Cancellation of Sgt. York Weapon

Harlan K. Ullman, in his article (Editorial Pages, Aug. 30) on the cancellation of the Sgt. York Army division air defense gun (known also by the acronym DIVAD) raised some very pertinent issues--and then trailed off without facing them squarely.

Having been in the Pentagon at the time that the decisions on the DIVAD were being made, even though I was not directly involved, I know it was clear from the very beginning that no matter how well the Sgt. York worked, mechanically and electronically, it could never be truly effective in defending our troops in the field against attack by anti-tank helicopters and airplanes.

No gun is capable of firing fast enough, far enough, or accurately enough to successfully engage aircraft equipped with modern anti-tank standoff weapons before they do their execution, and that meant that DIVAD was doomed from the start. While the test reports on which the cancellation were based have not been released, I expect that the testing simply made evident what the thoughtful had already known.

One may reasonably wonder how it was decided in the first place to throw $4.8 billion down a rat hole. It seemed to me at the time that the DIVAD enthusiasts were motivated by desires to solve the Army’s longstanding field air defense problems, save time and money, and placate our European allies (by buying a European gun for the DIVAD).


In their eagerness to attain these useful and desirable ends, however, they ignored the difficult and unpleasant facts about the nature of the military and technical problems--and tarred as a waster or an enemy of progress anyone who had the bad taste to call attention to them.

Behind this can be seen a kind of arrogance that colors much of the decision-making in our public life and particularly in defense, a faith that a mixture of machismo bravado, amateur enthusiasm and all-American virtue will suffice to override truly formidable obstacles.

Our complacency about the “backwardness” of the Soviets leads our own weapons planners (remembering that this country, unlike the Soviet Union, has virtually no professional cadre of weapons planners, and that our weapons planning has increasingly been dominated by our legislators, the political appointees in the Pentagon, and their politically appointed personal staffs) to turn inward and allow our weapons programs to become ever more driven by internal concerns than by objective military needs and technical realities.

Most of these internal concerns--such as getting good value for our defense expenditure, avoiding waste and fraud, building good relations with our allies, keeping our skilled defense work forces employed, fostering industrial competition, and a host of others--are good and worthy, and deserving of our attention. But they do not substitute for buying equipment that will actually be effective in the face of the continuing Soviet drive for military supremacy.


There are many more Sgt. Yorks on the military buying list--systems in which we are placing altogether false hopes. The peculiar constellation of political factors that happened to do in the Sgt. York can not be counted upon to take care of the others and certainly will not automatically lead to their replacement with systems that can do the job.

The real lesson in the death of this feckless weapon is the need for a far more clear-eyed and professionally informed approach to weapons planning and a willingness to ruthlessly eliminate the many ineffective systems and find substitutes capable of doing the job that is needed.

There is no doubt in my mind, based on 15 years in the Pentagon and intimate familiarity with its budget and weapons acquisitions, that there is enough money to be saved by eliminating ineffective weapons to more than pay for what is needed. What concerns me is shortage not of money but of time.




O’Neill was an assistant deputy under secretary of defense for naval warfare and mobility.