January 8, 2012 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Obama's Make-Believe Defense Strategy

At last. The long, bitter war had come to an inconclusive end. The commander in chief was dedicated to bringing down defense costs so, clearly, another "peace-dividend" was in the offing.

Sure, potential flashpoints were popping up all over, from the Middle East to Latin America. But new presidential initiatives envisioned using cheaper tools -- like more special operations and covert warfare -- to substitute for traditional military presence. The armed forces were simply told: Do the job with less.

1953 had been a fateful year, and everyone in the Pentagon agreed the new year looked to be even more challenging. President Dwight Eisenhower had every intention of curbing defense spending -- and nuclear weapons, he concluded, would be cheaper than conventional forces. Ike's old service was told to make do.

When Maxwell Taylor became Army Chief of Staff the following year, he decided to address dwindling resources, shrinking forces, aging equipment and too many missions with a bold new doctrine and a plan to reorganize the Army.

He created the "Pentomic Army." Taylor's Army would be more mobile and agile, able to disperse and fight on nuclear battlefields. The term "Pentomic" drew its inspiration from the five battle groups he would organize and the short-range atomic weapons with which they would be armed. Taylor thought his Army needed a name that sounded modern and "sexy."

The Pentomic Army was an abject failure. Most of the technologies needed to implement the concept were little more than ideas on paper. In one year, fielding tactical nuclear weapons for the force consumed half of the Army's shrinking research and development budget.

It left less than 5 percent of that budget for modernizing the Army's vehicle fleet. Pentomic tactics also proved irrelevant to virtually every mission that arose -- from providing emergency assistance to civil authorities at home to conducting conventional overseas operations and counter-insurgency warfare.

After years of wasted effort, the Army abandoned the Pentomic force -- and blundered into Vietnam.

The Pentomic experience ought to serve as a cautionary tale for today's military and political leaders. While the Pentagon polishes it strategic review, the Navy and Air Force dance with the AirSea Battle concept.

Meanwhile, the Army has been scratching its head trying to figure out how to get a seat at the air-sea table, even as it still argues over whether its future is in counterinsurgency warfare, conventional operations or military engagements (activities that include everything from training foreign forces to humanitarian operations).

In the year ahead, the armed forces will face great pressure to rubber stamp the reckless defense budget cutting of this administration and its ill-considered strategic retreats in Iraq and Afghanistan with "sexy" Pentomic-sounding strategies.

Our armed forces will, of course, do the best they can with the resources they have and look for savings and efficiencies where they can. But to really do their best for the nation, leaders in the Pentagon will have to do more.

They'll need to pull together as a team rather than try to raid each others' budgets. They'll need to speak with scrupulous honesty about the missions they can't now do and growing readiness crisis that all the services are beginning to face. They'll need to highlight the spiraling costs of maintaining old and worn-out equipment.

And, as always, they'll need to lead the men and women under their command well, inspiring them to serve well under deteriorating conditions.

What they should not do is endorse or propose "sexy" ideas like the Pentomic Army. America needs a military that can protect the homeland, reassure our allies and deter and defeat our enemies. Nothing less will do.

James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

First appeared in The Washington Examiner