Casper Weinberger
Casper Weinberger; drawing by David Levine

With the beginning of the government’s fiscal year on October 1, the first full year of the Reagan administration’s program to “rearm America” began as well. The American military budget for the year just begun is some $214 billion. That is 3 percent less than the administration had originally projected, before the revisions made while the president was in Santa Barbara this summer, but it is 24 percent larger than the budget of only two years ago.1

The political argument that has accompanied the administration’s budget proposal has generally conceded its basic premise: if the US hopes to be safe in the world, it should be spending more for defense. Most politicians have concentrated instead on how the extra money should be distributed among the services, or on the political dexterity that will be required to keep the defense budget rising while other forms of public spending are cut.

Some of this political debate reflects arguments that have raged for years within the military, about the kinds of machines the Pentagon buys. Specifically, the question is whether today’s weapons are too expensive and complicated to be of any practical value—or whether, on the contrary, their expense and complication are essential if American forces hope to prevail in the perilous world of modern warfare. Politicians have also paid increasing attention to the warnings, often originating on Wall Street, about the costs that will be borne by both public and private sectors of the economy if the military budget is to be raised to nearly $300 billion by 1985.2

The great virtue of Mary Kaldor’s book is to suggest a larger perspective from which to consider these disparate arguments, and to demonstrate how the decisions about the structure of our military force may have unforeseen and unwelcome implications for the nation’s industrial base.

Kaldor is a young British writer whose strength lies in delineating the economic causes, and consequences, of phenomena not obviously “economic” in nature—such as the weapons and strategies employed by a nation’s military. She is to that extent an economic determinist, which is not always the best background from which to address military questions; but in this case the benefits of her approach far outweigh its drawbacks.

One of Kaldor’s starting points is the notion of “long waves” in economic history—the cycles in which new technologies propel economic development and then eventually mature and peter out. Each wave is often associated with a specific geographical location: nineteenth-century engineering with Britain, early and mid-twentieth-century automobiles and airplanes with the United States, late twentieth-century electronics with Japan. In the early period of each cycle, growth is most dependent on “product improvements”—the inventions that push back the frontier of technology and enable companies to bring new products to the market. Later, growth depends more on “process improvements”—the techniques of mass production that were identified with America and Henry Ford early in this century but now are more often associated with Nissan and SONY. In the late stages of each wave, continued national growth depends on letting the “mature” sectors wither, so that the human and financial resources that might have been devoted to sustaining them may instead be concentrated on the search for technologies that will support the next long wave.

The significance of “baroque” technology, Kaldor argues, is that it can tie an economy to a productive system that is nearing its decadent stage. In this sense, “baroque” technology means endless improvements, at ever-higher cost and ever-dwindling marginal returns, to designs that are fundamentally unchanged. The tail fins on the old Cadillac have their military counterparts in the continual small increases in speed, range, firepower, and radar that have typified the last generation’s evolution of fighting machines.

Baroque weaponry is begotten of military conservatism, Kaldor says; when planners assume that future wars will require the same weapons and tactics as those of the past, they devote the years between wars to tuning up the old machines. American military airplanes and warships are designed for missions fundamentally similar to those they performed in World War II, but the innovations of the postwar years have made the planes roughly one hundred times and the ships fifteen to twenty times as expensive as their earlier versions were thirty-five years ago.3 Such weapons are the distinctive products of peacetime military establishments, whose decisions cannot be tested against the reality of combat and are therefore shaped by the institutional habits, interests, and prejudices of the public and private bureaucracies in which they are made. Of the resulting weapons, Kaldor says:

Modern armaments have become increasingly remote from military and economic reality. They are immensely sophisticated and elaborate; they are feats of tremendous ingenuity, talent, and organisation; and they can inflict unimaginable destruction. But they are incapable of achieving limited military objectives, and they have successively eroded the economy of the United States and the economies of those countries that have followed in her wake.4

Kaldor says that such weapons have “eroded” national economies by erecting a perverse hierarchy of values. Companies that receive government contracts during the “baroque” stage of military technology are encouraged to refine their products past the point that would be justified on purely commercial grounds. To achieve spectacular feats of “performance” matters more than ensuring reliability day by day. Their lone customer, the government, has little interest in rewarding “process improvements” that might make mass production more efficient. A small increase in the thrust-to-weight ratio of a jet engine is pursued more vigorously than a more substantial decrease in the cost of mass-producing the finished hardware. The manufacture of advanced weapons is, in Kaldor’s words, a “custom-built” approach that is the very antithesis of the productive miracle of World War II, in which the US turned out 100,000 military aircraft in 1944 alone (versus about 500 fighter planes this year, of which half are exported). She says that it is also directly contrary to the steps the United States should now be taking to strengthen its position as an economically competitive force.


Kaldor’s parable on this point is drawn from the British shipbuilding firm, Vickers, which in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was a rival to Krupp and the other large armorers. Since then, it has dwindled away to nationalized penury. The company’s era of greatest prosperity began around 1880. The immediate cause was the buildup of the British fleet and the subsequent naval rivalry with Germany; the ultimate effect, Kaldor says, was to impede the economic adjustments that would have been necessary if Britain were to sustain in the twentieth century the economic primacy it enjoyed in the nineteenth. In the nineteenth century, Britain’s wealth had grown from “the steam engine, new methods of coal mining, new iron and steel processes, the railway, and above all machinery…. After 1870, their existence, embodied in brick and steel and human skills, gradually became a liability to the newly developing technologies of chemicals, electricity, and automobiles.”5 A major cause of Britain’s economic rigidity, Kaldor says, was the investment in capital-intensive military projects based on the older technologies, of which battleship-building was the most obvious example. In channeling so much of the national treasure toward the sector symbolized by the Vickers corporation, Britain enabled companies and technologies to survive that would otherwise have shrunk or failed.

The parallel that Kaldor draws is to the political economy of American weapons in the post-World War II era. Between the wars, the military affected only a tiny fraction of the US economy; military spending represented about 1 percent of the gross national product in the twenty years before World War II. (It rose to more than 8 percent during the Kennedy administration and is about 5.5 percent now.) Once the United States entered that war, its ability to sustain mass production was its decisive edge. Two of the most important items of production, tanks and military airplanes, were based on two of the most important and strongly growing civilian industries—automobiles and aircraft. After the war, the “follow-on” generations of weapons remained tied to these two industries, along with shipbuilding; but the cost and complexity of the weapons went up, and their numbers declined. As was the case during the race to develop dreadnoughts before World War I, military contracts encouraged the exotic rather than the efficient within the industries that produced new generations of weapons.6 And, Kaldor concludes, the flow of resources toward these maturing industries in the 1960s and 1970s has made it harder for the US to meet the competition of the Japanese and Germans in the 1980s.

The strongest evidence for her case is the erosion of the American automobile and consumer electronics (i.e., radio and televison) industries. The original inventions in these fields came, in general, from the United States. The “process improvements” that have driven costs down and off-the-assembly-line quality up in the last fifteen years have come, in general, from the Japanese or Germans. The most troublesome evidence for Kaldor’s thesis might seem to be the American semiconductor industry, based on computer “chips,” which has been suffused with military contracts since its earliest moments but which has been the nation’s greatest industrial success story of the past generation. No contradiction, Kaldor says: it is a question of different stages of the “wave.”

Through the 1960s and most of the 1970s, the semiconductor business was revolutionized by one dramatic new invention after another—chips with larger memory capacities, then “microprocessors” that incorporated the capacities of an entire computer on one small silicon square. Military projects, with their emphasis on the frontiers of performance, were exactly right for a business in this stage of development, Kaldor says; and without the demand created by military contracts the American industry would never have progressed so rapidly. But within the last few years the semiconductor business has begun to change. The emphasis has swung toward high-volume production of more standardized products. Japanese manufacturers, such as Nippon Electric Company, have tried to establish a competitive edge through lower costs and more stringent quality control. American firms, learning from the failure of the auto makers, have attempted to compete with the Japanese on the same terms before it is too late—and have found military business to be a hindrance in their effort to do so.7


The new military buildup will dramatically increase the demand for chips—but, as Robert Reich pointed out in his recent analysis in The New York Review (November 19), it may place the American industry at an even greater disadvantage in its struggle for survival with the Japanese. The Defense Department is looking toward a new generation of large-scale integrated circuits, whose characteristics will be tailored to military needs. To enter the market would divert American manufacturers from the far larger, and ultimately more important, commercial market; but to leave the development of such new products to the Defense Department (as is the current plan) may have the equally destructive effect of siphoning the nation’s scientific and engineering talent away from private manufacturers. Either choice bodes ill for the American industry’s hopes to survive in competition with the Japanese.

Unlike most people who discuss the Western military establishment, Kaldor attempts to demonstrate that the Russians have fundamentally the same problems. Their working principles often differ from those of the United States: the Soviet watchwords, according to Kaldor, are “simplicity, commonality, and inheritance.” This is often thought to mean that the Soviet Union emphasizes cruder systems that still get the essential jobs done; that it has spare parts that fit almost anything; and that it improves its weapons gradually but constantly, instead of waiting for big jumps between one model and the next, as the American military generally does. The “simplicity” of some Soviet weapons may actually reflect nothing more than the lag between the American introduction of a complex system and the Soviet imitation of it. (For example, the US led the way into the “swing-wing” design for military aircraft, found it inefficient, and abandoned it just about the time the Russians were applying it to their planes—as they still do.)

Despite these differences, the economic ossification is much the same. In the US, according to Kaldor, military spending is responsible for much economic rigidity. In the Soviet Union, the military establishment is merely the clearest example of the cumbersome, centralized planning system that denies the Soviet economy the ability to innovate and adapt.

As Kaldor points out near the end of her book, the baroque approach is not justified even by its own standard of military effectiveness, and for reasons similar to those that kept the dreadnought from being the decisive factor in World War I. Larger and larger shares of the nation’s military assets are concentrated on a smaller and smaller number of expensive “platforms”—aircraft carriers, nuclear-powered attack submarines, advanced fighter planes. As each one of the platforms comes to represent a significant part of the nation’s offensive capacity, more and more of the military’s time, money, and ingenuity must be devoted to ensuring that the platforms themselves survive. These systems, which are quite complicated, tend to be out of order more often than their predecessors—and to be more vulnerable to unexpected changes in the conditions under which they are to be used. (In peacetime, such a change might be a cutback in the budget for spare parts; in combat, an attack on supply lines.) Yet in the absence of the test of combat, the progression toward the baroque continues. 8

Kaldor’s book is original, thorough, and valuable, even though I believe it has several limitations. There is little felicity to the author’s prose. Because she lacks a gift for narrative, an act of will is sometimes required to follow her through to her quite sensible points. She also seems to me unduly optimistic about the performance of new “precision-guided” weapons, or PGMs, which she says will give small units of soldiers the ability to destroy ponderous tanks, airplanes, and warships, and therefore will render most large military machines obsolete. One reason for her enthusiasm may be that such weapons fit nicely into her pattern of the new wave of technology that the modern military is supposedly ignoring. Perhaps this equipment will eventually make possible a breakthrough to the cheap, reliable, and essentially defensive weapons that Kaldor foresees. So far, however, PGMs have been neither cheap nor especially reliable when they have appeared in combat in the Middle East and Vietnam.9 (This point is important, since the development of PGMs is sometimes cited as a reason for discounting the power of Soviet armor in Eastern Europe.)

Yet if most of Mary Kaldor’s thesis were laid before the secretary of defense or presented to an audience at one of the military’s War Colleges, her auditors might well concede every point of her economic analysis. Some would agree even with the emotion of her book’s closing words: “However utopian it may sound, we are going to have to create a society that does not need armaments.”10 Still, they would consider her analysis of no practical significance, because it does not pay serious attention to “the threat.”

“The threat” is the invariable formulation for the Soviet Union’s military power and its willingness to employ it. A dramatic recent increase in the threat is, from the perspective of the military planner, the sole and sufficient justification for larger defense budgets in the US and—if their laggardly governments can be convinced—in Europe and Japan as well. As part of the effort to awaken our allies to the threat, American officials presented classified briefings about the Soviet military buildup to the NATO defense ministers earlier this year. A digest of those briefings, in unclassified form, is what Caspar Weinberger, the secretary of defense, has released in Soviet Military Power.

This book, which contains scores of maps, charts, and photographs in its 99 pages, does one thing only: it describes the material composition of the Soviet force. Although it makes brief allusion to the organization of the Soviet military forces and to some of Russia’s basic strategic maxims, it does not pretend to assess the overall balance of strengths and weaknesses between the Western and Eastern alliances. Nor does it attempt to measure Soviet military equipment against American; with the exception of a chart that shows how much larger a tank factory in Soviet Central Asia is than its counterparts in Lima, Ohio, and Warren, Michigan, the book contains no systematic comparisons of the equipment or the production rates of the two powers.11 As its title suggests, it is strictly a catalogue of Soviet military power.

The comparative assessment that Soviet Military Power deliberately avoids is contained in another new book, The East-West Strategic Balance, by the Australian scholar T.B. Millar. Millar’s intention is to match the “capabilities” of the major world blocs with their competing international interests. He begins with the “Soviet Imperial System,” contrasting its military strength with its imperiled economic and social condition; he concludes that the events of the last eighteen months in Poland “mark the beginning of the crumbling of the Soviet European system.”12 Millar then describes the assets—military, economic, and moral—possessed by the Western alliances and suggests where they might be brought into play against the Soviet Union. His book is without identifiable ideological bent. It takes quite seriously the military establishment the Russians have created and its potential for use in the Middle East or elsewhere, but it also suggests the practical and political reasons that an “advantage” on the order-of-battle chart cannot automatically be converted to victory in war. For example, he says of the balance of forces in Europe:

Warsaw Pact conventional superiority, even if backed by Soviet theatre nuclear superiority, is not such as to suggest the threat of imminent attack on the NATO powers, even in the more vulnerable areas. Offensive military action anywhere along the line of Europe’s division would almost certainly lead to general war and could lead to nuclear war. This is a considerable deterrent. The defender intrinsically has advantages over the attacker: he is fighting on and for his own territory; on internal (protected) lines of communication…. What the Warsaw Pact forces do is keep NATO continuously in a state of apprehension, and the Eastern force superiority and the possibility of attack make it difficult for the West to divert military resources from this area to others where crises may suddenly arise or where the Soviet Union may take targets of opportunity.13

As this passage suggests, the predominant impression left by Millar’s analysis is that of constancy in the standoff between West and East, and complexity in the advantages each side brings to bear. It is, in short, a quite different impression from that left by the Defense Department’s publication, which suggests a dramatic change of trend and a onesided military advantage for the Soviet Union.

Soviet Military Power enjoyed much popularity immediately after its release. Ten days after Weinberger summarized its contents at a press conference, the initial supply of 36,000 copies was exhausted. The demand seemed to reflect a general agreement that the figures in the book were reasonably accurate, and that it made public several bits of intelligence never previously released (for example, artists’ impressions of the SS-20 mobile missile system that is said to pose a new threat to Western Europe, and of Russia’s newest and largest type of ballistic missile submarine, the “Typhoon” class). The book’s plainly advertised status as a digest of official thinking about the threat heightened interest all the more.

But if attention is directed where it should be in this book, not at the passages of descriptive prose but at the charts and production figures, the findings are quite similar to Mary Kaldor’s thesis about a conservative, consistent Soviet military force. Most of the charts in Soviet Military Power cover production over a five-year span, beginning with 1976 and ending with 1980. A few of these charts show production rising—from 900 pieces of towed field artillery in 1976 to 1,300 pieces in 1980, for example. At least as many show declining rates—from 300 intercontinental ballistic missiles down to 200 over the same period. For most of the charts, the trend is flat: year after year, the Russians have kept the machine running at roughly the same rate.14

In many cases, a different trend would emerge if the charts covered not the past five years but the previous ten or fifteen. As the Soviet Union has followed America’s lead into the domain of baroque weaponry, it has suffered some of the same consequences—including a declining number of military machines. In 1966, for example, the Russians produced about 3,500 tanks. They rose to a peak of 4,500 in 1970, and declined smoothly to about 2,000 a year by 1975.15 According to an article by an army intelligence officer in Armor magazine,16 tank production has bounced back and forth between 2,000 and 2,500 ever since then. This is somewhat at odds with Weinberger’s figures, which show production rising from 2,500 to 3,000 between 1978 and 1980; but in either case the figures suggest constancy, not dramatic acceleration, in the Russian production effort.

Shipbuilding displays a similar pattern. Soviet production of major surface combatants—destroyers, cruisers, and frigates with displacements greater than 1,000 tons—reached its peak not in the last few years but in 1953, when roughly forty ships were delivered. It fell to a low of three or four ships a year in the late 1950s, hit another peak of about eighteen in the mid-1960s, then fell to a steady rate of about five ships a year through the 1970s—which it maintains to this day.17

As for submarines, Soviet Military Power reveals that the Russians have built between 10 and 13 per year since 1976, which is several times higher than the American rate. It does not make clear that, if the Soviet submarine force is larger than the American, this is mainly the result of deliberate American choice. Three or four of the attack submarines the Soviets build each year have diesel-electric power; the US has not built such a craft since 1961, and the diesel-electric inventory accounts for most of the difference in size between the two fleets.18 American production of nuclear-powered attack submarines has recently fallen to two or three a year, coincident with the introduction of the “Los Angeles” class of vessels—which, at nearly $600 million apiece, cost about twice as much as the submarines they replace. The navy has long preferred to move from diesel electric to nuclear power, and from smaller vessels to larger—rather than devote its resources to increasing the size of the fleet. This tendency is considered wise by some and misguided by others. Regardless of the side one chooses in that argument, the numerical disparity between the American and Russian force is due at least as much to American policy as to any change in Russian behavior.

The figures that Weinberger presents do support his contention that the Russians have the “ability to sustain high rates of production.” The Soviet Union has, in steady steps, built a military that is the nation’s only source of strength, and that in certain areas is the equal—or more—of our own. Several aspects of the Western military force do need to be improved. They include the dwindling numbers of submarines and tanks, the low states of readiness of machines and men, and the “just another job” mentality that seems to affect both officers and enlisted men in a volunteer military. But do any of these facts, including the ones contained in Weinberger’s booklet, explain the tone of desperation and twilight struggle that distinguishes so many of the administration’s statements? I believe they do not, and that the explanation lies elsewhere.

Part of the impetus for larger military budgets comes, of course, from the public and private bureaucracies that depend on such spending for their existence. But their influence, like the Soviet Union’s production trends, is predictable and chronic, while the sense of urgency about “rearming America” has dramatically increased within the last year. The disproportion between those trends, I believe, has less to do with a change in the Soviet Union’s intentions or capacities than with a shift in the emotional climate in the United States.

The most bitterly contested arguments about current military policy often lose all connection with their stated subjects, the weapons and strategies themselves. Instead, the military details merely serve as the occasion for arguments that proceed from other, more abstract concerns. For example, during the deliberations over the sale of AWACS aircraft to Saudi Arabia, the discussion never remained for long on the details of military effectiveness, since it was so hard to demonstrate that the sale would make a tangible difference in the welfare or security of any of the parties. Notwithstanding the Senate’s vote in favor of the AWACS sale, the Saudi Arabians will not receive their first planes until 1985, and are not expected to have trained their own crew members until five years after that. For the rest of the decade, then, the Saudis must rely on the AWACS planes that have been there on patrol, manned by American crews, since the fall of 1980.

Were the Israelis to contemplate another preemptive air strike of the sort that the AWACS could purportedly detect and prevent, they would undoubtedly alter their war plans to make destruction of the AWACS one of their initial missions. This is not even to mention the abundant technical reasons to doubt that the AWACS would be able to detect planes that used jamming and other evasive tactics to thwart the AWACS radar.19

In short, the issue seemed to be important to the Saudi Arabians because it would be a token of their influence over the United States. It was important to the Israelis because it was important to the Saudis; and it was important to the administration because the president had put his reputation on the line. The administration presented the vote to the Senate as a test of this last point—the honor not simply of this president but of The Presidency. Such an appeal was barely enough to carry the day, on a question to which most members of the public were indifferent, and on which more people who did care stood to gain (through AWACS contracts) than to lose (because of commitments to Israel) from the deal. Will the honor of the presidency count for so much when it comes to enacting cuts in Social Security, or defending the purity of the supply-side tax cuts, or keeping the military buildup program sacrosanct? My guess is that it will not—and that the AWACS vote therefore portends no automatic increase in the president’s momentum on issues whose practical consequences the public can more easily perceive.

An even clearer illustration that military practicalities are irrelevant to the pro-defense-spending mood was President Reagan’s decision to place the new MX missile in existing silos, rather than to construct new, deceptive shelters in Nevada and Utah. For at least forty-eight months before that decision was announced, the same people who are now so prominent in the president’s State and Defense departments, on his National Security Council, and on his arms-negotiations team, had warned that “Minuteman vulnerability” was the principal threat to the physical survival and the political independence of the United States. Yet where were they, these Jeremiahs of the “window of vulnerability,” when the president announced a decision that, if anything, aggravated whatever vulnerability may ever have existed? A few protests were heard, notably from Senator John Tower and General David Jones, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but there was none of the wave of contumely that engulfed Jimmy Carter for his vacillation on the comparatively trivial issue of the “neutron bomb.”

Why? I believe it is because the missiles themselves and their vulnerability never mattered as much as the “will” of the country that was to replace the Minuteman with the MX. Those who were most alarmed about the “window of vulnerability” knew that President Reagan shared their general view of national will, and so they could swallow a decision that they would otherwise condemn.

Just as the missiles may have been a secondary factor in the arguments over the MX, so I suspect that the Soviet Union’s output of tanks and submarines is only one ingredient, and not necessarily the most important one, in the current drive for American rearmament (which does not mean that Soviet forces, particularly in Europe, are not formidable or that they can be ignored). The other ingredient is a desire to get even not with Russia but with other Americans—in particular, with the faction of Americans who, in the view of those now defining the administration’s mission, have led the nation down the path toward guilt, self-hatred, and self-induced weakness in the world.

According to this view, which has found expression in such places as Commentary magazine, this faction overreacted to Vietnam. It came to see the United States as the fountainhead of the world’s evil, clothed in guilt for every misfortune from mass poverty to acid rain to oppression in Latin America. Its members, some of whom were prominent in the Carter administration, grew decadent and contemptuous of basic American values. They were squeamish about the use of force, and instead entertained utopian thoughts about the power of moral example. And—the theory concludes—because the members of this group talked so often and with such piety about the limits on American power, they ended up creating limits where none needed to exist.

It is no accident that John Kennedy has been invoked more often than any Republican to bless the administration’s programs, for his was the age of few obvious limits on American power, and the brightest memory of his administration is the notion that the nation’s standards and its influence might be lifted to a higher plane. Yet in the twenty years since his inauguration, the US has encountered one limit after another, and has descended from a peak of military and economic dominion unprecedented in this century. This descent may have been inevitable, as Europe and Japan rebuilt from war, as the world broke into squabbling, independent nations—and as the Soviet Union did what we were powerless (short of preemptive attack) to prevent, namely build a force of nuclear weapons. However inevitable it may have been, it is nonetheless disquieting, and the current reaction has the qualities of denial—of wishing away any reminder of how closely the limits now encroach. Even to mention the possibility of limits is, in the current climate, to demonstrate a failure of will. In his forthcoming book, The Kennedy Imprisonment,20 Garry Wills describes the genesis of an attitude that is once again preeminent:

Eisenhower admitted there is a “tyranny of the weak,” an ability of massed little forces to trouble the thin-drawn periphery of American concerns…. There was nothing to do but ignore what could not be controlled in any useful way. That was the advice of a man who understood power, its meaning and limits.

But John Kennedy had different teachers on the nature of power. They thought any recognition of limits signaled a failure of nerve. For them, the question was not can you do everything, but will you do everything? The American resources were limitless…. The only thing to decide was whether one had the courage to use all that might. 21

We have again entered a period in which words like “will” and “nerve” are used to define our policy—rather than words like “national interest.”

This Issue

December 17, 1981