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Why The Military Can’t Get The Figures Right
A former Department of Defense adviser—one of Robert S. McNamara’s Whiz Kids—explains why we tend to overestimate Russian strength, and why we underestimate what it will cost to defend ourselves
February/March 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 2
Partly it happens because the military is used to counting units, like divisions, and not counting actual things, like guns and men and so forth. Then there is a widespread belief that, when in doubt, the safest thing is to overestimate the enemy’s strength. And yet in this case, the overestimation of Russian strength is counterproductive, because that’s the reason we haven’t increased the size, strength, and readiness of our conventional forces. People believe the situation is hopeless because they’ve greatly overstated the size of the Russian forces.
Moreover, some people think that overestimating the enemy is good, because it’s a way of getting more forces. And many people believe that if I’m saying the Russians aren’t so big, it must be that I’m trying to disarm America. That is just wrong. I personally believed then, and still believe, that the Russians are extremely dangerous. They’re a real menace to us and to our European allies. In fact, paradoxically, that’s one of the costs of overestimating them—they have more intimidating power if we overestimate them. I think one of the reasons that Khrushchev, in 1961, was able to be so belligerent in the United Nations, and toward Kennedy, and so forth, leading up to the Cuban missile crisis, is that he perceived that we felt ourselves weak. And we felt ourselves weak because we were overestimating the Russians.
I’m all in favor of a very strong national defense; I’m not particularly interested in seeing us cut defense spending now, but in seeing that we spend the money wisely and make decisions based on accurate information. With a fairly modest increase in NATO defense spending and the effort to spend the money efficiently—which means to close unneeded bases and cancel ineffective programs—we would be able to have conventional forces that equal the Russians’ in strength and effectiveness. Unfortunately, a lot of people see that as upsetting their vested interests, and so they prefer to go on with the myth that we are hopelessly outnumbered and therefore don’t have to make any serious effort to improve our conventional forces.
The analyses you did during your years at the Pentagon were based on intelligence estimates, some of them probably close to the truth, others highly inaccurate. How did you and your colleagues feel about basing your analysis on data that must have seemed very conjectural at times?
One of the things I learned to do was to get my analysts cleared for the basic intelligence data. I got them to study the data carefully and analyze it themselves. When it came to uncertainties about the future, we tried to recognize them explicitly in our analyses. Secretary McNamara asked us to develop plans to respond to the most probable threats, but to combine them with contingency plans for responding to “greaterthan-expected threats,” should they emerge.
For example, in the early 1960s McNamara approved the construction of a whole additional factory to build Minuteman ICBMs that we expected never to use but that we bought as insurance in case the Soviet force turned out to be much greater than we expected. Building the factory would save lead time and increase our flexibility to respond. But that was still a lot cheaper than building missiles to oppose a threat that might not materialize.
So the answers to conjectural data include working hard to get better data, buying some insurance, and designing a good deal of flexibility into one’s posture to hedge against uncertainties and to be able to adapt to unexpected developments.
You’ve written that until fairly late in our involvement in Vietnam, the military didn’t have a really good information-gathering system there that would have enabled you to find out the actual results of their efforts. Have we made progress since then?
I haven’t been closely involved in defense matters since I left the Defense Department in January of 1969, but to the best of my knowledge, the answer to that is negative. At that time there was no serious interest in evaluating weapons and operations, and stopping the ones that were ineffective and building on the ones that were effective. General Westmoreland just didn’t think that hard-nosed scientific analysis of the effectiveness of different operations was information he needed, any more than a lot of surgeons feel that a very careful evaluation of surgery is needed. They’re afraid that this kind of analysis might show that what they’re doing is ineffective, and give them information they don’t want to know.
It’s clear that we’re deploying a lot of very costly and ineffective weapon systems, because the services that sponsor them, and the contractors, just don’t want a real evaluation. That’s something the Congress ought to work on—to strengthen the function of independent evaluation in the office of the secretary of defense. However, to make that work you’ve got to have a secretary of defense who wants it and believes in it.
Looking back, are there assumptions of your own that have changed, or are there things you would have done differently on the basis of what you’ve learned since those years?
1 don’t regret anything I did. 1 know that I made some generals and some members of Congress angry, because I fought or canceled some of their favorite programs. But the basic lines of what we tried to do were right, and most of the decisions we made were good ones. I learned a lot about the power of politics. Congressmen want to get reelected, and that may mean fighting for a base, or production, in their district, even though it’s not efficient from a military point of view.