posed policies and practice
for the predicted "depressed decade"


Herbert L. Fenster

Friday, February 3, 1989
Brown Palace Hotel
Denver, Colorado

©1989 American Bar Association
Republished with Permission.


The paper which follows is a very preliminary effort to outline basic problems in the management of the national defense and to suggest the need for a thorough overhaul. It is my view that an understanding of these problems requires recourse to the 200 year history of national defense management including the constitutional premise upon which our national defense was to be structured.

Two hundred years later the original notions of national defense have been overtaken by radically changed transportation, communication, industrialization and unique armament. As importantly, it appears that changes in social and cultural values are also intruding on the subject.

Needed is a major overhaul of the management of the national defense and the primary responsibility for that effort, by dint of constitutional mandate, lies with Congress. The immediate and overwhelming compulsion for such an overhaul should be the fact that we simply cannot afford to continue to manage our national defense in accordance with the tradition-bound notions with which it began; the economic results would be catastrophic.

The specification of the problem as well as the suggestions for resolution are quite formative. The objective is to stimulate thought and action from a hopefully now and broader perspective.

H. L. Fenster
February 3, 1989


A popular aphorism in psychiatric circles goes:

How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? The answer: Only one: but the light bulb has to want to be changed.

If one speculates on the analogy between the light bulb and Congress, certain significant parallels are obvious: (1) both are inanimate, (2) both contain a substantial amount of inert gas, (3) both are dysfunctional, and (4) neither is shedding much light.

But there is hope, at least for Congress. Politics and gas aside, Congress is capable of animation if some of us will shed enough light to make the system "want to be changed." The "management" of the national defense represents a component of governance, life and business uniquely given over to control by Congress. Yet no component of Congress's work is so intractably resistant to meaningful change. Is Congress at fault? Primarily? Minimally? Will the devices of politics and gas preclude change? So what? We can speculate that permanent peace will arrive at about the same time that our "system" for the management of the national defense collapses, and good riddance.

Now we need to heed George Santayana's admonition:

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

It is reasonable to speculate that the economic and social capitalization of communism will suppress communism as the primary object of our national defense. History dictates that it will not, however, be the last object. The twenty-first century suggests far more ominous and compelling problems to be held at bay: The products—or victims—of booming population and diminishing resources, particularly in the Third World, suggest that our national defense will look somewhat more southerly and westwardly in the next century but its continuation—in some size, shape and form—seems an unhappy imperative.

We need to heed Santayana for a second reason. Not only does history suggest that a national defense is a future given, it does—more importantly—tell us a great deal about why we, and particularly Congress, are having so much difficulty coping with both the idea and its modern manifestations. Let's take a moment and examine the historical premise for a national defense, especially Congress's role.

In the making of our Constitution, little conjured more ambivalence than the prospect of having to provide for a national defense: it was equated with standing armies. And standing armies were subjugating Europe and had subjugated the colonies as well. Congress was faced with national abhorrence of standing armies and the realization that the new United States would soon be without one. Compounding this problem was the habit of each state of maintaining its own army—the state militia— and a pride of arms which our pre-NRA militiamen had already shown.

The Constitutional Convention produced an extraordinary compromise which functioned remarkably well for most of our first two hundred years. However, in these two hundred years, we have lost sight of the nature of the national defense compromise, even to the point of systematically violating the crucial constitutional provision on which it is premised. This provision made the national defense a closely held captive of Congress, enjoined its permanence, and dictated a biennial soul searching for its continuation, all of which will be noted in slightly greater detail momentarily.

Without a most radical change in the Constitution itself, the national defense and Congress are permanently wed, and well they should be. The question to be answered, therefore, is not whether the national defense can afford Congress, but rather what changes are necessary for this odd couple and how can we make them want-to- be-changed?

Congress has worthlessly dabbled in the national defense from the very beginning—grudgingly, for the militiaman mentality did not equate to satisfaction over expending national resources for the purpose. In time of nationally felt danger, real danger, Congress was easily cajoled by a usually eager executive branch and a frightened electorate. But eagerness and fear were promptly forgotten with each successive victory at war and we quickly succumbed to the shortages of plowshares which each war produced. More importantly, perhaps, for our minuteman mentality, we are a nation composed of escapists from the organized military and this condition of mind is never far below the surface.

The system imposed by the Constitution on Congress was well adapted for this natural state of mind. Congress was charged to enact anew our army in each term.

The Congress shall have Power ...To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years. (Article I, Section 8, Clause 12.)

This was not exactly a "standing" army, even by eighteenth century perceptions. That we were to have something less seems well understood by the framers:

The Legislature of the United States will be OBLIGED by this provision, once at least every two years, to deliberate upon the propriety of keeping a military force on foot: to come to a new resolution on the point; and to declare their sense of the matter by a formal vote in the face of their constituents. (The Federalist No. 26, Alexander Hamilton.)

While the Constitution presumed a two-year army, it vaguely provided for some skeleton of a more permanent military establishment. We were to have arsenals, ships, training, discipline and the like, even if biennially there was no army to man the works. Such a system could—and did—function reasonably well for approximately one hundred and seventy three years, even against the strain of the military for permanence and self-aggrandizement. (To the above-quoted explanation for the two-year limitation on military appropriations by Congress, Hamilton, speaking of possible congressional sloth in the matter had added:

They [Congress] are not AT LIBERTY to vest in the executive departments permanent funds for the support of an army, if they were even incautious enough to be willing to repose in it so improper a confidence. (Hamilton, ibid)

Even without a clear perception of the congressionally-mandated role, civilian dominance and our culture-borne organized military abhorrence served well. As did two other crucial factors, unseen but assumed in the Constitution: We were insular (in geography and mind), and we had no peculiar weapons (save, perhaps, primitive cannon).

We need not debate our loss of insular virginity. It never really saved us from invasion, even when the mode was sailing ships. Nor were the framers of a mind that it could. When an ocean was a multi-week course, the framers knew it would not provide for adequate warning. Though hardly able to predict an air crossing (manned or unmanned), they did realize that some semblance of a permanent physical establishment would need to be on the ready: it simply took too long to build forts and arsenals to accommodate an Atlantic crossing even by sail.

If … it should be resolved to extend the prohibition to the raising of armies in time of peace, the United States would then exhibit the most extraordinary spectacle, which the world has yet seen, that of a nation incapacitated by its constitution to be prepared for defense, before it was actually invaded. (The Federalist No. 25, Alexander Hamilton)

But as the Constitution made no real provision for a standing army of persons, it equally made no provision for the manufacture of its weaponry beyond arsenals and two year appropriations. In 1787, there was no need. Other than ships and cannon, the weapons of war were little more than the devices of peace. A permanent Navy (not referred to as "standing") was presumed necessary to assure the sanctity of our "shores" and government arsenals for the production of cannon and the like were also excluded from the congressional term limitation.

Even with these limitations on a standing army, there was little concern about our ability to mobilize, timely, to defend the country. The minuteman-militia mentality was premised in some measure on the notion of bring-your-own-gun. If that was not literally the case, what was true was that a substantial measure of armament (hardware, clothing and even forage) was provided by the states themselves as a component of their maintenance of state militia.

Why not? Whether viewed in terms of guns or uniforms, we were not a mass production society and none was envisaged. The equipage for the military was largely goods of types which were common to civilian life: There were virtually no technologies unique to war making. Under these circumstances, gearing up for war—"war production"—required little more than increasing the output of those goods which were generated in the shops of the nation in the first place. To the extent that this was not the case, such as with large bore and high volume guns, Congress provided (and the Constitution permitted) permanent government-owned arsenals.

There was, obviously, no "defense industry" in 1787. Nor was there even by the date of the Civil War. The industrial revolution, which by then had transformed at least the North, did not include the design and manufacture of distinctly military goods. To the minimal extent that such designs were being created, they were largely the products of government arsenals and Navy shipyards. In the 1860s, Congress could obtain "war production" by the expedient of compelling commercial manufacturers to produce larger volumes of essentially commercial goods to somewhat uniform designs. For most, this turned out to be highly profitable but temporary excursions into the square-cornered world of government contracting.

The sheer volume of necessary war-related goods forced some changes in this system to support the first "World War." Government arsenals and shipyards did not suffice to produce necessary quantities and to some extent the facilities (bricks and mortar) of industry were inadequate or could not be converted. (It is even interesting to note that the infrastructures of both the War and Navy Departments—they were separate then—were similarly inadequate. Washington sprouted "temporary" structures, whose number increased in the Second World War—many of which survived into the 1970s).

By the time of the First World War, some unique military goods were emerging. They continued to be largely the products of government arsenals and shipyards but the war itself did spur developments in ground and air mobility, ballistics and communications. We had by no means outgrown our minuteman mentality at its close, however, and had other sound economic reasons to abandon military production in favor of "reconversion" to commercial goods.

A remarkably similar pattern is to be found at the start of the second "World War." We had a relatively substantial Navy, the product largely of government shipyards. Its equipage was substantially obsolete, the product of our minuteman/militia mentality. And as for an army, it barely existed at all, including as it did, an Army Air Corps. (In 1940, our entire military budget was 1.1 billion and the entire active duty military consisted of 335,000 personnel, only a small fraction of whom could have been considered ready for anything.)

This is a good time to consider the phenomenon of reconversion. This is a euphemism intended to be the modern counterpart of beating one's swords into plowshares. Through the end of the Second World War, it was our habit elaborately to "reconvert" industry to civilian goods. The very notion, of course, presupposes that there has been a "conversion" in the first place. As suggested above, at least from the First World War, this was becoming substantially true. Very slowly, we were evolving unique military goods and at least a temporary industry to manufacture them.

The combination of unique designs and quantities to support a war involving more than half of the world's then large population meant that much of the industrial plant and machinery was unique to war goods in the first place and could not economically be "reconverted" to civilian uses in the second place. [Ed. note: emphasis added.] An additional side effect—not to be explored here—is that much civilian heavy industry which had in fact been "converted" was both expended and obsolete by the end of the second World War—in part because of technologies developed as a byproduct of the war.

This pattern was decisively broken in May of 1950, when the North Koreans crossed the Yalu River and drew this country into the "Korean War." So thorough had our World War II "reconversion" been that barely five years later we were unprepared to wage even this relatively limited engagement. Industrially speaking, we faced an emergency of proportions that rivaled the Second World War.

The response came in several forms but none more meaningful than the Defense Production Act of 1950. Patterned in many respects after the First and Second War Powers Acts, this extraordinary excursion by Congress into commandeering war production brought with it other changes clearly evincing an exceptional cultural shift. It is more than mere coincidence that the War Department became the Defense Department. And the statutory permanence of a war footing was clearly presaged by the use of the word "defense" in the Defense Production Act of 1950. It would seem that notions of "cold wars" and Iron Curtains and communist subversion from within were contributing at least to convince the nation—and Congress—that a standing army of real proportions was essential.

But simultaneously we had crossed a technological Rubicon, wherein weapons of war—virtually all of them—were irretrievably unique. And who was to produce these weapons? Unfortunately, the question was never asked in a coherent way—it still hasn't been—and we have developed no concepts to provide an answer. We did manage a euphemism, however, "the military industrial complex." And of it, General/President Eisenhower said after the conclusion of the Korean War:

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. Endnote 1

Whether or not we attribute the insights to Eisenhower himself, his stated perceptions of what had occurred certainly mirror the well-held notions of the time:

During the years of my Presidency, and especially the latter years, I began to feel more and more uneasiness about the effect on nation of tremendous peacetime military expenditures. In the peacetime lifespan of the United States, our practice had been to maintain a minimum defense establishment. For a time, we trusted to the protection of two vast oceans. We frequently indulged in a rather naive belief that any American could be made into a competent soldier within a matter of weeks or days. Every one of our wars was followed by rapid, drastic demobilization on the assumption that the world had become too civilized to fight again. With victory in World War II we began to reduce our forces so precipitously that every year from 1947 to 1950—on the eve of the Korean War—our annual military budget never exceeded $12 billion. (Eisenhower, Dwight D., The White House Years: Waging Peace, 1956, 61, at 614.)

In the speech "creating" the military-industrial complex, Eisenhower gave us a foretaste of its permanence:

… the danger… promised to be of indefinite duration. To meet it successfully, there is called for, not so much the emotional and transitory sacrifices of crisis, but rather those which enable us to carry forward steadily, surely, and without complaint the burdens of a prolonged and complex struggle-with liberty at stake. Endnote 2.

But it is in this last notion that General Eisenhower's perceptions may have been flawed.

Can Congress, at least nominally reflective of the public will, "… carry forward steadily, surely, and without complaint the burdens of a …" military-industrial complex? Without change, the answer is most assuredly, "No!" [Emp. added]

Now we have a term to use: "the burden of the military-industrial complex." It is clear beyond peradventure that the burden was lodged by the Constitution in Congress and it is a burden to be reshouldered biennially. While part of the problem lies in the unhappiness of Congress in having to shoulder the burden at all, much more of the problem reflects a fundamental lack of understanding of the very nature of the burden.

The national defense consumes approximately one-third of our federal budget. Much more importantly, however, it consumes in excess of fifty percent of our federal "discretionary spending." Endnote 3.

Beyond these figures lie a much larger and even more compelling "burden." The national defense is consuming fully eighty percent of the government's expenditures for research and development and of that amount, eighty percent is for development, not even research! Even worse, with this enormous commitment of our economic means and future, the military industrial complex is deteriorating with increasing rapidity to the point where its financial collapse may be accompanied by the sounds of the collapse of its physical infrastructure.

Neither hyperbole nor statistics seem to create much of an impression in this area, but one additional set is germane for what is to come. Approximately seven percent of our GNP is expended on national defense [Editor's note: Recall this paper was written in 1989. As of late 2000, the figure is just under 3%, but still represents roughly 50% of discretionary spending.  See Comment 381.]. This compares with slightly over one percent expended by Japan, whose theater we defend. Similarly, West Germany expends approximately 3.5 percent of its GNP on national defense and again, we are its principal defenders. The RECURRING costs of the defense of these two theaters (meaning that it does not include the large hardware development component) totals over $40 billion per year.

The statistics appear to have little meaning for Congress, other than to heighten its institutional feeling of frustration and entrapment. And Congress appears rapidly to be losing ground and control. In the last eight years the principal victim of this frustration and entrapment has been the "industrial" portion of the complex. In concert with an equally frustrated and entrapped executive branch, Congress has imposed more penal and regulating laws on the Defense Industry in the last eight years than had been imposed in the preceding twenty five. The character of these enactments (some of which had actually been mildly opposed by the executive branch) is a barometer of the degree to which Congress misunderstands its role and the nature of existing problems. Most troublesome in this context is the lack of understanding of the nature and dependence of the industry.

Earlier, reference was made to the evolution of unique military goods starting in the Second World War and proceeding very rapidly through the Korean War. Also noted was a fact that these goods were of such kinds and numbers that their design and manufacture did not make them readily the subject of "reconversion" to commercial goods. So too, the capital base upon which these unique military goods were predicated did not lend itself to "reconversion." Thus, the bricks and mortar, tooling, research and testing components of this industry began to take on a distinct and non-commercial character.

In the thirty five years since the Korean War, there has emerged an Aerospace and Defense "core industry" which is decidedly unique to the design and manufacture of military and aerospace goods. Not only do its goods bear no economic resemblance to commercial goods, but all of the core industry's other business characteristics are now also unique. These unique business characteristics include lack of logical competition, and regulatorily required use of cost-based systems of accounting (as distinct from financial reporting accounting systems.) This core industry cannot function in a commercial environment and it is in fact not permitted to function in a commercial environment.

The idea that there exists a unique military "core industry" suggested to at least one astute observer that such an industry may in fact be a system of "private arsenals." This term probably conjures up a remarkably accurate picture and perhaps suggests the principal problem: Congress simply does not realize the implications of the system of private arsenals which the evolution of a standing army and the creation of unique military goods has created.

The implications are profound. The core industry has only one customer. The industry is unable to determine on a long term basis either the size or nature of its marketplace. The industry is the most thoroughly regulated in the history of the United States. The industry is dramatically undercapitalized in terms of available capital funds for plant and equipment. The industry is greatly oversized, given the present and likely future market for its goods. The industry is obsolete in plant, equipment and manufacturing technologies.

But all of these implications of the industry's uniqueness speak only of its condition. What of its relationship to Congress? The core industry is permanently and thoroughly an appendage of the government, and therefore of Congress, no less than if Congress had created the industry as arsenals in the first place—a notion which is not far from the truth. If this is so clearly the case, then Congress must provide for the industry no less fully than it provides for those Government-owned facilities and services which it has historically acknowledged, such as arsenals.

Within the last two years there has been some glimmer of discussion of yet another problem which should confront Congress in its management of the national defense: The system is literally, physically falling apart. Two words characterize the problem: INFRASTRUCTURE and ENVIRONMENT. The defense infrastructure, which consists not only of military facilities but also of the core industry referred to above, is the victim of capital funding shortfalls much of which go back to 1945. The physical plant, taken as a whole is enormously too large (hence the overly modest proposal for base closings) and the little capital-level funds which are made available are quickly diluted. Again, this is as true of the core industry component as it is of the government-owned plant itself.

The physical environment of this plant is a huge "sleeper" problem which is awakening so rapidly in the last two years as to threaten to undermine the already shaky "base." Here, Congress has seen fit to make the government, and of course the national defense establishment, subject to all of the environmental laws, in most cases to the same extent as private industry. Set against this obligation to comply is the undercapitalized, deteriorated condition of old facilities. A good model for what lies ahead is the rapidly emerging problem in the nuclear component of the national defense infrastructure. It is now clear that the cost of environmental remediation and reconstruction of this portion of the physical plant will total in excess of $180 billion, none of which is yet budgeted or appropriated. While the problems of this portion of the physical plant are, for many reasons much more severe than in the non-nuclear component, the extent of the plant is only a small fraction of the size of the non-nuclear component.

The three services are rushing to sell their industrial-type facilities (which consist of the quasi-private arsenal system created largely over the last four wars and known as "GOCOS.") The plainly stated reason is that Congress will simply not appropriate enough funds to keep them in such a condition that they will meet the requirements of the Federal environmental laws. The notion of the military is that if the facilities can be sold, to the incumbent GOCO contractors, then Congress will be forced to appropriate the necessary capital development and environmental remediation funds as part of the costs of the weapons programs which are manufactured in the facilities. So far there have been no sales. Nor does the foregoing consider adequately the environmental remediation which will be necessary at contractor-owned facilities. This cost too will be passed on to the Congress in the form of increased overhead costs for the use of the facilities. In the next four years, the identified cost of environmental remediation for the non-nuclear portion of the defense establishment is likely to exceed (in budget terms) the amount already identified for the nuclear portion. Thus the yet-unbudgeted environmental costs related to the national defense which are likely to be recognized in the next four years will exceed this year's entire defense budget!

It should have become clear by now that we cannot afford to continue to manage the national defense in accordance with the precepts developed in the last half century since the start of the Second World War. The entire structure is so radically changed and expensive that its continuation in the present mode threatens to overwhelm our ability actually to field an army, standing or otherwise. It is just as clear that by dint of the very specific mandate of the constitution, the burden of the mess falls with Congress. Now the question becomes how is the Congress to afford a national defense? The answer would appear to be: Only by the most radical changes in the concepts by which the defense is managed. Not only must these changes be made in the total organization, but we must also recognize that some critical CULTURAL changes are equal imperatives.

While the executive branch is undoubtedly critical in effecting such changes, the impetus and creativity must come from Congress, a tall order for the doused light bulb. The changes which are to come are inevitable. Their cost to the nation in the longer term, however, is likely to depend materially on whether they are made in a planned, orderly manner or are the product of successive budget and security crises. These alternatives too lie at the doorstep of Congress.


The ridiculously modest result produced by the Base Closing commission is nevertheless suggestive of the nature (if not the scope) of what must occur for the entire military industrial complex. Virtually all components are in need of downsizing. Whether viewed on the basis of "surge" or crisis capability, both the military and the industrial portions of the complex are too large. Their present size represents a combination of benign neglect, laissez-faire economics, political gerrymandering, unattended obsolescence, technological change, outmoded military and industrial strategies and a host of other similar causes. Maintaining the base in its present size is literally impossible not only because of its advanced state of deterioration, but because we cannot generate either the capital funds to support it or the "O&M" funds to maintain it.

Not only must Congress rid itself of considerable plant and equipment in the nature of "base closings" but a major overhaul of the arsenal and industrial facility system must also be undertaken. In this latter context, we must review on an integrated basis, first line government arsenals and shipyards as well as GOCO industrial facilities. However, the private core industry facilities must be considered as part of this picture because they constitute an integral part of the military industrial capability.

Within the core industry, the excessive size of the base transcends simply the oversupply of facilities. We simply do not have, in many areas of design and manufacture, a sufficient throughput to support all of the participants: nor would there be sufficient throughput even under surge and other emergency circumstances. The result of this oversizing of the industry is beginning to show up in a number of areas. Private shipyards, committed for their economic life to Navy work, are failing. Airframe designer/manufacturers (whose numbers exceed by several orders of magnitude the supportable base) are shrinking visibly. The level of competition in certain areas of military electronics (always at least cutthroat) now threatens the economic viability of several of the participants.

It is obvious that downsizing will occur by virtue of competitive pressures even if Congress does not intercede. It does not follow, however, that non-intervention is in the best interests of the national defense or the country otherwise. It should be borne in mind that the defense "business" is not a natural competitive environment in which the fittest will survive. In some instances the least fit will survive simply because of their vested position in particular programs. Nor would such a law-of-nature result necessarily serve other important governmental purposes. These other purposes include economic utilization of government-owned facilities; economic management of scarce capital: economic management of the available throughput; balancing available skilled labor; and a host of other rather macro-economic and even social issues.


It should be clear by now that the simple economics of our theater defense relationship with countries such as Japan and West Germany is untenable. If the United States ever had an interest in a superpower periphery, the last twenty years of economic and political developments have substantially reduced that interest. The expense of keeping troops and sea forces in place in such substantial numbers is grinding down our ability to commit resources to other conceptually higher priority defense needs.

Nor does it appear that such forces-in-place are consistent with our ability to mobilize and move both manpower and armament. We appear to be planning both an insular strategy and a global defense, maintaining forces for both. The cost of this dual activity is outrageous, especially when compared to the costs of defense of the other highly industrialized nations with whom we must compete in both world and domestic markets.

Compounding this already extraordinary problem is a rapid trend in weapons systems toward international participation. The argued assumption is that such participation decreases the cost of defense to the United States. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, such participation tends to dilute the profitability of the goods which would otherwise be realized from our sole source position, especially for high technology weaponry.


One of the more interesting failed experiments of the 1960s was the multi-service buy of the TFX. [Ed. note: which became the F-111 and was only bought by the USAF and Australia] The failure in the McNamara era to impose common aircraft on two or more users, assured that for the succeeding twenty five years they would largely go their separate ways, buying not only different airframes, but also different engines, electronics and, yes, pilots. For aircraft of all types, fixed and rotary wing we now have five air forces, including the Coast Guard, each with its own complete system, cradle-to-grave and each with its own culture.

We seem unable to weigh the cost of such a system against its benefits because we lack the intellectual protocols for actually measuring the value (comparative or absolute) of any component of our defense. This may be a lapse still attributable to the vestiges of a minuteman mentality but it comes at an incredible cost.

Equally, manned aircraft die hard. Only in the last several months has there been serious discussion of the substitution of RPVs for manned aircraft, and presumably only because the future of manned aircraft now portends aircraft at nine digits per copy. There seems also to be a slowly growing realization (in Congress) that we have pressed the technologies of these aircraft, in many cases, somewhat beyond the human physical and intellectual envelope-either to fly or maintain, or to manufacture fault free in the first place.

So too do we have a multi-service array of missiles, plus of course a NASA array. Here, the duplication of physical plant alone produces costs which are "astronomical." In this particular case, recourse to the history which produced this result would be most instructive. Among other things, this history contains many of the necessary seeds for the means to sew the several missile commands back together.

The list of non-common systems of dubious separateness goes on and on. It includes rolling stock of every description, large bore ballistics and even sidearms.


As in the case of military hardware, we have for over two hundred years proliferated our human forces themselves. One can hardly argue that it was logical to create an Air Force once the mission of manned aircraft became clear as a permanent component of war making. On the other hand, one can seriously doubt that there remains a logical mission for a service known as the Marine Corps, given its history and the evolution of warmaking. This is especially true when one considers, somewhat objectively, the extent of resources expended in supporting it as a separate entity and attempting to design for it unique missions and the hardware to go with such missions.

In a like sense one must doubt the continuing economic wisdom of maintaining the Coast Guard separately from the Navy and continuing to house the former within the Department of Transportation. Yet another "service" whose historical roots appear embedded in dry sand is the Corps of Engineers, at least as to its Civil Works mission.

And, finally, for here, we have the example of military health care; this is an interesting subset to study. Each of the services can justify having its own unique health care operations—and a culture to go with it—on the basis of differences in missions. Upon closer, and more objective, examination, however, what becomes clear is that most of the differences are purely cultural and historical and have no economic justification whatsoever.


The primary purpose of this address is economic. But after careful consideration it is apparent that economics cannot be separated from culture when it comes to the management of the national defense. In no area is this more the case than in the consideration of who is to serve.

We did start out with no standing army. We did start out with militias and a minuteman mentality. We did have an abhorrence of a professional military. As late as 1960, General/President Eisenhower warned us of the dangers of a permanent military establishment. And now, we have a completely volunteer military. Consisting of whom? What is the price in economic, social and cultural values?

From what elements of our society is our uniformed military drawn? Are there demographic, familial, social, educational and other patterns which need to be reviewed? The subject appears to be taboo for study. But now there may be an incentive like no other: We simply cannot maintain conventional forces which are large enough, smart enough and flexible enough from a pool of volunteers—It is too expensive.

As importantly, it is likely that we should not even attempt to do so. It ill-behooves this nation to defend itself on the backs of a small segment of our society. It is dangerous for this nation to defend itself through the leadership of a small segment of our society. The importance of the defense of this nation is minimized by the traditional non-participation of large and otherwise important segments of our society.

While this is a subject that must be carefully considered, it is likely that compulsory service, truly "ready reserves," and a return to a modern form of militia systems is a long term essential. One of the teachings of the Vietnam era is that we will not support a long term commitment to a permanent national defense without cultural norms which include large scale participation by all segments of society. And nothing thus far said includes the long term economics of the personnel system. It may be enough here to postulate that we shall need to keep a more diverse body of man (and woman) power less permanently under arms if we are to meet the defense missions of the future at an affordable price.


Who is to manage the national defense? Who is to create the embodiment of the national defense? The normal pattern for answering such questions is simply to assume that the executive branch will propose a program for legislation and Congress will respond. Why then should the national defense be any different? In fact, the complexity of the national defense is so great that the depth of the response by Congress has diminished enormously over the last fifty years, notwithstanding the incredible amount of time which Congress has devoted to the task.

The constitutional mandate is clear:

The Legislature of the United States will be OBLIGED … , once at least every two years, to deliberate upon the propriety of keeping a military force on foot, to come to a new resolution on the point, and to declare their sense of the matter, by a normal vote in the face of their constituents. They are not AT LIBERTY to vest in the executive department permanent funds for the support of an army, if they were even incautious enough to be willing to repose in it so improper a confidence.

Regardless of its resources, or lack thereof, Congress is mandated to take the primary responsibility for the establishment of the national defense. This is a hands-on task. Its complexity is only suggested by the problems which have just been discussed. But the task may not be assigned or delegated, least of all to the executive branch.

The fact that the Constitution compels close control by Congress dictates that Congress must find the means to manage the responsibility competently. Such competent management does not start with the working assumption of recent times that Congress need only treat the continuation of a standing army as another matter for authorization and appropriation legislation based on proposals from the executive branch. It is quite clear that the responsibility cannot be fulfilled in this manner.

What is long overdue is a complete overhaul of the management of the national defense and the impetus for such overhaul must come from Congress. [Emp. added] All of the questions and problems suggested above bear some serious address if Congress is to discharge its constitutional responsibility. Certainly the crushing economic load which the national defense represents dictates a larger and more focused role for Congress. The frustration and entrapment which Congress experiences in dealing with the problem is the proximate result of its own failure to realize and address the dimensions of its own responsibilities.

It is likely that Congress lacks the "in-house" resources to begin to address reorganization of national defense management. What then? If the work must be accomplished "outside" this unhappily means another commission. (A recent compilation by the House Armed Services Committee indicates that there have been literally dozens of such commissions which have addressed one aspect or another of defense management over the last fifty years.)

Perhaps the problem has been that in appointing commissions, neither the President nor Congress has provided a mandate which is either clear enough or broad enough to comprehend the problems or suggest meaningful reforms. It is also possible that the "light bulb does not want to be changed." To mix only two metaphors: The national defense is a thoroughly gerrymandered pork barrel. Apparently, the enormity of the problem is not yet enough to pry the problem loose from vested legislative interests.

In this respect at least, the meager results of the base closing commission experiment may portend a more hopeful result. It may be that Congress is willing to address the much larger problems if only Congress can avoid responsibility for the solution. In lieu of doing nothing comprehensive, the possibility should be given consideration.


Early in the 101st term, Congress should appoint a Joint Committee whose responsibility would be to conduct hearings for the purpose of formulating a mandate for a Commission for the reorganization of the management of national defense. All "disciplines" relating to the national defense should be reviewed, from the most basic considerations of constitutional responsibility to the social, economic and cultural values which are impacted by the subject. The assumption of the effort should embody the currently popular notion of sunset legislation, to wit: no historical construct of defense management should be free from de novo review. The matters which were suggested above, who's impact is both economic and social, are merely suggestive of the range of subjects which should be considered.

The commission itself should be drawn from both the legislative and executive branches and should also include representatives from industry and the academic community. The commission's work should be carefully scheduled with interim products due to the Joint Committee at regularly scheduled dates. The product itself should include very specific recommendations for legislation encompassing all aspects of the national defense from the organization and content of the defense establishment to its relationship to both industry and the civilian community.

The project should contemplate legislation and the initiation of the reorganization before the end the new presidential term. While the impetus should certainly remain the gaining of economic control over the management of the national defense, it may turn out to be just as important to achieve certain social and cultural reforms.


1.  Public papers of the Presidents: Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1960-61, p. 103.

2.  Public papers of the Presidents: Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1960-61, p. 103.

3.  "Discretionary spending" is that not committed to prior obligations such as social security and payment on the debt.

February 1989