Have technology-drunk wishful thinkers forced the United States into buying overly elaborate weapons systems that won't work? In this article, Washington Post Pentagon correspondent George C. Wilson reports such allegations. William J. Perry, "Mr. Technology" at the Pentagon, takes the opposite side.
UNDER THE SPUR of President Reagan, the Pentagon is galloping off on a spending spree which will total over $1 trillion between now and 1985, assuming peace prevails.War would cost more.
New planes, tanks, warships, submarines and missiles will be built as the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps all rush to modernize their arsenals depleted during the Vietnam War.
The question at the Pentagon is no longer whether President Carter's farewell fiscal 1982 defense budget, requesting a peacetime record of $196.4 billion, is enough, but how many billions should be added to it before Reagan sends his revised budget to Congress next month.
However, off to the side of this race to rearm stand some respected weapons specialists. They fear billions are being spent on the wrong kind of weapons, ones too complicated to depend on in a muddy battle for from any defense contractor's repair depot. If their fears are justified, soldiers may pay with their lives for faulty weapons.
"A tank hatch that a soldier, clothed for winter, cannot fit through; a major shipboard fire control system that cannot be adequately supported; aircraft test equipment that causes more problems that it solves, and a hand-held missile that when fired startles the person that fires it, resulting in misses, are some examples of the problems with currently fielded weapon systems," complained the General Accounting Office after studying what the Pentagon is buying.
"The demand for high performance has forced designers to incorporate new technology into systems often before its reliability has been fully assessed," scolded the GAO in accusing the Pentagon of buying overly fancy weapons. This is the perennial "goldplating" charge.
Zeroing in on specific weapons in its recent report entitled, "Effectiveness of U.S. Forces Can Be Increased Through Improved Weapon System Design," the congressional watchdog agency leveled these criticisms at the Pentagon's supposed technological wonders:
Air Force F15 fighter. The Pentagon demanded too much from the plane's Pratt & Whitney F100 engine, causing it to break down frequently, and bought repair equipment for the F15 that is unfeliable.
"Without modification," GAO said of the flawed test equipment, "it seems doubtful" that the readiness of F15s to go to war can be improved adequately.
Army Cobra helicopter TOW missile launcher. It breaks down every 100 hours, meaning the helicopter cannot be counted on to destroy enemy tanks over an extended period.
Navy Mk-86 fire control system. "When the system is inoperable, the ship is virtually defenseless." Yet in 1979, the firing system was in working order only about 60 percent of the time as one after another of its 40,000-plus parts failed. "Also, there is a long learning curve for repair technicians because of the system's complexity."
Army M60A2 tank. "The tank has a long history of unreliability." Its turret is "fantastically complex," according to an Army unit commander quoted by the GAO. Although the GAO did not discuss the Army's new Xm1 main battle tank, which costs $1.6 million each, it too, has been criticized as overly complicated.
Except for the M60 tank, which is being replaced by theXm1, the Reagan administration plans to buy more of those same weapons as Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger carries out his mission "to rearm America."
Other alarms are being sounded within the Pentagon itself. Franklin C. Spinney, a tactical air warfare specialist in the Pentagon's program analysis office, contends in a report, "Defense Facts of Life," that the Pentagon often buys technology for technology's sake, not for the difference it would make in battle.
"Although we buy technology to support soldiers in war," complains Spinney in his report, which Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia hailed as a breakthrough in frankness, "plans and decisions do not use the criteria of actual combat to evaluate the potenial contributions of emerging technology.
"Technology is evaluated within an artificial framework derived from the faith in technological revolution, the attrition mind-set and the idea that war is a manipulable, deterministic process subject to central control. This framework considers neither the decisive effect of the human elements nor the central characteristic of actual war . . . There is no senior Pentagon staff organization chartered to study war, particularly how soldiers act in war and how we can use emerging technology to make these actions more effective."
"Although the study of history can be carried too far," Spinney continues, "history is the only evidence of real war. And to ignore it completely leads to a modern form of medieval scholasticism: the religion of miracle weapons. Hitler provides an ominous precedent for this unrealistic faith in technology, and observation suggesting a distrubing question: Was Hitler's faith in miracle weapons apparent between 1939 and 1941 when he was winning, or was it apparent in 1944 and 1945 when he was losing?"
"By ignoring the real world," Spinney warns, "we have evolved a self-reinforcing, yet scientifically unsupportable, faith in the military usefulness of ever increasing technological complexity. We tend to think of military strength in terms of wonder weapons that are in reality mechanistic solutions . . .
"The costs of increasing complexity can be generalized into low readiness, slower modernization and declining forces" as the wonder weapons become so expensive that only a few can be bought at a time, and those few are hard to keep in working order. "The crucial question is: Are there positive qualities of complexity to outweigh these negative qualities?"
Spinney answers his own question in the negative, declaring: "The across-the-board thrusted towards ever-increasing technological complexity just is not working. We need to change the way we do business . . . Our strategy of pursuing ever increasing technical complexity and sophistication has made high technology solutions and combat readiness mutually exculsive."