- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 30, 2006

A nagging question is should the U.S. military focus on procuring extremely advanced weapons? Can we afford them, and do we need them? Is the emphasis on big-ticket armament well advised? Or just left over from the Cold War?

Fern-bar critics notwithstanding, American high-tech weapons perform splendidly. The U.S. military does very well what it was designed to do: destroy mechanized militaries resembling itself but not as good.

If you want to destroy a primitive Iraqi military in a few days with almost no losses to yourself, the Pentagon can do it. The United States has phenomenally sophisticated communications, electronic countermeasures, surveillance, night vision, stealth aircraft, and so on. It works.

This technologically magnificent panoply was designed to fight the USSR, a military resembling the American but not as good. The use of advanced technology was intended to compensate for the Soviet superiority in numbers. And it did.

But today the United States has no plausible adversary resembling itself. It is not well designed to fight dispersed guerrillas either in cities or rough terrain. It lost in Vietnam, and is not winning convincingly in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

And yet the Pentagon continues spending huge sums to maintain or develop weapons technology that, however well they may work for their intended purposes, are of little use in the wars the United States actually fights. A carrier battle group for example is a high-tech marvel, but chiefly good for defeating an enemy’s carrier battle groups — and no plausible enemy has them.

The United States has spent staggering sums and 25 years developing the F-22 fighter plane. It is a beautiful thing, too expensive to buy in numbers, and very well designed for a kind of war the country isn’t going to fight.

There is also the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter; another highly impressive budget buster, and the Airborne Laser, yet another extreme-tech project, designed to shoot missiles down with an intense laser beam fired from a Boeing 747. The Navy wants the CVN-21, an advanced and larger aircraft carrier. Meanwhile GIs die in Iraq for lack of simple body armor.

Why does this go on? Part is money. Eliminate big tech-heavy contracts and defense firms would go out of business. Further, countless engineers would lose jobs and towns would dry up, which is not politically acceptable. Finally, people in high-tech firms just love really neat gadgets, such as flying lasers.

Big-ticket advanced weaponry has taken on a life of its own. A fact of bureaucratic life is that projects tend to grow. Organizations do not willingly downsize. The less the public knows about a project, the more easily it grows. Are these efforts worth it? I do not know what the NSA’s spy satellites can do, but I know that they are very good and very costly.

What has been the payoff? NSA would doubtless say, “We can’t tell you because it’s secret, but trust us, it’s really really important.”

What bureaucracy anywhere will tell you that it doesn’t actually do much?

If the military budget were unlimited, buying enormously elaborate weaponry might make sense. But money is not unlimited, and America tends to fight ragtag guerrillas operating in cities, mountains and jungles. Formidably advanced stealth aircraft aren’t going to help against peasants with rifles. They aren’t bad weapons for what they are designed to do. Yet time and again they have proven themselves ineffective for what the United States needs them to do.

Through sheer inertia, we still seem to be preparing to fight a Soviet Union that doesn’t exist.

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