Our military is sick, in deep denial We need to balance low and high tech, and turn fat into muscle

February 09, 1997|By David H. Hackworth

OUR MILITARY machine is sputtering like a worn-out tank.

If a doctor looked at our armed forces he'd see a bloated patient, lacking coordination and into advanced denial.

A business management expert would see redundancy, inefficiency and obsolescence. He'd see skewed priorities, a corrupt personnel setup and a lousy accounting system.

In arguing for peace through strength, Ronald Reagan was half right. But all he did was throw money at the problems. He solved nothing.

I shudder when I look at how our 1995 tax dollars were spent: 50 cents for entitlements, 16 cents for interest on the debt, 17 cents for defense.

That leaves us only 17 cents on the dollar to run the nation -- for education, health, highways, transportation and everything else. And if entitlements, interest and defense spending aren't brought under control, even that 17 cents is going to shrink like a cheap T-shirt.

We must constantly ask: "Is this particular expenditure necessary? Is there a smarter way to defend America?"

Closing redundant military bases is one positive move for an enormous savings. But we need to apply the same non-partisan approach to every cost, from tent pegs to satellites, from squads divisions.

The first step is to clean up the military's top leadership. We must find leaders who will put our country and soldiers first, not their individual service and their career, war fighters in the great tradition of Matt Ridgway, Chester Nimitz, Jimmy Doolittle and Vic "the Brute" Krulak.

We haven't lost all the good guys, studs like Gen. Hugh Shelton and Adm. Snuffy Smith. And President Clinton deserves full marks for putting three top warriors who care about people and want to do the right thing in charge of the Air Force, the Army and the Marine Corps: Gen. Ronald Fogleman, Gen. Dennis Reimer and Gen. Charles Krulak, son of the Brute.

But these good appointments haven't changed the behavior of the Perfumed Princes entrenched throughout the system. That culture is all-pervasive.

Somewhere around the lieutenant-colonel level all too many become so obsessed with making it to the top, they'd poison their mothers if that's what it took to get there.

The higher these officers rise, the more they lose their nerve -- because they have more to lose. These are not leaders who would take the point, stand tall to correct a wrong, or fall on their sword for their men.

Politically correct, they go along to get along. They are not risk-takers. To take risks, you have to have nerve. What they have is bureaucratic cunning.

We are being ripped off on what we pay defense contractors. The taxpayer pays billions to develop a new weapons system. The contractor then sells the system overseas and his profits skyrocket because he hasn't had to pay the full bill for research and development. There have been attempts to control this scam, but the porkers on Capitol Hill have resisted them.

Blubber, bureaucracy and duplication do not give the United States a stronger force or the edge in a fight. They produce a weaker military force. During lean times no individual service has enough to do the job and eventually all become as hollow and limp as a used straw.

To get an idea of our current girth, check out the Pentagon -- 10 square miles of posturing and stealing surrounded by reality. Our military is down to 1.5 million, but there are 26,000 people trying to look busy in that five-cornered concrete bunker. Thousands more big and little bureaucrats are squirreled away in Washington office buildings. Amazing. More clerks than trigger-pullers.

Right now we have only 192,000 trigger-pullers out of 732,000 people on active duty in the Army and Marines. That is like leaving 75 percent of the cops in the police station to shuffle papers, rather than out on the beat fighting crime.

You can find the same blubber at every headquarters in the military. But down in the trenches, where warriors fight and die, we never have enough people.

Right now we are not gearing our efforts to genuine threats but rather to the overwhelming momentum of the Military Industrial Congressional Complex.

We can no longer afford to inflate our enemies list just to justify our weapons list.

Instead we have to plan for two quite different kinds of war. First, low-tech fighting of the kind we saw in Somalia -- man pitted against man, small-scale, deadly and with significant political repercussions. Also, high-tech war: laser against laser, long-distance war with satellites and digital battlefields, the mighty computer chip driving whiz-bang weapons only now in their infancy.

But we are behaving and spending as if we're in a "Star Wars" galaxy. For the immediate future, given the end of the superpower face-off and the nature of our new, fragmented world, we are a lot more likely to find ourselves in a pile of low-tech Mogadishu-style fights.

Our obsession with high-tech, the search for the ultimate wonder weapon, has kept us from striking the right low-tech, high-tech balance.

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