There is a program on public broadcasting called Antiques Roadshow that features professional appraisals of family heirlooms and flea-market treasures. Last week's program provided a metaphor that fits Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon all too well. It was a painting of a grand ocean liner cutting through the waves of the North Atlantic. Only when the appraiser looked behind the image did its larger meaning become apparent. The picture was composed on the back of a menu printed aboard the Titanic on the day it hit an iceberg and sank.
The metaphor isn't perfect. Rumsfeld's crew is better behaved, and would gladly give up their seats in lifeboats to save women and children. Nonetheless, they are currently engaged in an elaborate planning exercise called the "quadrennial defense review" that has much the same ambience as high tea aboard the Titanic on that fateful day. The reason so little news has leaked out about the deliberations is because there isn’t much of substance to report. This year's QDR features the standard Rumfeld menu of endless questions seldom coming to closure.
Like any good captain, Rumsfeld set his course long before the ship departed port. So there never was any chance that at some point during the journey he and the other officers on the bridge would slap their foreheads and say, "It's true, I need a bigger Army!" or "By Jove, you're right -- I shouldn't take air dominance for granted!" Rumsfeld's crew operates in White Star Line tradition, which means nobody cares what the folks down in steerage think. The officers on the bridge can't hear the crunching sound that the people in steerage keep reporting.
The loudest crunch is being heard by foot soldiers far below. After two years of uneven progress in pacifying Iraq -- more suicide bombers will attack Baghdad this month than in all of last year -- they sense that the U.S. presence there may be just beginning. Judging from recent Army recruiting results, fewer than one percent of their fellow citizens are inclined to sign up for duty on the front lines. The absence of conscription has prevented the growth of an antiwar movement, but no one knows whether the all-volunteer force can sustain an endless counter-insurgency campaign.
The Air Force is hearing crunching sounds too. Every category of aircraft it operates is now older than the commercial airliner fleet. Some of its planes -- the tankers -- actually are versions of first-generation commercial transports built during the Eisenhower era. Even airlines in Chapter 11 bankruptcy refuse to operate planes that old. The Air Force's fighters are so decrepit that some train with flight restrictions due to metal fatigue.
And the Navy -- which knows crunching sounds when it hears them -- is buying so few submarines that insiders predict a fleet of only 28 subs in 2028. That's just about the time that operating surface warships near China will become a fool's errand. The Marines don't complain even when they're dying, but at the rate their helicopters are aging, they may not need an enemy to suffer that fate.
So while high tea proceeds in the captain's stateroom, ominous shapes are looming on the horizon. This voyage looks destined to end badly.
by Loren B. Thompson, Ph.D.
Chief Operating Officer, The Lexington Institute