Why The Military Can’t Get The Figures Right

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Twenty years ago Alain C. Enthoven was one of America’s most controversial intellectuals in the field of military affairs. He had gone to the Pentagon in 1961 to act as a civilian adviser to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. By training he was an economist, with degrees from Stanford (1952), Oxford (1954), and MIT (1956). From 1956 to 1960 he worked at the RAND Corporation, doing contract research for the Air Force.

Enthoven and the other young advisers who joined the Department of Defense at the beginning of the Kennedy administration were derisively called the Whiz Kids. They tried to apply statistical analysis to problems that had traditionally been resolved by a mixture of intuitive reasoning, interservice logrolling, and congressional politics.

Partly because of their youth and their occasional lack of tact, partly because their methods seemed uncongenial, the Whiz Kids made enemies. But despite the hostility aroused by their personalities and their methods, they contributed to important decisions on military spending during the Kennedy and Johnson years. In 1971 Enthoven and K. Wayne Smith wrote How Much Is Enough ?, a book that deals with questions of military expenditure.

Shortly before leaving the Pentagon, in 1968, Enthoven joined the board of directors of Georgetown University. There his discovery that the cost of operating the medical center was one of the university’s major financial problems led him to specialize in the economics of health care. This interview took place in his office at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, where the fifty-five-year-old economist has taught since 1973.

Your work at the Department of Defense and the work you’re currently doing in health care analysis both demand that you balance the opinions of people who are considered to be professionals against the opinions of independent analysts who come from other disciplines. How do you resolve that problem?

When I got involved in health care, I realized that doctors were a lot like admirals. In both groups you have a technological elite of highly trained people with a very distinct point of view. They go around in white coats and they say: “What I am doing is too important to be contaminated with considerations of money. Your job is just to get me the money so I can go on doing this important and wonderful thing.”

And in both cases I had the reaction that when it gets so expensive, considerations of value for money have to be brought in. It’s a very exciting challenge to figure out how to do that. It’s not simple or obvious or easy.

Among doctors and admirals, don’t you find an attitude of “Leave it to us—the professionals—we know best”?

Yes. What they don’t realize is the limited perspective of their professional interests. A man who has spent his whole life flying and developing bombers is very likely to think in terms of more bombers, even after technology has changed and bombers are no longer an effective use of resources. Despite the fact that historians have written about the Maginot mentality and about generals preparing for the last war, I think generals are just as smart as other professionals. In any profession, including the academic, there is a strong preference for the particular means you have been trained in; so it is with the military, just as it is with physicians and academics.

When some new technology comes along like the Polaris submarine, the admiral and the general sitting at the bargaining table are in charge of aircraft carriers and bombers, respectively. They like aircraft carriers and bombers, but they don’t like this new technology, which, because it is small and new, isn’t represented at the bargaining table.

So you get people who are inherently unwilling to adapt to new technologies that upset traditional roles and missions and the balance of power. They’re delighted to have a new technology that makes bombers fly higher, faster, and farther, but they’re not interested in a technology that makes bombers obsolete.

Could you tell me something about the kind of thinking you were employed to do at the Defense Department? For example, how was it decided to cancel the B-70 bomber program and go ahead with the Polaris submarine?

The Air Force people, led by General [Curtis] LeMay, wanted the B-70 because, through their whole careers, they had developed one bomber after another that could fly higher, faster, and farther than its predecessor. The enemy of the bomber was the fighter plane, and the bomber that could fly higher and faster would be more likely to be able to outrun the opposing fighter planes. And if it could fly farther, its bases could be farther from enemy lines and therefore less likely to be bombed. You might say that a whole professional lifetime of experience told these people that to extend this line of thinking was the appropriate thing to do.

Our opposition to the B-70 was based primarily on strategicair-power studies done at the RAND Corporation. These studies clarified the point that our main purpose in the nuclear age should not be to threaten a first strike as a way of coercing the Russians, but rather to be able to survive an attack and inflict unacceptable damage in retaliation as a way of deterring attack.