Commentary

Rumsfeld vs. the Pentagon

By Ivan Eland
April 11, 2001
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has presented the preliminary findings of his secretive defense review to President Bush. If initial press leaks are any indication, a 21-gun salute is in order. According to senior defense officials, Rumsfeld may go after some of military services’ crown jewels — despite opposition from the kings of the Pentagon’s bureaucratic fiefdoms.

First and most important, Rumsfeld appears willing to abandon the nation’s two-war strategy. That mainstay of President Clinton’s overextended defense policy required the United States to be able to fight two wars nearly simultaneously (with Iraq and North Korea, for example). Yet even during the Cold War when a rival superpower could have orchestrated trouble in two regions at once, the United States never fought two wars simultaneously. The Soviets never took advantage of U.S. involvement in conflicts in Korea, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf to attack U.S. vital interests elsewhere.

In a more benign post-Cold War era in which no hegemonic enemy exists, the possibility of one regional power taking advantage of a U.S. war with another regional power to commit aggression is even more remote. In the rare event that it did occur, however, the United States could merely crush each minor power sequentially. The congressionally mandated National Defense Panel recognized that fighting two wars nearly simultaneously was an unlikely scenario and that the strategy was merely being used to justify existing military forces. Rumsfeld sees through this ruse.

Amazingly, Rumsfeld also seems inclined to ask the Navy to end production of the 100,000-ton supercarriers because they have become vulnerable to attacks by anti-ship missiles, which are proliferating around the world. Such large ships are expensive, costing $5 billion each. They are also vulnerable, requiring six surface escort ships (at about $1 billion apiece) and two submarines (about $1.8 billion each) to protect them. As this vulnerability has increased, more of the embarked aircraft are required to provide air defense against the growing capabilities of the air forces of regional powers — leaving fewer planes for offensive action. The carrier admirals who dominate the Navy will not take this lying down.

Equally astonishing is Rumsfeld’s apparent willingness to cut back the pride of the Air Force — manned tactical fighter aircraft. Since the Vietnam War, the tactical fighter generals have pushed out the bomber generals to gain control of the Air Force. As a result, the Air Force is planning to buy two of the three new fighter planes in development — the stealthy F-22 and the Joint Strike Fighter. In contrast, the Air Force will not start research and development on a new bomber until well into the next decade and will not begin producing that plane until after 2030. The B-52s will be more than 80 years old before those new bombers replace them.

The Air Force’s emphasis on shorter- range fighters at the expense of long-range bombers comes at a time when bases close to the fighting will most likely come under increasing threat from enemy ballistic missiles. The bombers, operating from more remote bases in the theater (or even from the United States), would be less vulnerable to such attacks.

In addition, manned aircraft may become more vulnerable to proliferating surface-to-air missiles. Rumsfeld grasps those likely trends in future warfare and seems inclined to spend more on bombers and unmanned aircraft and while putting less emphasis on tactical fighters. One defense official even predicted that Rumsfeld would purchase fewer F-22s.

The F-22 is the most sophisticated tactical fighter ever built and also the most costly ($180 million per aircraft). The plane was originally designed to fight for air superiority against two Soviet fighters that were never built. In the post-Cold War era, the aircraft is a relic.

Despite Rumsfeld’s good instincts, he has not yet specified which weapons he would skip to generate savings for research and development on futuristic systems. This is the crucial step. When the specifics are provided, special interests in the military services, the defense industry, and Congress (in short, what Dwight Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex) will undertake a furious effort to defeat Rumsfeld’s heroic efforts. Rumsfeld is trying to reform a gargantuan bureaucracy that still buys the wrong weapons with an industrial policy more at home in the old communist bloc than in the freest nation on earth.

The president supports Rumsfeld’s efforts to tame the behemoth, and the American people should too. You can’t have too many allies in a fight against the most powerful military in the world.

Ivan Eland is director of defense policy studies.