The turf wars of the armed services of the United States are the stuff of lore and legend. Probably no battle against foreign foe has been fought with greater commitment, if less bloodshed, than the battles the services have waged against each other and their reform-minded civilian bosses over the last half-century, in defense of their roles and missions and to preserve or expand their separate budgets.
Aided in many cases by vigorous lobbying groups and powerful allies in Congress, the services have repeatedly frustrated efforts to change their traditional ways of doing things. Robert S. McNamara, when he was defense secretary in the 1960s, labored hard to get the Air Force and Navy to agree on a single plane that could be launched both from carriers and land bases, and so save billions in development and procurement costs. Not only did he fail in that attempt, but in the end he even had to confess that he couldn’t get the Army and Marines to agree to buy the same T-shirts and belt buckles.
The topmost military leadership, with the backing of Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is getting ready to try again to achieve greater cooperation among the services and bring greater coherence to the nation’s defense effort. Among the measures proposed in a project headed by Adm. William A. Owens, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, are cooperative budget planning in place of each service’s preparation of its own spending proposals; elimination of duplication in procurement programs; adoption of common systems in, for example, communications and fire-control; and possible reallocation of certain missions and roles.
This is only part of a large and ambitious agenda. The overall goal is to reassess military needs in the post-Cold War age and determine what kind of forces and what kind of equipment will be most needed. Even in the best of circumstances, this is an enormously complex and daunting task. When the services can be expected to mass all of their political firepower to prevent serious change, and then go to guerrilla warfare after that, the difficulty of the effort expands exponentially.
It’s an old problem and it has defied solutions for decades. Service loyalty is all but sacred to most military professionals, jealousy over traditional roles is intense and precious few uniformed professionals who hope to rise higher are prepared to endorse any significant changes in how their own services do things. Yet change is unavoidable if the United States is to adapt successfully to the military requirements of the post-Soviet age. If, against all experience, the services can somehow be made to agree with that, a big part of the reform battle will have been won.