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Heavy losses; the dangerous decline of American defense.

James Coates, Michael Kilian. Viking, $22.95. It is hard to read any couple of months' clippings on the Pentagon without a lurking sense of unease Here a major weapon scores a pyrotechnical fizzle. There a contractor is indicted. There again the command bureaucracy coughs and stumbles at some especially sensitive point.

Reporters and congressional staffs do a brisk trade in these "horror stories." Most make for one-day headlines, but the best of them--the $435 hammer, the interservice bickering over transport of wounded marines, the stunning incompetence of the Sergeant York gun--wend their way into folklore, told and retold to suit the prejudice of the teller.

For a layman the moral is ambiguous. An impression accumulates that something is seriously wrong-but what?

Coates and Kilian try to tell us, but they have undertaken two incompatible tasks. One is a wide-ranging polemic on everything from procurement to strategic nuclear doctrine, which begins with the thesis that "American defense simply does not work." The other is a walking tour of the military establishment, with 21 brief chapters on the chain of command, the Soviet threat, congressional oversight, industrial contractors, the structure

of American alliances, and so on. Both parts-the polemic and thetextbook-have points in their favor, but the product as a whole is disappointing.

Both long-time writers for The Chicago Tribune, Coates and Kilianmight have done with their book what cannot easily be done on deadline: delve deeply into a problem or craft a narrative to match the complexity of their subject. Instead they labor through what amounts to a 21-part series. In fact, it's worse than that. Most of the chapters cover so broad a canvas ("The Red Menace"' "The Hill," "Friends and Enemies") and do so little new reporting, that they fail to match newspaper work at its best.

The book does come alive in its anecdotes. Chapter one, a 12-page profile of Air Force Colonel Christopher Branch, is a vivid portrayal of the life and social environment of "the high-tech Pentagon breed-the kind of officers who have the most to do with running the military and who have the best hope of becoming generals." Then there is the not-so- funny tale of the time Ronald Reagan's "football officer," the man who carries the nuclear war codes for fighting, was left stranded at the Washington Hilton after the president was shot in 1981, Elswhere we find then-Senator John Tower intervening with the commander of the Naval Academy to overturn an injunction against off-duty cowboy boots.

But Coates and Kilian wear hard on the reader's confidence in their judgment. Heavy Losses is badly hyped. The authors ruin that vignette about the cowboy boots, for example, with the following introduction (about "congressional warlords"): "Some of the mighty are mightier than others. Senator John Tower, as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, was so powerful that his reach extended into the footlockers of Annapolis." C'mon, fellas.

The book is full of non sequiturs and annoying reductionist judgments, few of them adorned with further argument. The "effective decision time for responding to an enemy nuclear attack [has been] reduced to about six minutes, yet Reagan took several months to decide whether to remove American marines from Lebanon." Military forces "do not occupy territory, achieve objectives, restore governments, project power, or keep the peace. They kill, maim, and destroy." In these and other epigrams, Coates and Kilian rarely reveal any suspicion that there is anything more to be said.

Procurement makes for the best sustained argument and the strongest chapter of the book. Reporters like stories about $1,118 stool caps and $435 hammers because any layman can see their absurdity at once. But what are we to suppose about the price of sophisticated military technology? Are our major weapons systems priced with the same keen, competitive eye? Are we paying $100 billion, say, for just a billion dollars' worth of capability?

Coates and Kilian show persuasively that the answer is often yes. Blending statistical evidence with blood-boiling case histories, they describe a procurement culture in which "careers rise or fall as a function of the 'success' [read "budget"] of the weapons project." The authors show clearly and concisely how "the same procurement officers whose jobs [depend] on the survival of the project [are] placed in charge of tests and evaluation" and how they conspire to falsify test results; how Pentagon officers routinely move from oversight of purchases to lucrative employment with their former suppliers; how the Defense Department's "cost-plus" payment system encourages suppliers to in take every "cost" to the limits of credulity and then tack on 15 percent "profit."

Heavy Losses is thus a sensible counterpoint to the natural impulse to blame horror stories on corporate greed. Greed there is aplenty, but the system invites it-and, from the point of view of the procurement elite, actually thrives on it.

Whoever did the invoicing at Boeing in the case of the overpricedstool cap, for example, followed DOD rules to the letter as they dreamed up hundreds of dollars in costs. Let's see, they reckoned, we'll start with overhead at the factory and all its employees, add machine design, tool, and production planning, a day or so of "inspection," and so on. This has always reminded me of those late-night UHF television ads: "Just imagine what it would cost you to hire the whole London Philharmonic to play a concert in your living room. Probably tens of thousands of dollars. But now, for the low, low price of $9.95, you can have this classic recording. . . '" At the Pentagon, they not only buy the record, they pay the tens of thousands, too.

Apart from procurement, Coates and Kilian are most concerned about the chain of command. They decry the duplication among services, the failure to coordinate, and the lack of a professional general staff. Some of the authors' recommendations are well supported and at least remotely possible, such as making the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (now outside the chain of command altogether) the supreme uniformed commander of the armed forces. Others have an air of sweeping unreality about them: "The Air Force as presently constituted...should be abolished . . . .The Army, Navy, and Marines would assume command of all offensive tactical air units, a move that would allow the Army to junk much of its vulnerable helicopter armada. . . '"

The larger theme of Heavy Losses is the accusation of its subtitle. Are American defenses in a state of "dangerous decline'? It seems to me that Coates and Kilian jump too quickly between two arguments. The first is that our military bureaucracy is badly flawed and getting worse. The second is that the United States consequently has diminished as a world power

"The United States," the authors insist, "has not won a war sinceVJ Day'" If winning a war meant extracting unconditional surrender, Coates and Kilian might have a point, excepting Grenada and other small episodes in this hemisphere. But unconditional surrender is a product of unlimited war, and unlimited war involving a superpower is nothing to be wistful for. In the context of limited wars with limited objectives, Korea was patently a success.

In one sense Coates and Kilian are right to observe a decline in American power, but their frame of reference is far too limited. The American preeminence of the 1940s and 1950s was a product of the weakness of others. We were the only power to emerge from World War 11 without catastrophic damage to our populace, our economy, or our fighting force. Europe, Japan, and the Soviet Union have since recovered from their postwar lows. Americas relative power, in the process, was bound to be reduced.

The authors ascribe too much of this decline in power to militarymismanagement, which has been with us longer than they seem willing to acknowledge. SNAFU came into the language in World War II, and as every serviceman knows, its first two letters stand for "Situation Normal." The authors themselves report that America's first warplane (built to rigid Army specifications in 1908 by Orville and Wilbur Wright) cost $30,000, fully $29,200 more than the one that made history at Kitty Hawk.

These reservations aside, the authors' central point-their first argument-is surely right. The early adventures of the militaryindustrial complex are as nothing to the present state of affairs. Things am getting worse. Coates and Kilian quote a half-serious projection, based upon the historic quadrupling of aircraft costs each decade, that by 2054 "the entire defense budget will purchase just one tactical aircraft." They might have added that the armed services wit be too busy fighting each other to fly it.
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Article Details
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Author:Gellman, Barton
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 1, 1986
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