There are some striking parallels between what has gone wrong with our defense establishment over the last two decades and what has gone wrong with much of the rest of American government and American business.
For example, The Post a short while back carried two comments analyzing two widely disparate and chronic problems that could, word for word, be used as diagnoses for the Defense Department's two most debilitating long-term ailments.
After the Air Florida crash, Jay Gourley wrote of government's efforts to improve air safety by ever more detailed regulations: "We've made more people responsible for each flight. And the more people who are responsible, the less responsible each is. . . . (I)n so doing, we've endangered the flying public." And criticizing American businessmen's toddler-like appetite for the immediate gratification of a yummy next-quarter's financial report, Bendix's William Agee stressed the dangers of a "very short-term, expedient approach to problems--this quarter's earnings, this year's budget. . . ."
While these tendencies are widely recognized as problems in the rest of society, they are ordinarily mentioned only in passing in an assessment of the difficulties of our defense establishment, for a very good reason. Increasing the number of people responsible for running things and demanding immediate financial improvement (often in the form of quick savings from "Fraud, Waste and Abuse") are the two favorite proposals of many aficionados of the defense debate and of much of Congress. Indeed they are thought to be the remedies for all seasons.
The twin cries will go up, as Congress returns, to improve defense management by fine-tuning it from Capitol Hill, and to save the nation's economy by cutting back on the proposed defense spending in this year's budget.
The proposals for fine-tuning will almost universally neglect the effect mentioned by Gourley: the dilution of responsibility. There are now so many people fiddling with the weapons procurement process--and many fiddlers are either in Congress or required to fiddle by it--that frequently it is impossible to tell who's in charge of any major system. Two decades ago, Adm. Red Raborn brought the Polaris program from inception to having a boat on operational patrol in three years and 11 months. That is unheard of today, for programs involving far fewer technological breakthroughs than Polaris did. The delays created by even trying to assemble today's string ensemble for rehearsal, much less get it to consider playing the same piece of music, mean that no one individual can oversee an entire weapons program in that fashion until there are major breakthroughs in geriatrics.
The proposals for instant defense spending reductions will take many forms. Most will have these features in common: they will not require canceling large weapons programs that have built up political and economic constituencies; they will not involve closing any military bases; and they will not provide funds for any of the early costs in a weapons program that are necessary to establish alternate manufacturers and thus save money through increased competition in the long run. But the sorts of steps that are necessary in order really to save money in the defense budget, over the long haul, almost all do involve accepting short-run economic or political costs. Congress particularly finds it hard to face this. Since it is so very hard to pay either the short-term price of job losses or the price of the budget increases needed to get alternate manufacturers started on a weapon, Congress falls back onto what many see as second-best solutions--across-the- board cuts in the spending currently before it. These, however, just reduce readiness, since it is about the only thing that can be cut effectively at such a late date without major surgery.
Republicans in Congress are now more than ordinarily prone to advance the course of both of these types of diseases. They are politically less able than the Democrats to challenge the true cause of the massive looming federal budget deficits--namely the snowballing tax cut legislation of 1981 with, e.g., its revenue-destroying rental market for corporate tax credits. Most Republicans also don't want to challenge any of the administrations's highly visible weapons programs but feel they must at least propose something that sounds critical of Defense. Increased micro-management and short-term readiness cuts are likely to be the result.
On the other hand, many Democrats are still, in most cases, attracted by the path they have mindlessly pursued for a decade and a half--staying to the Republicans' left on defense issues. Although some had an interesting fling in the Senate last year attacking the Republicans on the readiness issue, many Democrats look at recent polls, feel the tide may have turned against the public's 1980 support for increased defense spending, and hope to capitalize on it. They know that, in fact, current proposals for defense increases are still dwarfed by Soviet efforts and take us less than half of the way back from Jimmy Carter's record post-Korean War low level of commitment to defense (just over 5 percent of GNP) to John Kennedy's level (9 percent)-- that current increases are disproportionate neither to the Soviet buildup that necessitates them nor to our own recent past peacetime defense spending. But most Democrats cannot bring themselves to be satisfied by ineffectual attacks against one or two questionable major weapons systems and criticism of last year's tax cuts.
In any case, for their own sets of reasons, both parties in Congress seem at this point to be headed toward more micro-management of defense and to ward aggregate cuts in this year's defense spending without killing major programs. In the incomparable words of Yogi Berra, "we're makin' all the wrong mistakes."