McNamara's Ghost


Alexandria, Virginia -- When Robert L. McNamara -- formerly assistant professor at Harvard University, later head of Ford Motor Company -- became secretary of defense in 1961, he brought to the Pentagon a host of bright young assistants and a determination to establish firm civilian control over the U.S. armed forces. With assistance from those youthful but militarily inexperienced executives (the so-called "Whiz Kids"), he succeeded.

He also brought a briefcase full of management techniques he had employed at Ford. Mr. McNamara seemed convinced that these procedures -- used to produce automobiles -- could be applied across the board to national defense. Among them, he placed infinite reliance on a management tool he had wielded in Dearborn: systems analysis.

Mr. McNamara entrenched an office -- Systems Analysis -- in the Pentagon, not only to analyze service programs but to originate them. One bright, young analyst during the latter McNamara years, Les Aspin, is now Secretary of Defense.

Then a newly commissioned Army Reserve second lieutenant, Mr. Aspin served his active duty obligation in Systems Analysis, wearing civilian clothes. He worked with computer models of military issues, many of whose solutions ultimately bore scant resemblance to battlefield realities in South Vietnam or to other military uncertainties then confronting the nation.

"McNamara's Band" -- as Systems Analysis quickly became known throughout the Pentagon -- sought to "quantify" everything. The underlying assumption held that computers, fed quantified" inputs, could produce solutions to every problem; professional experience didn't matter.

Enemy "body counts" became a progress yardstick in Vietnam. Computers loved the numbers. Similar methodology spawned an electronic fence," touted as the answer to North Vietnamese infiltration into the southern part of that tortured country. It wasn't, of course. Similar analytical failures abounded. One of the more senseless fixations involved development of a fighter aircraft for the Air Force and Navy. It typified Systems Analysis solutions' faults when applied to real-world problems.

SA combined diverse requirements of the two services -- many incompatible -- and established essential characteristics of one aircraft, the TFX, for Tactical Fighter Experimental, to meet the disparate Navy and Air Force needs. The "Whiz Kids" didn't realize that this would inevitably produce an plane whose every component had been reduced to the lowest common denominator. While Systems Analysis rammed the TFX concept through the Pentagon, a far better approach already lay at hand.

At that time, the F-4 Phantom reigned as the premier fighter aircraft in the world; produced by Grumman Aircraft, it strained the boundaries of technology. It proved eminently suited to carrier operations.

The Air Force simply took that plane and removed characteristics it didn't need: wing-folding mechanisms (for carrier operations) heavy landing gear for landing on pitching decks, reinforced tail structure to withstand enormous forces generated by arrested landings, etc. When the Air Force finished modifying the Navy version of the Phantom, it was a much lighter aircraft boasting significantly improved combat capabilities. It subsequently proved to be mainstay of the Air Force, particularly in Vietnam.

For years, the F-4, based afloat and ashore, ruled international skies while both services sought replacements for the aging plane. Each could have acquired a new aircraft, tailored to specific needs, far sooner and at less cost, had the Defense Department learned the lesson of the F-4. Instead, the Air Force had to buy several hundred F-111s (TFXs), those now still in service being used primarily as bombers rather than fighters.

With the nation's armed forces currently "downsizing," every defense dollar must be spent as wisely as possible. The country simply cannot afford to waste money applying theoretical solutions like the TFX to military problems.

One must hope that Secretary Aspin is not still wedded to his systems-analysis background, that he will use it as an analytical tool to examine service proposals -- in the context of the experience accumulated on the battlefield by this nation's military professionals. America's shrinking armed forces cannot survive another McNamara-type reign over the Pentagon.

Rear Adm. Robert J. Hanks (Retired) a former director of strategic Plans and policy for the Navy Department, is a Virginia-based free-lance author.

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