During his campaign for the presidency, George Bush repeatedly made the bugle-cry pledge to a beleaguered military, "Help is on the way."
Since then, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and military brass have been looking things over in a quadrennial review. Military strategy, tactics and weaponry change with ever-increasing speed. Yesterday's decisive system becomes useless in the face of revamped detection. In the military more than most, one must seek to anticipate and provide for the unforeseen.
And let us not forget the devastation wrought in the military by eight precious years under the nation's first draft-dodging president.
So right now the Pentagon is awash with arcane discussions of throw-weights, UCAVs, stealth, jointness, heavy lift, mobility anti-missiles, up-or-out, and precision strikes. What of the B-1 bomber and the B-2, the Osprey, the F-22 and the Joint Strike Fighter? What about Marine air? Can the Army absorb a reduction of two divisions and still project as an effective fighting force? Is a 300-ship Navy, headed for 200, even worth having?
Add in other persistent questions, and the complexity compounds....
- How best to maintain aging avionics (Aviation Week: "The Air Force experienced a 10 [point] drop in readiness in the 1990s, from 83 percent mission capable to 73 percent, attributed largely to aging avionics systems")?
- What about readiness and morale, recruitment and retention?
- What are the consequences of hostility to American bases abroad, of the loss of live-fire training areas such as Vieques, of the maintenance of obsolescing bases at home? (If the Puerto Ricans object to the Navy on Vieques, can it be long before they begin objecting to the massive Navy base, on Puerto Rico itself, at Roosevelt Roads?)
- Will the Russians and the American left, citing the 1972 ABM treaty, stymie the building of an American anti-missile system?
- Does the American military have a sustainable future in peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance?
- Do tax cuts and a (now) Democratic Senate marginalize the funding of demonstrable military needs?
- What about abiding quality-of-life issues for those in the military? And
- What about the deepening chasm between the nation's civilian and military sectors
Providing for the common defense is the most important thing a government does.
With the latest requested adjustments, the Bush administration would increase the 2002 defense budget by $33 billion over 2001. Yet even that is principally for upgrades, maintenance, spare parts, recapitalization and personnel. It does not provide for new weaponry or for significant leaps from where the military stands right now - except principally in missile defense.
The head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Democrat Carl Levin of Michigan, groans that the Pentagon's insatiable appetite for money may harm other government programs. What's more, he is holding up President Bush's nominee for the Pentagon's No. 3 civilian post; 15 other nominees for top Pentagon jobs await Senate confirmation.
How much is the revised defense budget really? At $329 billion, it equals the military spending of the world's next eight powers combined. But it represents just 3 percent of our gross domestic product - or half the percentage under Ronald Reagan, and one-third of peak Cold War levels in the 1950s and 1960s.
The tax cut will require tighter fiscal discipline for the military. The Rumsfeld review will set a new strategic course. It also will mean dramatic change, extensive cuts, and persuasive salesmanship - to the public, the Congress, and the military itself. Heaven help us if the quadrennial review does not support sending the promised help.
Every nation's future is only as reliable as its military. Today's American military is capable but not broadly up to snuff. Readiness is far from what it should be. Morale is in the pits.
What the military and the nation need is this:
Massive infusions of cash for new weapons systems (airborne, ground, and afloat) and significant military pay boosts. An anti-missile system that works. Space-based surveillance, intelligence, and reconnaissance. A new strategy emphasizing (a) the Pacific Rim and the Muslim crescent, and (b) Stateside-based small units practiced in quick insertion and extraction. The return of the warrior and the warrior's élan. A renewed public appreciation of the military, its role, and those in it.
Public appreciation may be the most important aspect of all - and universal service may be the only way, or the best and quickest way, to acquire it. One year, required of all young men and women, either following high school or when they complete or leave an undergraduate college. No choice about whether to serve and give back. Their principal choice would be how to spend the 44 weeks following their eight weeks of basic military training - whether they want to continue in the military or switch to a civilian public-service job on a lengthy list.
It would assure the arrival of help of the most important sort - understanding and appreciation at least as crucial as cash and elaborate new weapons systems. And it would do marvelous things for this nation's sadly, and sadly increasing, self-centered soul.
What better help could Messrs. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Powell provide?