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AMERICA CAN WIN: THE CASE FOR MILITARY REFORM by Gary Hart with William S. Lind (Adler & Adler: $17.95; 301 pp.)

April 20, 1986|Jack Burby | Burby is assistant editor of The Times' editorial pages

Sen. Gary Hart is surrendering his Colorado seat to devote full time to running as a Democrat for President. The track record for books with a candidate's name on the dust jacket says this one would be about him, starting as the freckle-faced boy next door who has some promises to disclose.

Instead, it is a thoroughly professional and troubling dissident's look at a U.S. fighting machine that he and his colleague say is more machine than fight. That is the first surprise. The second is that it is not written down to laymen who are neither armchair generals nor war lovers but written out--using illustrations to make points that do not require a West Point education to follow.

What Hart and William S. Lindsee when they look at Europe is the maldistribution of manpower in a U.S. Army that has more people talking on telephones and distributing computerized orders than it has on the front lines. The Army's tank-of-choice, the M-1, came in second in simulated combat tests to a competing design; the Army put the loser into production. The authors see Army strategy based on a doctrine of superior firepower digging in to wear down an opponent, a doctrine that dates back to U. S. Grant and the Civil War. The only potential opponent the Pentagon ever mentions is the Soviet Union, which outnumbers the United States in every category where firepower and attrition count.

And that is the good news because, Hart says, the Army at least is trying to change its doctrine to a hit-and-run approach that the reformers call "maneuver," which emphasizes fighting in all directions with the hope of confusing an opponent. The Air Force and the Navy, by contrast, like things the way they are. Rather than change, they rig training exercises to show that they are on the right course.

In the Navy's case, that involves handicapping the scores for submarines when they are pretending to be the foe against U.S. surface ships. Without such handicapping, submarines would sink everything the first day, take all of the fun out of the maneuvers, and demonstrate what the Navy refuses to admit--that the submarine is the capital ship of the fleet now, the most effective weapon, taking the place of the aircraft carrier as the carrier once took the place of the battleship.

The most troubling conclusion is that a defense system top-heavy with officers, cluttered with the wrong kinds of aircraft, and mesmerized by hardware rather than fighting tactics will have to resort to nuclear weapons early in any serious fighting. Gen. Bernard W. Rogers, chief of military forces of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is not cited in the book, but his name floats to mind at that point because he has warned us that he could be forced to nuclear weapons early in any fighting in Europe.

"Military reform aims at giving us conventional forces effective enough to get us off the nuclear hook," the authors say.

The book assumes the worst in that its whole premise is that the United States may indeed have to use its enormous defense force somewhere, some day, and that--this being the case--that force should be the most effective that money can buy. The Pentagon harps on efficiency, the authors write, but the real question is effectiveness. By way of illustration for the layman, they write, a horse-cavalry regiment could be impeccably efficient and lose every fight it got into in these times.

A reader might wish for more talk of diplomacy and negotiation, but in view of the way the center of gravity of foreign policy has drifted to the Pentagon, they probably are right to concentrate where they do--just in case.

They find little to cheer about at the Pentagon. Americans get less training than troops in other Western nations. U.S. fighter pilots, for example, fly half as many hours a month as do Israeli pilots. The country could make do with half as many middle-rank officers as it has; could do better, in fact, because too many have too much time on their hands and turn into bureaucrats whose first thought is to buck a decision upward instead of making it themselves. They endorse the idea of Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) of gradually forcing the Pentagon to buy 70% of what it needs on the basis of open competitive bidding. Navy petty officers who use electronic equipment tell the authors they get better and faster computers at Radio Shack than they do from Navy issue.

Much of the material in the book has been printed before, but largely in dribs not connected to drabs. Edward N. Luttwak, a defense analyst, has covered much of the same ground. For the average American, it is anybody's guess whether the authors are closer to truth than the Pentagon press releases that paint an entirely different picture. But this book does raise many serious questions in ways that Americans can follow with some ease and will be an important book if it expands the number asking for answers.

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