In many spheres of life, but particularly in the military, we're building organizations that are so technologically advanced that errors can lead to catastrophic consequences.
The American people will probably respond positively to successful military action in the Middle East. It appears equally likely that they will respond negatively if something unpredictable happens--allied ships or planes shooting at each other, hitting each other or unintentionally involving a noncombatant, or worse.
Does the American military have the management capacity to ensure that such a catastrophe does not happen? Is anyone really in charge? The predictable challenges of operating such complex systems should be considered as important as the unpredictable challenges of war.
U.S. policy seems to be one in which American forces are positioned with allies to compel the Iraqi government to withdraw from Kuwait. Simple enough? Not so. Let us just concern ourselves with what that requires from the Navy (forget the Army and Air Force units in Saudi Arabia for the time being).
In the restricted waters around the Straits of Hormuz (at the entrance to the Persian Gulf), we have the aircraft carrier Independence and its attendant support ships. The Saratoga is in the eastern Mediterranean. The Eisenhower, a nuclear-powered ship with more staying power than the Independence or Saratoga, is in the Red Sea.
The sheer awesomeness of such ships suggests some of the management problems each carrier battle group faces. Ship's company and the air wing of each carrier is composed of about 5,500 men. Each aircraft carrier has approximately 85 to 90 planes of seven different types, each with different capabilities and functions. Nuclear carriers can operate for about 13 years without refueling, but aviation fuel must be replenished at least once a week. About 200,000 gallons of jet fuel are required for a normal strike operation 500 miles from the ship.
Enter the Kennedy and its support ships. While not as large as the Eisenhower, this carrier is bigger than the Saratoga or Independence. But like the Saratoga and Independence, the Kennedy is conventionally fueled.
We now have four battle groups (carriers and their escorts), bringing the number of ships under U.S. control to about approximately 40 and the number of sea-based aircraft aboard the carriers alone to about 345. This is in addition to other Navy ships and aircraft on station or under way. To keep the men aboard each carrier and the hundreds more aboard the escort ships fed and moving, stores and fuel must be replaced frequently. That is a complicated management operation, too. Replenishing requires that the carrier and its replenishment ship travel "abeam" at about 12 knots, a situation fraught with vulnerability and the threat of potential collision (the U.S. Navy does many at-sea replenishments every day without incident). Replenishing other ships is associated with similar challenges.
Enter the British and the French navies. We often practice with the British. And those practices (and our own individual practices) uncover numerous problems. Some, but not all, of these problems are solved in exercises. Now enter the Soviet Navy. Readiness in the Soviet fleet is considerably different from readiness in our own. Their organization is structured differently (including political officers aboard ships). The Soviets sacrifice operations at sea for material readiness. They go for low wear-and-tear and close proximity to supporting bases. They also rely less on training than we do.
Managing this geographically dispersed enterprise seems challenging enough. Managing a situation in which the average age of the American crews is about 20, and their turnover rate is just 44 months, seems impossible. One of the great hidden dangers of this entire enterprise lies in the possibility that we may simply be asking too much of the systems we have created.
The government and people of the United States demand quality operations from our Navy. All in all, we've provided fair resources for obtaining "readiness." But because of resource constraints, the Navy usually practices joint activities with two and sometimes three battle groups, rarely practices with four, almost never practices with numerous battle groups and our allies, and certainly never practices with the Soviets.
As a society, we place large and risky demands on complex military systems and expect them not to fail. But when we operate them overtime at their limits, we increase the likelihood of failure. When we introduce untested challenges, we further increase the risk. In actual combat, some failures are virtually guaranteed. How will this risk-averse society react to that?