How much can the military rely on its technology?

June 1, 1998
Events converged in the first two weeks of May that even for the most complacent optimists among us are reasons for concern. Taken together these events might represent an ominous trend.

By John Keller


Is anyone else getting worried?

Events converged in the first two weeks of May that even for the most complacent optimists among us are reasons for concern. Taken together these events might represent an ominous trend.

Certainly what has happened recently has a direct bearing on military electronic technology and its ability to compensate for dwindling numbers of soldiers, ships, tanks, and airplanes. Yet these occurrences also beg the question: how much could the latest technology benefit military forces in a cataclysmic struggle, and are the world`s leaders pushing those bounds too far?

Anyone even remotely concerned with the defense business knows about shrinking defense budgets; many, frankly, are sick of hearing about the issue. In the United States alone, the estimated 1998 defense procurement budget is about half what it was at its modern peak in 1991, according to figures from the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Well good, some might say. The Cold War is over, and it is time to take care of things at home. National defense has become an esoteric issue, and only members of the political right wing care to take up its standard, right? Besides, unemployment in the U.S. is lower than it has been in years, and there is plenty of money to be made, especially in commercial electronics such as telecommunications.

Yet a blunt prediction came out of a notable British publishing house May 6. If true, leaders of many nations are squeezing their defense budgets to the stage where they simply can no longer wage a major war. This situation indicates a worldwide military power vacuum and imbalance. History tells us that would-be aggressors choose times like these to hatch bold plans. History also tells us that today`s small regional conflict has the potential to engulf nations half a world away almost overnight.

Former President John Kennedy knew this when during the Cuban Missile Crisis he made sure that members of his cabinet read Barbara Tuchman`s The Guns of August. In that book, Tuchman details how the 1914 assassination of an archduke in tiny Serbia quickly led to the inferno we know as World War I.

"The world defense market, despite the recent spate of mergers and takeovers, is fast approaching a condition where defense industries in many nations are not in a position to meet operational demands in the event of a major war," write Terry Gander and Christopher Foss of Jane`s Information Group in Coulsdon, England. Gander and Foss say this trend may lead to "a situation not too dissimilar to 1939 and 1941," the period just prior to World War II when "it took years of overwhelming effort and suffering to overcome a lack of preparedness that history now tells us should never have been allowed to happen." Gander and Foss made their comments in the introduction to the latest version of Jane`s Military Vehicles and Logistics.

Now consider news reports from Asia. Nuclear tests in India, which are receiving world condemnation, show that leaders of that country want to ramp-up their atomic weapons capability to help counter what they consider to be potential military threats from nearby Pakistan, and from a militarily resurgent People`s Republic of China.

Then there is Indonesia, which may be teetering on revolution as deflating currency and El Nino-related drought press Indonesians to the breaking point. May 12 saw one of the bloodiest recent outbreaks of violence in that country, as police shot into crowds in Jakarta, and killed six people and wounded more than 12 others. Experts wonder aloud how the Indonesian government can stay in power for much longer. If leaders there lose control, what`s next, and what role might India and China play that could bring those nuclear powers into conflict?

Considering these developments together with other powder kegs in Asia alone can make people downright nervous. There is no change, for example, in tensions between Singapore and Malaysia. It is no secret that many Malaysians would love to bring Singapore into their sphere of influence by any means necessary. China still covets Taiwan as much as ever. Technology-rich Japan, likewise, casts a wary eye across the East China Sea to the region`s dominant military power, China.

Then there are developments here in the U.S. Major American defense contractors have consolidated at a dizzying pace. People at major defense companies find it impossible to keep their business cards up to date these days. Now there are only a few where only recently many once stood. U.S. government leaders, alarmed by the too-rapid rate of defense industry shrinkage, demonstrated they have had enough recently when they put the brakes on the proposed Lockheed Martin acquisition of Northrop Grumman.

Yet despite all the downsizing, evidently there still is not enough work to go around. Leaders of Sanders, a Lockheed Martin Company in Nashua, N.H., announced May 12 that they intend to eliminate 200 jobs within the next few months. The reason: several key defense projects on which Sanders works are nearing the end of development. Sanders specializes in advanced technologies such as avionics, electronic warfare, and electro-optical sensors.

How does this bode for U.S. military capability; is it still in good shape? On May 12 - the same day as the Sanders layoff announcement - The U.S. Army`s Theater High-Altitude Area Defense program, the so-called THAAD initiative to guard against ballistic missile attacks, failed in testing for the fifth straight time.

"The failure of the interceptor missile to hit its test target followed weeks of assurance by top officials of the Defense Department and Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda, [Md.,] the prime contractor, that they had fixed problems bedeviling previous intercept tests," The Washington Post reports.

Military leaders today are forced to do more with less. They are banking on the latest electronics to see them through even the most desperate of conflicts. Save for the Persian Gulf War - which many experts claim U.S. forces simply could not fight today - leaders have had no serious tests of their military might in more than two decades. That hiatus may be coming to an end.

Gander and Foss hit it right on the money: we simply cannot forget the lessons of history. And we also cannot ignore what we see in today`s headlines.

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