Operating in the irradiated afterglow of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 55 years earlier, the Truman administration held that U.S. technological advantage in “air atomic” warfare capabilities obviated the need for large ground forces, which are expensive to maintain. In 1950, obsolescent Russian tanks and massive formations of North Korean and Chinese troops brought reality back into focus along the 38th parallel.
Lessons from Korea went unheeded. In 1954, the new Republican administration of Dwight Eisenhower opted to depend on “massive retaliation” based on U.S. superiority in nuclear weapons. The Army was again reduced in strength. As the 1950s merged into the 1960s, again, the U.S. advantage in high-tech weaponry, while deterring Soviet aggression, didn’t prevent the emergence of challenges from the lower end of the spectrum, this time in Southeast Asia. The pendulum swung back with the Kennedy administration’s focus on “flexible response.” The Army was back and off to Vietnam.
The Obama administration’s vision for the future closely mirrors that emerging from the early days of its immediate predecessor. Nevertheless, as Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has readily admitted, there are risks involved.
What DoD needs is radical restructuring, which probably would result in added efficiencies. However, when dealing with national security, the bottom line is effectiveness and not efficiency. In those terms, the administration’s vision for the future is nothing new.
An American military based on European-style economic and quasi-socialist political models will result in the same rapid decline in world leadership suffered by Britain, France, and even Russia during the last century. The result of the United States’ retreat from the world stage will foster the rise of a global hegemon willing to fill that vacuum, be it China or an unholy alliance of rogue states like Iran, Syria, Venezuela, and North Korea. Those are the threats, and they are real.
Earl Tilford is a retired Air Force officer and college professor who lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He is the author of several books on the air war in Vietnam. His latest book, Turning the Tide: The University of Alabama in the 1960s has been accepted for publication by the University of Alabama Press.