Expen$ive Dino$aur$ America's defense requires a different use of resources, not more spending


Defense Secretary William S. Cohen's much-anticipated military and defense review has been released, but the flaws in Pentagon planning are still glaring.

America's defense does not require a larger budget to meet the challenges of the post-Cold War world. It needs different resources.

Haiti, Bosnia, NATO expansion, stability in Korea, keeping Iraq in check; all these are primarily Army and Air Force missions. Yet the Army has been reduced by about 40 percent, the Navy has been cut back far less, and the Marines hardly at all.

Advances in technology make the Marines' expeditionary role and the Navy's aircraft carriers obsolete.

As it stands, the United States is paying more for a military that can do less.

Today, with aircraft technology permitting long-range flights, carrier-based air support is increasingly obsolete. It takes longer to deploy than Air Force power and has only a fraction of the air-strike capability at a much higher cost.

An Air Force wing about 70 fighter-bombers strong can move from Germany or the United States into the Persian Gulf within 24 hours. Unless a carrier is close by, it can require three days to a week to arrive. And even then, it provides only about 40 less-capable ground-attack aircraft.

Yet according to Pentagon planning for the next 10 years, about $260 billion, or twice as much, will be spent on carrier groups and their aircraft as on land-based tactical planes -- $126 billion. About $19 billion and $18 billion, respectively, will be spent on each for research and development.

Carrier-based airpower is allocated at $152 billion, roughly three times as much as the $56 billion for ground-based air power.

Clearly, a carrier-based aircraft is the most expensive way to deliver a bomb to a target. When the most advanced aircraft could fly only up to about 300 miles round-trip, floating airports made sense.

Not so today, when fighters and strategic bombers can fly across oceans in less than a day.

In the 1980s, when the United States decided to strike Libya, two carriers in the Mediterranean Sea did not have sufficient capabilities to execute the mission. An Air Force F-111 bomber unit based in Britain was added to the strike force. A plan to conduct the mission with B-52s, all based in the United States, was also developed.

The mission could have been executed without carrier-based aircraft, adding a lot more bombing power for a fraction of the cost.

The case for the Marines as an expeditionary force is no better. With the technology of wide-body aircraft construction and more efficient jet-engine technology, the existing fleet of 20 C-17 and 80 C5A transports can easily lift elite Army special-ops units anywhere in the world in less than a day. They can seize an airfield in an hour or less.

Within several hours, an Army tank company, possibly a battalion, can be landed by air. Within a day, more than 50 tanks can be landed if additional C-17s are procured as planned.

Very few countries in the world could hope to contain, much less quickly defeat, such a force once it was on the ground. Moreover, in two or three days it could be increased to a mobile force of a couple of hundred combat vehicles.

Marines must sail for days to arrive at their destination. Once they slog their way across the beaches, they are usually still far from a point where they could take decisive action against a capital or an inland concentration of the country's military forces.

Except for the occasional use of modest amphibious forces, the Marine approach to expeditionary missions is obsolete, given today's technologies. Most hazards demanding a rapid commitment of forces to distant places will not require the military units to fight their way in.

Army forces, supported by Air Force tactical air and strategic airlift, offer by far the most effective expeditionary power for the future.

Yet the major changes since the Persian Gulf war have been reductions in Army and Air Force abilities. The Navy's carrier fleet stands at 12, with a single carrier battle group costing about $50 billion for a 10-year life cycle. The Army's divisions, at $10 billion for a heavy division with a 10-year life cycle, have been cut from 18 to 10. Moreover, only about $50 billion is allocated for procurement of Army forces in the next 10 years, compared to $152 billion and $56 billion for carrier and land-based air power.

The Army provides much of the logistics for Marine units when they operate inland, as in the gulf conflict. The Army also pays for a large portion of the research and development costs for Marine weaponry, as well as for some of the training. Marine forces cost about 25 percent more than equivalent Army forces, which have far greater combat capabilities.

Some observers believe that aircraft carriers were necessary to deter Chinese military maneuvers near Taiwan in March 1996. In fact, they were not.

More airpower could be projected over the Taiwan Strait by the Fifth Air Force from Japan. In the event of hostilities, much of this airpower could be deployed to Taiwan's air bases.

Moreover, a much cheaper fleet of surface combatants could show the flag with the same effect as the carriers.

As for the Marine deployment in Okinawa, it could be replaced by an Army division or corps stationed in Hokkaido, giving the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Forces a U.S. military counterpart with which to train.

Even in Bosnia, the United States found that carriers and Marines could not compensate for Army divisions and Air Force tactical support. Ground troops proved essential for a lasting truce. To claim that NATO air strikes brought the Serbs to the negotiating table is to overlook the part played by the 100,000 Croatian troops advancing into Serb-held territory.

Future "out-of-area" NATO missions will become increasingly difficult unless the United States maintains a full Army corps and supporting Air Force wings in Europe.

Most of the military missions that the United States faces and has confronted for the past four or five years as well as the ongoing ones in Europe, Japan and Korea depend primarily on ground forces backed up by airlift, sealift, tactical air power, logistics, communications and intelligence.

The threats that carrier battle groups and a large attack submarine fleet were built to confront no longer exist. With the demise of the Soviet navy, there is no significant naval fleet in the world other than the U.S. fleet. Nor could one emerge quickly.

This absence of a significant naval threat offers the opportunity to maintain a very small fleet for a decade or so. But the Navy stubbornly insists on entering the next century with a large fleet laden with expensive new technology of dubious value.

It wants to put stealth fighters on carriers, and it seeks to put theater missile-defense systems at sea as a way to justify largely superfluous Aegis cruisers. The submarine fleet continues to receive new vessels when it is too large for any conceivable challenge it could face in the next several decades.

Focus and common sense are needed to avoid squandering funds on bureaucratically inspired programs such as the Marine Corps' proposed amphibious assault vehicle or its V-22 Osprey helicopter. Navy and Air Force schemes for limited missile defense fall into the same category. So does the Sea Wolf submarine program.

Meanwhile, the high-tech impressions given the public during the gulf war were based mainly on laser-guided bombs developed during the Vietnam War, AWACS radar planes developed in the 1970s and only-somewhat-newer stealth aircraft.

The truly revolutionary aspects of the gulf conflict were the airlift and sealift capacities to move more tonnage to Saudi Arabia than was moved across the English Channel during the Normandy invasion. Moving nine ground divisions and supporting airpower halfway around the world in a few months truly marks a new threshold in demonstrated military power.

Yet it could have been done in weeks had the Pentagon invested the cost of two or three carrier battle groups in airlift and sealift capabilities a decade earlier.

Unfortunately, the heavy emphasis on carriers and amphibious forces has been financed by reducing ground and air forces. And the withdrawal of the U.S. military from key alliances in Europe and northeast Asia is being thinly but effectively veiled by hoopla about "power from the sea" and new technologies for "precision strike" weapons, while existing technology is only marginally exploited and much of it is used by increasingly obsolete forces.

Such American retreat leads inexorably to disengagement and isolation. Whether the pullback is to the sea, the sky, space or research-and-development laboratories is of little consequence to the rest of the world.

America's emerging military force reflects strong coalitions of industry lobbies, local political interests and interservice rivalries.

When the comfortable illusion of what the rising force can actually do is stripped away, this is the reality.

Lt. Gen. William E. Odom (Ret.) is director of national security studies at the Hudson Institute and adjunct professor of political science at Yale University. This is adapted from a longer article in Foreign Affairs Magazine.

Pub Date: 8/10/97

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