The End of the American Century?
By JACK M. KENNEDY
The thorough media coverage of the four days of Desert Fox strikes against
Iraq restored defense issues to the forefront of the national consciousness--which
is where they should be.
Even earlier, though, there was heartening evidence that more and more
Americans every day are becoming aware of--and seriously concerned about--the
post-Cold War threats to U.S. national security. And to world peace.
A case in point: Three separate articles in three different newspapers,
all dated 8 December 1998, reported on three totally different defense
topics. But collectively they carried a single important message: National
defense must be the first priority not only of the President and Congress,
but also of the American people.
The headline on page 1 of the 8 December New York Times was terse, tight,
journalistic: Iranians, Bioweapons in Mind, Lure Needy Ex-Soviet Scientists.
The page 1 headline of the Washington Times was much more prosaic: U.S.
Talks to N. Korea About Underground Site. It was, nonetheless, more exciting
than the almost soporific headline--Clinton Hears Pleas for Military
Funding--on page 2 of the Washington Post.
The Post article, by Bradley Graham, might eventually prove more important
in substance than the other articles. But for now, as the headline suggested,
it really amounted only to a report that the president had listened politely
(but made no commitments) at a meeting during which "the nation's
senior generals and admirals" told him the services need more money.
A lot of it, according to the article: "$112 billion over the next
For the record, the Washington Times article (by Ben Barber) was about
continuing--but extremely unproductive--discussions between "U.S.
diplomats" and "senior North Korean officials" about three
large underground bases under construction in North Korea that many defense
analysts say "could be used for nuclear projects" and/or for
the launching of "long-range Taepo Dong ballistic missiles." The
topic, of course, is hugely important. But the "news" per se
can be boiled down to six words: Plenty of talk, but no action.
The same cannot be said, unfortunately, about the New York Times article,
which was and is extremely newsworthy. That article (by Judith Miller
with William Broad) included numerous credible specifics about Iran's
efforts to recruit literally "dozens" of "former Soviet
... scientists who once worked in laboratories tied to Moscow's vast
germ warfare program."
The import, as well as intent, of the Iranian recruiting effort is only
partially suggested in a "background" paragraph toward the
end of the article: "It is now known that the Soviet Union built
the most pestilential biological arsenal of all time. At the program's
peak ... scientists at scores of sites studied some 50 biological agents
and prepared a dozen or so for war. Bombers and intercontinental missiles
were ready to disseminate hundreds of tons of smallpox, plague, and anthrax,
enough to wipe out entire nations."
Iranian officials issued their standard party line: the foreign scientists
in Iran "were doing only peaceful research," and the research
is being carried out "for purely peaceful purposes."
The collective point that can be drawn from these articles, and numerous
others that could be cited, is simply this: The post-Cold War world is
still an extremely dangerous place--in certain respects more dangerous
than the world of the Cold War era, in which two global superpowers possessed
a near monopoly on weapons of mass destruction (WMDs)--but, despite their
political and ideological differences, maintained global stability.
The dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and breakup of the Soviet Union ended
the precarious bipolar stability of the previous four decades--and, of
perhaps greater importance, led indirectly to the proliferation of WMDs
throughout the world. Four of the new states created from the wreckage
of the USSR possess nuclear weapons and thus qualify for the dubious
title of mini-superpower. Many former Soviet scientists and weapons experts
are now working overseas--most of them in countries (Libya, for example)
described by the U.S. State Department as "potentially hostile" to
the United States.
Russia itself, most militarily powerful of the newly independent republics,
is in political and economic chaos. The often ailing and even more often
erratic Boris Yeltsin is obviously on his last legs, but even in the
best of health he probably could not cope with his country's economic
problems. Russia is earning some limited hard currency through the dangerous
expedient of selling Kilo-class submarines to such nations as Libya and
the People's Republic of China (PRC), and various short- and long-range
weapon systems to other nations in the "potentially hostile" category.
The PRC, meanwhile, has been increasing its own arms exports, and is
upgrading the quality of its armed forces across the board. The growth
of the Chinese Navy is particularly worrisome. The PLAN (People's Liberation
Army Navy) is deficient in both mine warfare and amphibious capabilities,
and is no current threat to the U.S. Navy on the open ocean. Moreover,
as the 1998-99 edition of the Naval Institute's Combat Fleets of the
World points out, most of the PLAN's "high-tech" systems and
equipment "remain a good three decades behind the naval state of
What is conveniently ignored at the highest levels in Washington, though,
is that the PRC does not need overwhelming naval superiority to achieve
its primary political goal: the capitulation of the Republic of China
(ROC) on Taiwan. With the more than 60 submarines and over 50 surface
combatants in its active fleet augmented by several hundred fast attack
craft and 700 aircraft (most of them land-based), China is in good position
to dominate both the East China Sea and the South China Sea and thus
isolate Taiwan--if it is willing to pay the price.
Because of President Clinton's unwillingness to publicly reaffirm the
U.S. commitment to the defense of Taiwan, that price may not be as high
as it once was. It seems probable that the president's vacillation on
Taiwan is because China has become a major U.S. trading partner in recent
years. The much-argued bilateral balance of trade is very much in China's
favor, of course, but that will not stop the PRC, with Hong Kong back
in the fold, from seeking to regain hegemony over the last of its "lost
The administration's reluctance to stand firm on Taiwan is a major concern
not only to Taipei, but also to many other U.S. allies--because it is
part of a pattern. The 1994 Nuclear Framework Accord between the United
States and North Korea--fuel oil and nuclear reactors provided to Pyongyang
in return for nonverifiable promises from North Korea--now seems to have
been a major political as well as military blunder. Worse, though, were
the several near-crisis confrontations with Saddam Hussein over U.N.
arms inspections that preceded Desert Fox. In the earlier confrontations
the U.S. failure to act with decisive military force was duly noted by
allies and adversaries alike, and will undoubtedly be factored into their
own foreign-policy agendas.
Added to the growing concern about America's reliability as an ally
are several tangible, quantifiable, and profoundly disturbing naval/military
facts of life: (a) Until the modest FY 1999 end-of-session add-on, the
U.S. defense budget had declined in real terms (i.e., adjusted for inflation)
for 14 consecutive years; (b) During that same period most of America's
air and ground bases overseas were either closed or significantly reduced
in size; (c) In the 1990s U.S. forces have, despite the downsizing, been
committed to numerous humanitarian and peacekeeping missions overseas
in areas (Somalia and Rwanda, for example) that are not truly vital to
U.S. national interests; and (d) The combined result of all of the preceding
has been a major increase in personnel tempo and operating tempo, an
escalating degradation of equipment, training, and readiness, and an
erosion of the morale of service personnel and their families.
The Navy and Marine Corps are the services that have been most affected
by the combination of reduced budgets and increased commitments. Let
there be no mistake about it: All of the nation's armed services have
been overworked in recent years, and considerably underfunded as well,
particularly in the procurement and RDT&E (research, development,
test, and evaluation) accounts that are key to the long-term readiness
of combat forces. The closure of so many former U.S. air and ground bases
overseas, however, has combined with the new emphasis on regional and
littoral conflicts to impose a disproportionate share of the collective
defense burden on the nation's sea services. Today, in many areas of
the world, America's forward-deployed carrier battle groups (CVBGs) and
Navy/Marine Corps amphibious ready groups (ARGs) are the only combat-ready
forces immediately available to the national command authorities in times
of international crisis.
But there are not enough of either. Nor is there sufficient backup capability
in CONUS to relieve and reinforce forward-deployed units during a sustained
conflict. Sealift also is lacking--here, though, the picture is gradually
improving. There also has been additional funding provided for mine warfare
in recent years, but defensive mine warfare is still the most likely "show-stopper," insofar
as naval forces are concerned.
The Navy faces an additional problem that does not affect the other
services quite the same way, or to the same extent: the heavy operating
schedule characteristic of the interdeployment cycle. When Navy ships
and crews return to CONUS from overseas deployments (six months is the
standard hoped for) they are still away from home port--usually on routine
training operations--a high percentage of the time. Throughout 1998 more
than half the active fleet usually was at sea on any given day. That
high an operating tempo wears out ships and equipment and is considerably
dispiriting to personnel--and even more so to their families.
The 1998 end-of-session Senate Armed Services Committee readiness hearings
were a revelation to many Americans, and resulted in an inadequate $1.1
billion add-on to the FY 1999 readiness account. However, the Joint Chiefs
of Staff told Congress that more than $100 billion additional--over and
above the outyear defense budgets currently projected--is needed within
the next six years to modernize the force and resolve the numerous personnel
and readiness problems that now exist. Chief of Naval Operations Adm.
Jay L. Johnson testified, for example, that the Navy missed its 1998
recruiting goal by about 7,000 recruits, that there are now 15,000 at-sea
billets vacant, and that many billions of additional dollars are needed
for the maintenance, repair, and modernization of the ships, aircraft,
and weapon systems now in the fleet.
Shipbuilding, though, is where the most help is needed--and as soon
as possible. The Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), ordered by the Clinton
administration itself, confirmed the need for a Navy of at least 305
ships--which requires the building of 10 or more ships per year. For
the last several years, though, the administration has requested funds
for only 6-7 new-construction ships per year. The arithmetic is simple:
Without a major immediate increase in shipbuilding funds, the active
fleet will inevitably drop to the 200-ship level, and perhaps lower.
If that happens, the Navy will no longer be able to carry out its mission.
And that mission is essential not only to U.S. national security, but
also to America's continued economic well-being. Even today many Americans
do not realize that the United States is a maritime nation totally dependent
on freedom of the seas for its economic prosperity. That freedom can
be maintained and guaranteed only by a strong Navy.
The Marine Corps has an edge on the other services in at least one respect:
It is meeting all of its recruiting goals. And it is doing so not by
lowering its standards--96 percent of the Corps' recruits are high-school
graduates, vs. the DOD standard of 90 percent--but by emphasizing just
what it means to be a Marine. The Marine Corps is selling itself, in
And it works. The old Corps would be proud of today's new breed--still
the finest fighting force in the world. The most forward-looking force
as well. Today's Marine Corps is, in fact, probably the most ready of
any of the nation's armed services to meet the challenges of the 21st
century. For three reasons:
(1) Despite the pundits' insistence that generals are always planning
to fight "the last war," the Marine Corps has throughout its
history, but particularly in the 20th century, been planning ahead, in
order to be prepared for the next war. In the 1920s and 1930s the Marines
developed the doctrine, tactics, and equipment needed for the amphibious
campaigns that played a major role in winning World War II in the Pacific
for the United States and its allies. In the post-WWII era the Corps
pioneered and perfected the "vertical envelopment" and OMFTS
(operational maneuver from the sea) concepts, and worked closely with
the Navy in building the Maritime Prepositioning Squadrons and other
forward-deployed logistics assets. Now, under USMC Commandant Gen. Charles
C. Krulak, the Marines are focusing on asymmetrical conflicts and the
building-to-building, street-to-street fighting likely to be characteristic
of the "urban-warfare" battles of the 21st century.
(2) The Marine Corps has consistently been willing to make the tough
choices when taxpayer dollars are involved. To provide funding for the
Joint Strike Fighter, for example, the Corps decided not to buy the F/A-18
Super Hornet, an extremely capable aircraft--but more expensive than
the JSF. Marine Corps leaders also vetoed a service-life extension program
for Tarawa-class amphibious assault ships in favor of more capable new-construction
ships that will last 40-50 years (a much better buy for the taxpayers),
and have deferred, once again, the much-needed upgrading and/or replacement
of the Corps' transport aircraft and ground facilities. Here, one example
will suffice to illustrate the depth of the Corps' self-imposed fiscal
sacrifices: At present funding levels, it would take almost two centuries
for the Marine Corps to replace the dilapidated buildings now blighting
USMC bases throughout the United States and overseas.
(3) The Marine Corps takes very seriously the mandate imposed on it
almost half a century ago by the 82nd Congress: to be "the most
ready when the nation is least ready." Like all of their predecessors,
today's Marines always run toward the sound of battle, not away from
it. Which is precisely what happened on 6 August 1998, when the U.S.
embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya, were bombed.
The Marine security guards (MSGs) on duty immediately helped evacuate
those still in the buildings, secured all classified material, and set
up a defense perimeter to prevent looting and/or more bombings. The MSGs
not on duty rushed to the embassies to help as soon as they were alerted,
and proved to be the key to restoring order. They remained on duty until
relieved by Marine Corps FAST (fleet antiterrorism security team) platoons--another
Krulak innovation--flown in from Cyprus and Bahrain.
The U.S. Coast Guard also is in dire straits financially. Here, the
biggest impact is on the gallant young men and women of the Coast Guard--but
the American people, and society as a whole, also have been affected.
The Coast Guard is not only the nation's, and world's, premier life-saving
organization, it also is America's principal maritime law-enforcement
agency. Two years ago the Coast Guard confiscated almost 30 tons of illegal
drugs. The final count for 1998 is not yet in, but USCG and customs officials
agree that the confiscation totals would be much higher if more cutters,
aircraft, and personnel were available for exclusive assignment to the
war on drugs.
The same is true for the interdiction of illegal aliens, which is truly
a humanitarian mission as well--literally hundreds of illegal migrants,
particularly from Caribbean nations, would have perished at sea in the
last several years were it not for the interdiction/lifesaving efforts
of the Coast Guard. Two years ago, the Coast Guard intercepted more than
9,000 illegal migrants and returned them safely home. How many thousands
more actually made it ashore and disappeared into the mainstream of American
society is impossible to determine.
Like the other services, the Coast Guard has been significantly underfunded
for far too long. Its cutters, aircraft, and shore facilities are just
as overworked as the Coast Guard's people are, but in recent years the
service's acquisition, construction, and improvements budget has been
less than one-third of what is required to maintain a modern force. The
General Accounting Office told Congress in 1996 that the Coast Guard
has had to assume several new responsibilities "while shrinking
its work force by nearly 10 percent" and despite budgets that have
been steadily reduced in constant dollars.
Help is--more accurately, could be--on the way, but only if the administration
supports, and Congress fully funds, the Deepwater project. The Deepwater
goal, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. James M. Loy has told Congress, is
to modernize, expeditiously but cost-effectively as well, the Coast Guard's
entire cutter, aircraft, and command-and-control infrastructure. If that
happens, the Coast Guard itself will be the secondary beneficiary. The
biggest winner will be the American people.
Unfortunately, there is no Deepwater equivalent to bail out the U.S.-flag
Merchant Marine. America's maritime industry is now in extremis, and
no bailout is likely unless and until there is a sea change of attitude
in the administration, in the Congress, and among the American people.
The facts are clear enough: The United States is the largest trading
nation in all world history. More than 13 million American jobs, according
to the Maritime Administration (MARAD)--as well as hundreds of billions
of dollars in raw materials and in consumer and industrial products,
and close to $200 billion annually in federal, state, and local tax revenues--depend
directly on U.S. trade with other countries. In time of war over 95 percent
of the fuel, ammunition, trucks, tanks, and other rolling stock, and
the hundreds of thousands of tons of other supplies and equipment needed
to sustain U.S. forces overseas goes by sea. The Navy's in-house sealift
fleet carries some of that cargo, but most of it--almost 80 percent during
the Gulf War--is carried by U.S.-flag merchant ships.
But--again, according to MARAD--the U.S.-flag fleet, once the biggest
and most economically competitive in the world, now carries only 2.8
percent of America's two-way foreign trade tonnage. And even that minuscule
fraction is in great peril. There is a powerful business and political
coalition that would change the Jones Act to permit foreign-flag ships
to carry cargo in the U.S. domestic trades.
This would be a disastrous move militarily as well as politically, and
the final nail in the coffin of the U.S.-flag fleet. It also would mean
that in time of war the United States would have to depend on foreign-flag
ships, most of them crewed by Third World nationals with no allegiance
to the United States or its policies, to supply and sustain America's
combat forces overseas. There is no other major maritime nation in the
world that would permit such a situation to develop.
There are, it should be noted, a few glimmers of hope in the maritime
area. To its credit, the Clinton administration has supported (and Congress
has funded) several forward-looking initiatives--the Maritech and Title
XI loan-guarantee programs, for example--to make the U.S.-flag merchant
marine and the industries that support it more economically competitive.
The most important of these initiatives was the Maritime Security Program,
which ensures (for 10 years) the continued availability in time of war
of the merchant ships, and crews, needed to sustain forward-deployed
That solves part of the problem, for a very short time. What is needed
now is a longer-term approach that considers all components of the nation's
transportation infrastructure--the deteriorating U.S. port system may
be the most notorious example--as a whole, and then develops an integrated,
comprehensive strategic blueprint, and funding plan, to carry the nation
into the 21st century.
Here, the good news is that Secretary of Transportation Rodney E. Slater
already has taken the first giant step toward meeting that goal. In a
bold "vision statement" on the future of the U.S. marine transportation
system, Slater said that he plans to form a task force to assess the
system's adequacy, identify problem areas, and submit its findings and
recommendations to Congress by 1 July 1999. The U.S. marine transportation
system of the year 2020, Slater said at the close of MARAD's first national
conference on marine transportation, "will be the world's most technologically
advanced, safe, secure, efficient, accessible, globally competitive,
dynamic, and environmentally responsible system for moving goods and
There are few if any Americans who would not support achievement of
that ambitious goal. In a democracy such as the United States that is
the essential prerequisite. With the support of the American people anything
is possible. Without that support, however, it is extremely difficult
for any president, or any Congress, to accomplish anything of significance.
That includes "providing for the common defense"--the most
important constitutional duty of the president and the Congress. That
duty has been too frequently ignored in recent years--by the executive
and legislative branches of government, by the media, and by the American
The 20th century is often described by historians as "the American
century." And so it has been. During the past 100 years the U.S.
economy has been the most powerful engine for progress the world has
ever seen. But the performance of America's naval and military forces--in
two world wars and several lesser conflicts and engagements, including
the humanitarian and peacekeeping missions of the 1990s--has been even
more important to maintaining (or restoring) peace to this violent world
in this most violent of all centuries.
Today there is peace throughout most of the world. But as Operation
Desert Fox demonstrated, it is a precarious peace that could erupt into
sudden and uncontainable conflict in any of several areas of crisis--not
only in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, but also on the Korean
Peninsula, or in Russia, or on the Taiwan Strait, or in Iran. The potential
for war, followed by more war, is virtually unlimited.
But so is the potential for peace. The United States has been singularly
blessed--in the abundance of its economic and agricultural riches, in
its political system, and in the several generations of brave Americans
who have paid the supreme sacrifice to protect their precious heritage.
It is not just the United States, but the world, that now faces a new
crossroads. The 21st century could be another "American" century.
If peace prevails, it could be much more than that, though--a century
for all mankind.
Maintaining the peace will require courage, leadership, wisdom, vigilance,
and sacrifice. The United States will have to lead the way. It is a terrible
and unwanted burden, but there is no other nation that has the capability.
America must not falter in carrying out this responsibility. If it does,
the result could be chaos and conflict throughout the world, eventually
leading to Armageddon. The decision is easy. Carrying it out will be
the most difficult task ever imposed on any nation in all recorded history.