Assigning New Military Order

March 11, 1995|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- John White, a former Marine officer, is playing the biggest war game of them all these days -- deciding how the U.S. military should be organized, manned and equipped to fight its enemies in the 21st century.

"It is a fact that someone in my position has an awful lot of responsibility to get it right," he says.

Weighing the challenge of restructuring the military machine of the world's sole remaining superpower, his mind wanders to the collapse of the 233-year-old Barings Bros. bank in London in recent days.

"That is a tragedy for a great many people," he says. "But it pales in comparison to what happens in this world if we get it wrong."

Mr. White, 58, heads the Commission on Roles and Missions of the Armed Forces, established by Congress last year to conduct the first independent review in nearly 50 years of what the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines do, and how they do it.

He sees his own mission as timely, coinciding with a period of national change, affecting everything from the nation's politics to the federal budget, from the welfare roles to the banking system.

"We are in a new world," he says. "I think there is an opportunity to make a change. I think there is a receptivity to change we have not had for a long time."

The problem is that the military is one of the federal institutions most resistant to change. The current force has also been lauded as the best-trained, -educated and -equipped troops in U.S. history.

Having also just registered a string of recent successes from the Persian Gulf to Haiti, the military services are less than joyful to be put under outside scrutiny, with their individual pride and traditions firmly on the line.

It is difficult enough to change institutions in crisis, observes Mr. White, adding: "Trying to change institutions that think, 'Hey, wait a minute, aren't I the guy who just won?' is doubly hard."

Loren B. Thompson, defense analyst with the Alexis De Tocqueville Institution, a Virginia think tank, said: "It is going to be extremely hard to change the mind-set and culture of the military services. The current debate between the services concerning their respective role suggests extraordinary intransigence and inflexibility.

"Although there may be flaws in the existing commission, the basic idea of a top-to-bottom outside review of roles and missions makes a great deal of sense. The services themselves don't have the creativity or objectivity to review these issues. They may have the expertise but they don't have the inclination."

Mr. White is no stranger to military issues or what he calls "the building," meaning the Pentagon. He was assistant secretary of defense for manpower, reserve affairs and logistics in the Carter administration. Currently, he is director of the Center for Business and Government at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

How does the commission job compare with his term as an corporate executive -- vice president at Eastman Kodak Co. from 1988 to 1992, and before that CEO and chairman of Interactive Systems Corp.?

"It's much more emotional. It is much more complicated, more complex," he replies. "But also there is much more sense of responsibility in that if you get it wrong, the consequences are so much greater."

One by one, over recent months, the military services have put their own views of how future wars should be fought to Mr. White. The Air Force emphasizes the power and range of its planes, and attempted to control all airspace. The Navy anchors its case to the forward deployment of its mighty aircraft carriers. The Army argues that wars can only be won on land. The Marines have reminded him how good and ready to fight are the few and the proud.

"Much of what the services tell me is not that 'we don't need to change' but that 'we are already changing.' At least it's not a straight stiff-arm," he says in an interview in his Northern Virginia office.

"At some point . . . I have to sit down and say, 'I have heard all that, now let me tell you what we as a commission think ought to be done,' " says Mr. White.

"I think we are going to make a lot of hard decisions, and we are going to make a lot of people unhappy. The context in which you do that makes all the difference. We are trying to do it in ways that make hard choices, but put them in a context so that they appear reasonable and responsible."

The commission has no mandate, said Mr. White, to eliminate any of the services. But it would suggest changes "in the way they do business."

"Will they perceive all that as a significant threat institutionally?" he asked. "They might. That's up to them."

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