January 3, 2001 | Commentary on Department of Homeland Security

ED010301: Military Modernization: On the March

President-elect George W. Bush hasn't been sworn in yet, but he's already made a decision pivotal to the success of his administration: selecting Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense. For those who care about America's ability to defend itself, it's a wise choice indeed.

It's not just that Rumsfeld takes the growing missile threat from abroad seriously and that he will spearhead the president's efforts to "defend our people and allies against missiles and terror." After all, he chaired the 1998 congressionally appointed bipartisan commission that emphasized the danger posed by Iran, North Korea and other "rogue nations" that are -- even now -- testing and developing missiles with the ability to carry nuclear, chemical and biological weapons well within reach of our shores.

It's also because Rumsfeld, a former Navy aviator and congressman from Illinois who served as Defense Secretary for President Ford, has a clear understanding of the problems facing America's armed forces. He knows that while America's military may be the "strongest and the best," as Vice President Al Gore put it during the presidential race, it is simultaneously "a military in decline," as then-candidate George Bush characterized it.

How could this state of affairs have come about? Because the military is being asked to do too much with too little. Between 1992 and 2000, the Clinton administration cut national defense by more than half a million troops and $50 billion. Yet the pace of military deployments has increased 16-fold since the end of the Cold War, with a rash of non-warfighting missions in places such as Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia and Iraq. The result: worn-out troops and aging equipment. The Army, Navy and Air Force have missed recruiting and retention goals by thousands of troops in recent years, and morale is at a 20-year low.

But problems like these have been fixed before, and they can be fixed again. Here are a few things President-elect Bush and Defense Secretary-designate Rumsfeld can do to acquire, in Bush's words, "a force equipped for warfare in the 21st century":

  • Prioritize research and development. The vast resources, technological prowess and military superiority the United States enjoyed throughout the 1990s gave the services the chance to apply new technologies previously unavailable to any nation. The Clinton administration squandered this advantage, allowing other nations, friend and foe alike, to catch up. But with proper funding, the military could field new weapons able to penetrate any defense a hostile power could mount. It could, for example, develop unmanned vehicles to carry ordinance to any airfield in the world or drop mines deep within heavily guarded enemy harbors. A sensible strategy would call for modernizing our existing forces while exploiting new technologies.

  • Protect U.S. access to space. Space, like land, sea and air, inevitably will become a theater of combat. The United States must control access to that theater during times of conflict if it is to win future conflicts. America currently has a commanding lead in space technology and military space capabilities, but this strategic edge is not guaranteed to last. High technology and space launch vehicles with dual civilian-military applications are available in commercial markets, and hostile nations increasingly are tapping this technology to enhance their military modernization efforts. It is vital that America not only build a national missile defense but also improve space-based surveillance and deployment systems that will protect our space assets.

  • Drop the "politically correct" agenda. Liberal activists who view the military as a laboratory for their social experiments -- from co-ed basic training to new policies on sexual harassment and homosexuality -- exerted far too much influence on the Clinton administration. As a result, the warrior ethos was undermined; basic training became less rigorous, and military personnel were required to take "sensitivity training." Most service members oppose this social engineering because they know it diminishes U.S. fighting power and exposes our troops to greater dangers. Yet those who would speak out have been intimidated. Fortunately, President-elect Bush and Secretary-designate Rumsfeld understand that the military's purpose is to fight and win wars.

Simply buying more tanks and airplanes, though vitally important, isn't enough. America's armed forces must re-evaluate what it will take to fight and win in the 21st century. With Donald Rumsfeld about to take the reins at the Pentagon, the prospect of a clear-sighted re-evaluation just became a whole lot brighter.

Jack Spencer is a defense policy analyst in the Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Jack Spencer Vice President, the Institute for Economic Freedom and Opportunity

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