- Historic Sites
The Pentagon’s 50th … And The Future For America’s Defense
September 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 5
Less publicized, but equally significant, was a Marine operation called Imminent Thunder. This was an ambitious invasion of the Saudi Arabian coast, carried out as an exercise and billed as a prelude to a similar assault on the heavily defended shores of Kuwait. This threat was a bluff; yet Saddam, believing that it was real, redeployed his forces to strengthen the coast. That made it easier for Schwarzkopf to execute his “Hail Mary” play, as he sent his tanks in a long sweep far to the west of Kuwait, setting up Saddam’s army for a battle of annihilation. So Imminent Thunder amounted to more than a feint on the desert chessboard. It was a vietory for unity of command.
Yet just as Sherlock Holmes found an important clue in the dog that did not bark, a significant element in our victory lay in the major power that did not stir. Moscow abandoned Iraq to its fate. And by the end of 1991 the Soviet Union itself was no more. Three centuries of Russian imperialism had collapsed in only two years; the western border was nearly that of 1648. Between Moscow and a newly reunified Germany lay two complete tiers of independent states.
How had this happened? Part of the reason lay in the Soviet response during the quarter-century that followed the Cuban missile crisis. The Defense Ministry vowed that never again would it face so humiliating a retreat. Already commanding a disproportionate share of the Soviet economy, its marshals proceeded to take still more, building a major bluewater navy, greatly strengthening their nuclear forces, while claiming first call on the best talent and the most productive equipment. The Reagan defense build-up put further pressure upon Moscow, intensifying this trend. The result was a weakened economy and a nation in decline.
The decline was slow and undramatic, but within the senior reaches of Soviet leadership, it brought demand for change and reform. Those demands in turn brought Mikhail Gorbachev to the post of premier. Gorbachev faced no imminent crisis demanding quick action; he was no Roosevelt coming to power in the depths of the Depression. He could well have emulated Khrushchev and pursued only superficial reforms that might have sustained his system into the next century. But he believed sincerely that communism was strong enough to accept genuine reform. In the end, like Louis XVI, he did no more than whet the people’s appetite for change, while making it safe for them to demand much more. Still, as communism went off to history’s dustbin, at least there was no guillotine in Red Square.
What does it mean, then, that our adversary is no more and that we have won the Cold War? During the Reagan build-up, defense spending had risen from a Carter-era low of 4.7 percent of the gross national product to a 1986 high of 6.6 percent. But early in 1992 Secretary Cheney set forth a fiveyear budget that projects a drop to only 3.4 percent in 1997. Should reform and hope lake hold within the Soviet Union, further cuts could be in store. Russia, in turn, might develop along Western lines, anchoring a Europe that would extend from the Atlantic well beyond the Urals.
What sort of military may we have then? Within our all-volunteer military, future force reductions could put an even stronger emphasis on quality, building a lean but strongly professional and highly mobile armed service whose personnel will feature the true citizen-soldier, pursuing with élan the profession of arms.
The matter of equipment will also deserve attention (see “Arms and the Future,” page 9). A commonplace view is that today’s missiles and “smart” weapons offer a kill with every shot, and that full-scale battle will destroy planes and tanks far more rapidly than the rate at which industry could build replacements. But the world’s navies have grappled with this issue for two centuries. At Trafalgar in 1805, for instance, Admiral Nelson in a single afternoon destroyed more capital ships than Napoleon and his Spanish ally could build in several years. Aircraft are already approaching the costs and limited numbers that used to characterize warships; perhaps the answer will lie not in technology but in extending naval doctrine into the Air-Land battle. Tomorrow’s generals then may add the great naval expert Adm. Alfred Mahan to the list of strategic thinkers whose works they will study.
Yet the most important changes may involve our public attitudes. We have lived so long with the Cold War and with large standing forces that we have come to regard such circumstances as normal. But if the next few years go well, then we may enter into a Long Peace, in which wars will be small-scale, short, and rare. There once indeed was such a world, between 1815 and 1914, when Britain played the role to which America aspires today. Should the twenty-first century resemble the nineteenth in this regard, our descendants may someday view our era as a time of barbarism, erupting amid two much longer ages of peace and civility.