The main job of the new secretary of defense, Dick Cheney, one that’s far more difficult and complex than it may sound, is purely intellectual. It is to come up with what in 1914 Navy Cmdr. (later Commodore) Dudley Knox called a “conception of war.”
Only when one begins with a visualization of how the armed forces would be used in extremis to protect the homeland and defend its interests can one begin to figure out its size and composition and determine how it should be equipped. Otherwise, Knox warned, you are in effect “building a house from the roof down.”
That’s precisely what we’ve been doing for some time now--build both a B-1 and a stealth bomber, then try to justify their war-fighting roles; create light Army divisions and then argue about how they would be used in combat; maintain forward-deployed U.S. units in Europe to implement a nuclear-based short-war strategy, while at the same time building a “600-ship Navy” specifically designed for a non-nuclear long-war conflict.
Such confusion is the direct result of a lack of a clear and up-to-date conception of the war-fighting role of our armed forces. And that confusion, as Knox predicted, leads to the roof constantly falling in at the Pentagon. Taken out of a war-fighting context, nothing makes sense. How can one calculate whether the cost of a B-1 bomber or an M-1 tank is appropriate if its national defense value has neither been determined nor explained?
Cheney has come on board at a time when all the old verities of more than a generation-- nuclear-based defenses, forward-basing, coalition strategies--have begun to crumple. Even the focus of our foreign policy and its supporting military policies --the containment of the Soviet Union and its surrogates--have been blurred by glasnost and perestroika . A new conception of war is desperately needed.
In facing this tough challenge, Cheney may have one thing going for him that his critics have overlooked. He has the opportunity to face his challenges with a clean slate. Uncommitted to past policies, his thoughts unclouded by old truths, he may be able to more easily discern the future role our armed forces must play in the defense of our nation and in the protection of its interests. With that conception at hand, he will find that the other problems facing the Department of Defense are easily addressed.