Commentary: The Pentagon: High Tech Dreams, Low Tech Wars

If the Pentagon has its way, sometime in the not-too-distant future its fighter pilots will race over hostile hot spots in sleek new F-22 Raptors, F/A-18 Hornets, and all-purpose Joint Strike Fighters. Space-based sensors will track enemy ICBMs, and missile-defense systems will knock them out. The U.S. war machine will be able to defeat a revived Russia and a surging China and wage two simultaneous Desert Storm-type campaigns.

That vision does little for the current fight against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, however. In fact, the Pentagon's plans for post-cold-war weaponry may be getting in the way. The Air Force may soon run out of its weapon of choice--air-launched cruise missiles. It will take a year, and some $1.5 million apiece, to convert its existing cruise missiles from nuclear to conventional warheads. If NATO sends ground forces to Kosovo while the refugee crisis continues, the U.S. may not have enough airlift capacity for both missions. And a spare-parts shortage keeps 25% of fighters on the ground.

So has the U.S. focused too much on glitzy, futuristic weaponry, leaving its forces unready for localized conflicts? Robbin Laird, a Washington defense consultant, notes that while the British and French are restructuring their forces for peacekeeping and Kosovo-type missions, the U.S. is mainly building a global force for high-intensity, high-tech warfare. "We will have the best force structure by 2075," he says sarcastically.

The lessons from Kosovo indicate that some shifts in Pentagon spending may be in order. For starters, we need to buy more munitions for existing planes while others are under development. The Air Force is expected to start getting next-generation cruise missiles in 2002, and the Navy, which still has a relatively healthy inventory, is scheduled to get more in 2003. But for now, the Air Force's inventory of 2,000-lb. smart bombs is down to under 100, roughly the number used in Iraq in December alone. In the future, such gaps must be better anticipated--and prevented.

The second step: to treat airlift capability as more than a budgetary backwater. Now, the Pentagon doesn't have the airlift capacity to transport enough forces and materiel to win two major regional conflicts simultaneously, its stated goal, says Andrew F. Krepinevich, executive director of the Washington-based Center For Strategic & Budgetary Assessments, a think tank. Airlift, perhaps using C-17s, should get another $3 billion a year, says Michael E. O'Hanlon, a Brookings Institution defense specialist, who adds that operations and maintenance may need $5 billion more.

BASE CLOSINGS? Congress could bankroll some of those increases with the $9 billion it aims to save annually from closing bases. The Pentagon could also drop one of the new fighters: the $47 billion Hornet, the $67 billion Raptor, or the $225 billion Joint Strike Fighter.

Such a reshuffling might be good policy, but it's difficult politically. Lawmakers such as Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) will fight to keep military dollars in their districts. Defense contractors will lobby hard. Still, the message from Kosovo is clear: The Pentagon must spend more on unglamorous military nuts and bolts to win wars.