Bush Ventures Where Democrats Fear to Tread: Overhauling the Military

  • Share
  • Read Later
TONY KARON: How will the military react to President Bush's proposal to focus on developing a new generation of weapons rather than upgrading existing weapons systems?

MARK THOMPSON: A lot of people in the Pentagon are a little nervous. The President and his advisers believe it's time for a major overhaul of the U.S. military, including its weapons system. And he wants to skip a generation of weapons — in other words, develop some entirely new systems rather than making small improvements on existing ones — in order to prepare the military for a new century. And that obviously makes a lot of people in the Pentagon nervous, because many of them are worried about whether their favorite hobby horses would survive a reallocation of priorities.

It's a lot easier for a Republican president to make big moves on the military than for a Democrat, because the generals can't very well go running to Capitol Hill and complain that guys like Cheney and Rumsfeld don't know what they're doing. So the military is pretty nervous, because they realize that this may be the beginning of a major retooling of the armed forces.

What exactly does "skipping a generation" mean? For example, does the U.S. go ahead and build the F-22 fighter, even though no other country has anything to match the current generation of U.S. fighter planes, nor the capacity to develop and deploy such a rival in the near term?

The F-22 is not skipping a generation. That would be improving on the existing generation of combat aircraft. What would be skipping a generation would be to say we don't need a man in that cockpit, and instead develop a drone operated by a sergeant hundreds of miles away on land with some of the same capability as the F-22. A true next generation of weapons would break with some longstanding traditions, such as the idea that there has to be someone in the cockpit of a fighter plane. The F-22 is so capital-intensive that no other country can play at that level. But a next generation of weapons needn't be more expensive. Opting to replace a flesh-and-blood pilot with a piece of silicon would ultimately save us a lot of money. Likewise if we made our next class of destroyer a minimally staffed floating weapons platform capable of firing hundreds of cruise missiles.

Of course a new generation of weapons will have to be based on the existing infrastructure. You can't simply revolutionize the military across the board. So with aircraft, for example, they're talking about the first unmanned planes being those that would be used against enemy radar, which is usually the first wave of an air campaign. The job is well-suited to an unmanned craft, because it diminishes the risk in a simple air-to-ground mission where the target's location is known.

You seem to be suggesting that this is a process that the Clinton administration may have wanted to start, but was politically unable to initiate...

Since the end of the Cold War, there have been three or four of these comprehensive reviews of the type President Bush is now initiating. Les Aspin did one, William Perry did one, and William Cohen did one. But President Clinton never had the standing in the armed forces to attempt to remake the military. Not as a draft dodger. Not after the gays in the military debacle. And, of course, he's a Democrat. In the eyes of many in the Pentagon, that's three strikes. The Republicans can be a lot tougher on the military because people believe they have the military's best interests at heart, in a way they don't believe the Democrats do.