Misleading myths

Leslie H. Gelb

January 29, 1991|By Leslie H. Gelb

RIGHT-WING propagandists have discovered how to use the Persian Gulf war, which many of them oppose, to ride an old hobbyhorse back into the sunlight. Turn on the television, look at their columns, and learn two new meta-facts:

* We should praise the heavens for President Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, or Star Wars, for giving us the Patriot missiles, now famous for shooting down Iraqi Scud missiles.

* We have Reagan's fat increases in military spending to thank for winning the war.

The first is pure baloney; the second contains a grain of very misleading truth.

Let's begin with the colorful Star Wars-Patriot tale. The Patriot is not now and never has been part of the Strategic Defense Initiative programs and owes nothing of its success to Star Wars technology.

For the truth, just call Maj. Peter M. Keating, an Army spokesman, who said in response to a query that the Patriot and SDI "are not even a spinoff of each other." For emphasis, he added, "Absolutely."

The Patriot was originally designed in the Ford administration to shoot down aircraft. Independently of the Star Wars bureaucracy and at modest cost, the Army changed the computer software and the explosive fuse on the missiles, and made the system ready for its present anti-missile duty.

Yes, the Patriot and Star Wars are both intended to intercept missiles. But the similarity ends there.

It's like saying that since people and elephants both have ears they can equally enjoy Mozart.

More troubling than the Patriot tale is the Reagan's-winning-the-war myth. In the first place, the war in the gulf is being fought with conventional weapons, not nuclear ones.

Nukes were the trademark of the budget fashioned by Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. Nukes far more than tanks and fighter-bombers constituted the thrust of his increases in weapons procurement and research and development.

Remember the B-1 bomber, canceled by President Jimmy Carter and reinstituted by Weinberger? Now, $30 billion later, the plane is so bad that the Air Force rarely flies it. The old B-52s are doing the heavy bombing work over Iraq and Kuwait.

Almost all the technological wonders of the gulf war were begun well before Reagan.

Harold Brown, Carter's defense secretary, deserves the major credit for the sea-launched cruise missiles, the Stealth bomber and the HARM missiles employed so effectively against radar.

One of Weinberger's notable technological contributions was the Navy's A-12 attack plane. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney just canceled it after a few billion dollars was wasted.

As for improvements in the readiness of conventional forces, the Reagan-Weinberger duo merits about half the credit. No one pushed harder than congressional Democrats to buy stockpiles of munitions and spare parts.

Reagan spent about $1.5 trillion on defense, several hundred billion more than Carter had planned.

Most was well spent and justified. But much of the quick and large increases fell victim to mismanagement, waste and fraud.

Here is how that performance was described in 1988 by David Packard, deputy defense secretary under President Gerald R. Ford and chairman of Reagan's own Blue Ribbon Commission on Defense Management: The administration, Congress and the Defense Department, Packard said, "have created an environment in which honest and efficient military acquisition is impossible to implement . . . One could do as good a job in awarding the major contracts by putting the names of the qualified bidders on the wall and throwing darts."

Also not to be forgotten, Weinberger's Pentagon operation achieved a record number of indictments and convictions for fraud and thievery.

If the right-wingers' new line on defense were simply to justify their past support for all the waste, it would be amusing. If it were just the usual campaign to portray Democrats as weak-kneed and lily-livered, that would be understandable.

But their real aim is to keep military spending around $300 billion after the war ends -- and that would prove deadly at the very moment when the nation will need to refocus on domestic priorities.

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