Reining in Military Overkill

By Bischak, Greg | Issues in Science and Technology, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

Reining in Military Overkill

Bischak, Greg, Issues in Science and Technology

With no major threat in sight, the Pentagon should ease up on its planned buying spree and focus more on nonmilitary means of bolstering U.S. security.

The end of the Cold War set off contentious debate about what constitutes the most effective and least expensive security policy for the United States. A central issue has been the size, pace, and direction of efforts to develop new and improved weapons to meet emerging threats. Although congressional leaders have called for rapid increases in funding for weapons modernization, most of the new weapons spending in the past two budgets has been devoted to older, existing weapon systems and to accelerating R&D funding of new systems in areas where threats are, arguably, dubious. The Clinton administration has argued that congressional add-ons will jeopardize its modernization budget, which is slated to grow to $60 billion in FY2001, a 40 percent real increase over the president's FY1997 request. Critics, however, blame both Congress and the administration for failing to curtail funding for Cold War-era systems, such as the B-2 bomber and the Seawolf submarine, and for modernization programs that lack a coherent rationale in the post-Cold War world, notably the New Attack Submarine and national ballistic missile defense.

Despite this fractious debate, little light has been shed on the critical question of whether the U.S. military really needs to rapidly pursue weapons modernization, especially given its decisive technological advantage in virtually every militarily significant field. Remarkably, there has been a lack of public deliberation about the merits of specific weapon programs based on the probable military threats posed by potential foes. Nor has there been serious consideration of how the continuous pursuit of military superiority can bring with it technological uncertainty and substantial risk of escalation of the cost of new weaponry. And despite recent efforts at joint planning, the armed services' modernization plans still overlap with considerable redundancy in missions and weaponry. This redundancy implies significant overkill capabilities in the Department of Defense's (DOD's) most daunting scenario of two major, nearly simultaneous regional conflicts. Even more remarkable is the absence of a substantial evaluation of the plausibility of the two-war scenario, which guides planning for all post-Cold War defense requirements.

Although Congress has now required DOD to conduct a new review of defense requirements, which will take place early in 1997, there has been scant discussion of which overarching security doctrine these defense requirements should support. The lack of a debate has allowed congressional Republicans to advance an almost entirely military-based approach to preserving U.S. security. Indeed, an alliance of Republican defense and deficit hawks has pushed through cuts in nonmilitary programs to promote international stability, including the modest but important Cooperative Threat Reduction program, which is helping to dismantle nuclear warheads in the former Soviet Union and protect the extracted fissile materials from theft. As an alternative, defense hawks have aggressively promoted national ballistic missile defense as the counterproliferation means of choice. Meanwhile, the administration, though still supporting nonmilitary, alternative security approaches, has largely gone along with the Republican push to boost the military's technological superiority with new, even more lethal, high-tech conventional weapons while preserving a large nuclear arsenal.

But the increasing emphasis on purely military solutions is extremely shortsighted, especially because our greatest near-term threats - the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, ethnic and religious conflicts, international terrorism, and so on - rarely lend themselves to such solutions. Outgoing Defense Secretary William Perry has acknowledged this to be the case with his notion of "preventive defense," enunciated in a speech at Harvard University in May 1996. …

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