Rarely has a book been published at a more opportune moment than James Fallows’s National Defense. At a time of widespread dissatisfaction with American defenses, we need a clear view of how they can be improved besides pouring more dollars into the same system. This book provides such a view. It should be read by President Reagan, and thoroughly absorbed by Secretary Weinberger and David Stockman before they throw many tens of billions more dollars at the defense program.

James Fallows was President Carter’s chief speech writer for two years, but he has never had any direct responsibilities for the national security. Yet his observations are so full of common sense, a quality which he finds badly lacking within the Pentagon, that it is unfortunate that his wisdom was not used in the past and not available earlier to the new administration. (In his recent article, “The Great Defense Deception,” [NYR, May 28] Fallows applies the logic of this book specifically to the Reagan defense program.)

It might seem easy to find $20 billion to add to the defense budget in a national budget of $650 billion. Fallows shows that in practice it is not that simple. More than 60 percent of all federal funds consists of “entitlements” or “uncontrollable” expenditures to which anyone who meets certain criteria is legally owed. Social Security, farm price supports, and veterans’ pensions all fall into this category, and a new administration cannot easily cut them off. The political costs and legislative difficulties of trying to reduce these and many other programs are high and may be insurmountable. Without these savings and with much higher taxes, higher defense spending can only further unbalance the budget.

But when he wrote his book, Fallows did not count on Stockman’s determination to cut the budget and Weinberger’s huge increases for defense. Weinberger was nicknamed “Cap the Knife” for his budget cutting under Nixon, but this talent has deserted him in his present job. Stockman has persuaded Reagan to cut social expenditures by $40 billion while Weinberger is seeking authority to spend $44 billion more on defense in fiscal year 1982 than will have been spent in this fiscal year. Will Congress go along with this transfer of funds from civilian to defense programs? The political tide is running strongly in that direction. The Reagan tax cut, however, promises to increase still further the deficit, and there is also strong sentiment in Congress in favor of balanced budgets. Inflation fueled by these tax cuts and higher military expenditures will also make it harder to find real money to increase defense efforts.

These difficulties will be made even worse a year from now, since Weinberger proposes yet another $40 billion increase for defense, and it will be very hard for Mr. Stockman to find another $40 billion to take away from the poor during the congressional election year of 1982. Since the beginning of the Korean War, defense spending in constant dollars never increased more than three years in a row. When he wrote his book, Fallows doubted whether major real increases in defense spending were feasible. Reagan seems determined to show they can be made. If he succeeds, this will mean that the economy will be under an unprecedented strain from military spending.

Fallows’s central argument is that important improvements in security do not require more dollars, and National Defense lays out a program for much improved defenses that can be carried out without our spending additional billions we can ill afford. Our hugely expensive policies for both procuring weapons and recruiting manpower have in Fallows’s view been far less effective than the public has been led to believe. He describes sharply and concretely, for example, the inverse correlation between high technology in our military systems and their effectiveness in combat. For years we have been designing planes with higher and higher maximum speeds, yet Fallows draws on convincing studies to show that in combat the plane with greater endurance but much lower speed is far more effective. Along with the high technology now installed in US aircraft go high costs not only for the plane itself but also for trained technicians to keep it ready for combat. These costs mean not only that smaller numbers of planes are purchased because of constraints on the budget but that a smaller percentage of planes is available for action on any given day. Training can no longer be realistic because it is too expensive to fly the planes and launch their expensive missiles.

Even when attempts were made to design a plane that was not needlessly sophisticated, such as the F-16, the bureaucracy somehow managed to modify it and dress it up to the point where its original virtues of simplicity were largely lost. Costs went up, combat performance went down. The new Pentagon managers could profit by studying Fallows’s account of the F-16. Unfortunately so far they seem to be ignorant of the history that Fallows vividly describes.


Most of the additional $45 billion in the new Pentagon budget is intended to buy a few more of the same expensive weapons already on order—thirty F-14s instead of twenty-four, forty-two F-15s instead of thirty. The services are being left to their own devices to continue the development and procurement practices that have led to their present troubles. There is no sign that the Reagan administration is making any attempt to improve the readiness of our existing weapons in order to avoid the current situation in which fewer than half of our planes can be sent into the air at any time. The administration is also putting a billion dollars into resurrecting battleships, which were too big to be useful in World War II, instead of buying large numbers of smaller, faster, and more flexible ships.

Fallows presents a well-documented case for evaluating military equipment by criteria derived from the experience of combat itself. Greater top speed, normally twice or three times the speed of sound (Mach 2 or 3), and more complex electronics are the standards that have been used to determine the design of most US combat aircraft since World War II. Yet increases in speed and electronic complexity have by now little relation to military value. The combat criterion advocated by Pierre Sprey, a brilliant and realistic engineer and analyst in the Pentagon, is surprise—the ability of one pilot to attack another completely unawares. Most fighters are shot down by a plane they never even see; yet neither a high supersonic capacity to “dash”—or suddenly accelerate—nor fancy electronics are particularly useful in increasing surprise. What enables one plane to sneak up behind that of the enemy or to avoid having the enemy do the same to it are differences in cruising speed, usually around the subsonic Mach 0.7 and Mach 0.9. Fancy electronic systems with complex radars and fire control only provide beacons for another airplane to learn that it is being attacked; this immediately sacrifices the element of surprise.

A second requirement for success, which Fallows shows is supported by the experience of combat pilots, is to outnumber the enemy in the air; but high maximum speed and complex electronics only increase the costs of each plane and reduce the ability to keep aircraft in the air, thus making it very difficult to outnumber the enemy. Similar considerations can be applied to the armaments a plane can carry. A simple cannon which costs about $350 each time the trigger is pulled and the simplest Sidewinder missile which costs $10,000 are far superior to the latest Phoenix missiles now costing up to a million dollars apiece. Such missiles are so expensive that pilots are forbidden to launch them in training. Again and again, Fallows suggests, Pentagon planners and military technologists have tended to favor weapons that are more expensive and more complex over weapons which are both cheaper and likely to be more effective in combat.

Fallows also writes acutely about the manpower problems that currently afflict our armed services. He recognizes the necessity of close bonds between the enlisted men and their officers, bonds which are hard to establish in the military bases of today, where the trust and respect that the enlisted man must have for his leader have tended to disappear. The drive by officers to get on with their careers has made developing the qualities needed to lead men seem less important. The frequent shifting of both officers and men from one assignment to another makes it difficult for mutual understanding to develop not only between the enlisted man and his officers but also among enlisted men themselves. Respect for the military by the public has decreased as the volunteer army has become more and more filled with men who have had little education. Only by reinstating the draft, Fallows concludes, can a cross section of the public again become active participants in military policies; and he argues persuasively that such an army is essential if we are to have the national defense we want.

Although Fallows gives much attention to the less publicized issues of national defense such as tactical weapons, rifles, and morale, he does not neglect strategic theories and the nuclear weapons that are supposed to support them. The new administration would be well-advised to read Fallows’s analysis before deciding on the new MX missile system or on its policies for limiting strategic arms. The MX and its costs of some $80 billion have been justified by claims that our Minuteman ICBMs will become vulnerable to Soviet attack during the next few years. Fallows makes a convincing case for the opposing view of General Maxwell Taylor, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that “the most effective way to attain a higher degree of invulnerability would be to remove from American soil the most inviting targets for a surprise attack, our land-based ICBMs.”


Many of the myths that have been used by Reagan and his staff both to win votes during the campaign and to whip up opposition to SALT are exploded in this book, among them the concept that the Soviets could launch a first strike and expect to survive. As Fallows shows, this and similar perceptions of US strategic weakness are not only at variance with the facts but are actually damaging to our security. Those that spread such unfounded fears are doing the nation a disservice. The apocalyptic prophets who circulate them divert American energy and attention from the two positive steps that the nation should take with its nuclear weapons. The first is to make sure that our strategic forces and weapons, taken together, work realistically as a deterrent; the second is to work equally hard to reduce the risk that these hideous weapons will ever be used.

One reason Fallows questions whether the MX is necessary is that he does not believe that the existing Minuteman ICBMs are really vulnerable. Uncertainty is the essential element of deterrence, and there are too many uncertainties that would deter any rational Soviet leader from firing his weapons; the costs of miscalculation would be too high. While such uncertainties might not deter a wildly irrational leader, Fallows doubts whether the MX or anything else could do so either.

These uncertainties depend, in large part, on such technical factors as the unforeseeable bias that occurs when a warhead is aimed at a fixed target. Even were the guidance to be perfect, all warheads could land some distance from their aimed destinations; many of them would be far enough away from hardened targets to make them ineffectual. And Fallows describes well the political uncertainties the Soviet leaders would face. How could they count on the American president not ordering a counterattack after their first strike? And if they were wrong, how could the Soviet Union survive whatever response the United States might make? The Soviet leaders are quite willing to accept the gains they incur from the impression that they have a world-conquering military force, an impression which is fostered by fear-mongers in America. On the other hand they recognize the social and material destruction a nuclear conflict would cause, and they are not about to take actions that will result in the outbreak of nuclear war.

In order to increase the uncertainty an aggressor would have about the success of any attack, Fallows proposes a new test ban treaty, one that would limit testing of missiles, but not the warheads they carry. This, of course, was a key element in President Carter’s abortive SALT proposal of March 1977. Without such tests of missiles, the uncertainty whether the missile systems were reliable and whether they had the requisite accuracy for a countersilo attack would increase. In his book Fallows supports more—and more realistic—testing of weapons, except in the case of nuclear weapons where both sides have a stake in doubting whether they really know how the weapons would perform. In his view, uncertainty about the ability of strategic forces to perform their missions is central to effective deterrence against their use. His argument here seems to me remarkably clear and persuasive and deserves careful consideration by the new administration.

So does his analysis of the causes of the mistakes in our national defense. The military/industrial bureaucracy is one major cause. Fallows gives a chilling account, for example, of the problems in designing and producing the M-16 rifle, whose failures were the direct cause of thousands of American casualties in Vietnam. Were they not fully documented, the resistance and the deliberate misrepresentations of the army in refusing to adopt new concepts for this basic weapon would be hard to believe. The Reagan administration, if it is really going to improve our national defense, will have to learn how to deal with the obstacles set up at every turn not only by military bureaucrats but also by the defense industries with whom they work. Will the administration be as forceful in dealing with these vested interests as it has with the supporters of social programs? Unfortunately so far there is every indication that it is preparing to delegate more responsibilities to the hidebound dogmatists in the defense establishment.

The public should not be put off by the prosaic title of this book. Anyone concerned about the state of American defenses should find it interesting and constructive. It proposes that the entire method of weapons procurement be changed. At the moment no competitions are held before contracts are awarded; no strong incentives exist to produce weapons that will be effective in combat at a reasonable price. If misrepresentations of the true threats to our security are allowed to continue unchallenged, this will lead only to misdirection and waste in our defense programs. And when such “threat inflation” is combined with the fiscal inflation that would pour many more billions of dollars into the military establishment, the result will be to weaken, not strengthen, our defenses, not to mention the national economy. More dollars will not provide more security. Only strong supervision of procurement and a willingness to shift military policy in new directions will provide adequate defense. These are the lessons that President Reagan’s economic and military advisers could learn from James Fallows’s book.

This Issue

June 11, 1981