Rumsfeld's battle

Posted: Wednesday, May 23, 2001

The following editorial appeared in today's edition of the Los Angeles Times:

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is determined to challenge the policy assumptions that guide the vast organization he heads, and he is not overly concerned about whose feelings are hurt in the process. His marching orders come from President Bush, who has given Rumsfeld "a broad mandate to change the status quo" in strategic thinking and to move military planning and procurement decisively into the post-Cold War era.

To help guide his thinking, Rumsfeld has appointed more than a score of panels, composed of civilian defense experts, which have been working behind closed doors. Those who for now have largely been cut out of the process-the service hierarchies, Congress, major defense contractors-are accustomed to having a strong voice in how defense dollars are spent and are expressing strong objections to being snubbed.

Rumsfeld surely knows he is inviting political trouble down the road when Congress takes up his reform proposals. But his approach makes sense. The military status quo is largely what Congress, the armed services and defense industry lobbies have made it. Bringing these vested interests into the picture now would dilute the chances for effective reforms.

Among the changes likely to be proposed is abandoning the fallacy that the military must be ready to fight two regional wars virtually simultaneously. It is not ready for that, and the chance that it would be required to do so-to fight, say, on the Korean peninsula and in the Persian Gulf-is remote. Recognizing that would go far to reshape planning about force needs.

Bush has already talked about unilaterally reducing the 7,300-warhead strategic nuclear arsenal. That step could save billions annually. Shifting to lighter, more easily transportable weapons and investing more in unmanned aircraft-both reconnaissance and attack planes-and long-range precision-guided weapons could also have a big payoff.

Congress, in cahoots with defense contractors, continues to foist on the services ships, planes and other equipment they don't need or want. Congress also insists on keeping open dozens of redundant Cold War-era military facilities to preserve what in many cases are little more than make-work jobs. Billions could be saved if just some of the politics could be squeezed out of unnecessary procurement and anachronistic base operations.

Carrier battle groups, supersonic short-range fighters, heavy tanks are the visible symbols of American military power. But those who caution that they belong to a rapidly receding age deserve to be listened to. Technological advances-in computers, sensors and weaponry-are rapidly changing the way wars are fought. Technology can vastly increase the effectiveness of offensive operations. It can also leave many traditional weapons more vulnerable to attack and destruction.

Defense planning is always a matter of choices. Rumsfeld wants to put new choices on the table by focusing on fresh ways of thinking about U.S. security responsibilities and how future wars should be fought. First, though, he must win support for his plans in Congress, whose control over the purse gives it the ultimate weapon.

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