlisted man, were adopted.

The merits of the various recommendations of the Doolittle Board are not at issue here. The point is simply that the trend toward civilianization of the military goes back more than 30 years. We are now seeing the fruits of that trend, but it is incorrect to blame them on the volunteer army and thus to think that a return to the draft would solve them.

The pre-World War II army was the most professional army the United States ever had. This was the army that produced Eisenhower, Patton, Marshall, MacArthur, and the other "great captains" of World War II. It was a completely volunteer army. The Marines are one of our most professional fighting forces; they have a tradition of being volunteers. The French Foreign Legion is one of the world's most professional fighting forces; it has always been a volunteer service. There is no necessary conflict—and in fact there has historically been a link—between professionalism and a volunteer army.

In summary, Fallows has identified the right problems. His solutions are not so much wrong as inadequate, usually from lack of historical perspective. Nevertheless, if you want to be informed about today's defense issues, this book is one you can't afford to miss. Just don't take everything in it as the last word.

Joseph Martino is a senior research scientist with the University of Dayton's Research Institute for Applied Systems Analysis and is the technological forecasting editor of the Futurist.