The Pentagon's ultimate weapon too wonderful to use

October 09, 1995|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- American defense spending is usually attacked by its critics as out of proportion to reasonably foreseeable threats to the country, or as a mechanism for transferring public wealth to corporate treasuries. The Pentagon's commitment to hyperbolically expensive technologies is more interesting than that.

Congressional determination to press even more money on the Defense Department than it asks for is, on the other hand, simply explained. Building more B-2 bombers and Sea Wolf submarines than the services request is an affair of pork-barrel politics, hallowed by time.

Modern lobbying and the serendipitous coincidence of interest in military spending among politicians, defending their power and office, their PAC financiers, whose members get the weapons contracts, and the broadcast media, to whom most of the PAC money eventually is transferred in the course of the politicians' re-election campaigns, gives the pork barrel unprecedented size and importance today. But the nation's business is business, and politicians who forget that are themselves forgotten.

There are other reasons why the Pentagon spends so much. At one level its decisions reflect the American quest for technological victory: for the moon, let us say -- both figuratively, and in 1969, literally. It is technologically interesting to build a bomber that can fly from the United States to any place in the world, without detection, and there smite the nation's enemies with ''smart'' weapons that will take out what Washington likes to call ''outlaw'' regimes.

The B-2 ''stealth'' bomber, with its (currently) projected cost of some $2.2 billion a unit, which promises, not yet convincingly, to be able to do all of the above, is also the latest in a line of American strategic weapons which have seemed to promise national omnipotence. That is even more interesting to the Pentagon -- and to the public.

Invulnerability seems offered as well: arms-length security, a virtually risk-free ability to strike decisively at great distance, without engagement on the ground, in total autonomy of action, without embroilment in alliance politics or ''multilateralist'' controversies with other countries or with the U.N. The politico-psychological appeal of this is irresistible.

It has always been the appeal of strategic bombing. The first American strategic bomber, the B-17, which went into production shortly before the second World War, was called the ''Flying Fortress.'' This choice of name was significant.

During the war itself new bombers were given names meaning intervention and attack -- ''Liberator,'' 'Marauder,'' etc. But as the war's end approached the first intercontinental bomber was designed and produced, the B-29. It was called the ''Superfortress.'' It dropped the first atomic bomb, and the combination of intercontinental bomber and nuclear weapon seemed to have restored national invulnerability.

Don't go near the war

The B-2, which requires neither carriers to fly from, nor overseas bases, is a new weapon of omnipotence and invulnerability, suitable to a post-Vietnam America in which, having won the Cold War, Pentagon and public want to stay as distant as possible from real wars.

It also, incidentally, represents an attempt by the U.S. Air Force to re-establish itself as the dominant American military arm, the latest round in its old rivalry with the Navy. This struggle goes back to the 1920s, when Gen. ''Billy'' Mitchell demonstrated -- to the Navy's fury -- that bombers could sink battleships.

After World War II the Air Force opposed the Navy's plan to build new battleships, and won, becoming America's dominant military force. The Navy struck back with the missile-launching nuclear submarine, and took back from the Air Force the principal role in strategic warfare.

It also remained the primary American limited-intervention force, with its carrier task forces and shipboard Marines. The B-2 is the Air Force's bid to wrench military primacy back from the Navy. An aircraft carrier and a B-2 cost roughly the same amount of money.

However, the real significance of the B-2 has nothing to do with cost, utility, service rivalries, or even war. The B-2 is too sophisticated for war. Its very cost blocks its use.

The B-2 is the culminating product of what may be called the technological delirium possessing the Pentagon in recent years, in which readiness for real military challenges has been subordinated to the pursuit of ultimate weaponry -- able to make every other weapon obsolete, and to make America perfectly secure. This is the dark side of the quest for the moon.

The B-2 is less a weapons system than a fantasy about security and omnipotence, and for this reason there is no limit on the amount that can be spent on it. It is, in a perverse sense, the ultimate Pentagon weapon, so wonderful, even if it worked, as to have no appropriate use. The Pentagon's devotion to it -- and even more, that of a congressional majority -- tells too much about the place of fantasy in American national life today, when domestic reality can be so painful.

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William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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