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HIGH-TECH PUSH BY ADMIRAL IS MAKING WAVES

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Just down the hallway from Bill Owens' Pentagon office is an elaborate scale model showing how oil platforms could be lashed together to create a futuristic floating air base.

For now, the "mobile offshore base" is only a gleam in Adm. William A. Owens' eye. But if he gets his way, it could become part of a broader technological revolution in equipping and restructuring the military to fight the nation's wars.A former submariner and Oxford University scholar, the mild-mannered admiral and vice chair-man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has set off an acrimonious debate at the Pentagon.

Conducted almost entirely behind closed doors, this is not the familiar debate between civilian and military officials. Rather, it is an argument among the military's highest-ranking generals and admirals.

And the issue is not just high technology. It also concerns power, namely which military officers will lead the way: Owens and his staff, who are supposed to transcend the services' parochial differences, or the chiefs of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force.

In the past eight years, there has been a concentration of power in the leadership of the Joint Chiefs, particularly under Gen. Colin L. Powell, who was chairman from 1989 to 1993.

Owens, with the support of Gen. John Shalikashvili, the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs, is trying to build on what Powell accomplished by expanding the authority of the vice chairman's office into one of the services' cherished realms: equipping and training troops.

With billions of dollars and the future structure of the military at stake, the reaction has been decidedly mixed.

"Owens is really the energy for change," said Deputy Defense Secretary John M. Deutch, a strong supporter of the cerebral admiral and another high-tech enthusiast.

But there are many traditional warriors in the Pentagon who think the admiral has counted too much on the promise of new technology to conduct push-button warfare and who are concerned that he will overstep his authority.

Lt. Gen. Ronald Griffith, the Army's inspector general and commander of the 1st Armored Division during the Persian Gulf War, said that any effort by Owens and his staff to involve themselves in decisions on weapon development would "be clearly an encroachment on the authority of the secretaries and the chiefs," referring to the civilian and military leaders of the branches of the service.

Dov Zakheim, a senior Pentagon official in the Reagan administration, observed: "The debate has been been very heated. The services have spent 30 years fighting against interference by Pentagon civilians. Now they are being attacked from an entirely different quarter." IN A MILITARY culture in which, often, only the domineering survive, Owens has always pressed his theories with solicitude, courtesy and sheer doggedness.

A 54-year-old Naval Academy graduate, he spent much of his military career as a commander of nuclear submarines, where some say the isolation from daylight enabled him to perfect his ability to get by on four hours of sleep a night.

He later was the senior military assistant to Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and commander of the Navy's 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean. After his command, Owens returned to the Pentagon to serve as the principal long-range planner for the Navy, where he did not hesitate to stir controversy.

He argued that the demise of the Soviet Union had given the United States a historic opportunity. Without a major threat, the Pentagon could afford to cut back even more on its forces and channel money into the development of reconnaissance systems, communications networks and other in-no-va-tions that would revolutionize the military so that it could deal with the threats it might face in the next century.

Toward that end, for example, he was the architect of a plan to speed the retirement of frigates to free up money for other programs.

After Owens left his Navy duties in March to take up his post as the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the chief of naval operations, Adm. Jeremy M. Boorda, reversed the basic thrust of Owens' plan.

But Owens has continued his crusade, using the authority of his new office, whose scope has been expanded in past years by Congress. Throughout, his soft-spoken approach has been one of subtle seduction, not confrontation.

"He runs over you with kindness and gobbledygook," said one general who is critical of Owens' approach.

Owens actively promotes his vision of a coming "revolution in military affairs" that will lead to a more lethal and efficient military.

"It is not, as some people think, just a bit of software here or a little bit of communications here," he said in an interview. "It is the system of systems that can come together in about five to 10 years."

Owens said that new electronic surveillance satellites, space-based heat-detecting systems, drones and communications systems would enable a military commander to achieve "dominant battlefield awareness." That would enable a commander to have virtually perfect knowledge about enemy and friendly operations in a 40,000-square-mile area.IN PURSUIT of his vision, Owens has flown all over the country, searching for technologies of the future. For example, he went to Atlanta last week to discuss new satellite broadcasting technology with Tom Johnson, the president of CNN.

But there are many in the military who believe that Owens is taking a good thing too far.

"The technology needs to be transferred down to the individual soldier, sailor and Marine," said Gen. Richard Hearney, the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps. "We are going to have to concentrate on them, not just this high-tech `I can see everything within the 200-mile-by-200-square area.' One, I do not know whether that is achievable. I also do not think we could pay for it even if it were achievable."

Adm. Stanley Arthur, the vice chief of naval operations, said Owens had made a contribution by pushing the military to think about advanced technology, but he added that some of Owens' recommendations about current service programs had been "very superficial."

Arthur flatly dismissed Owens' plan for a mobile sea base as a poor substitute for an aircraft carrier because of its limited mobility, but he said the Navy would study it at Owens' direction.

With each service fighting to preserve its portion of a shrinking military budget, the main debate centers not just on Owens' vision but on his effort to use his new power to bring it about.SUPPORTERS of the admiral say that the military services are often more concerned with protecting their budgets than with planning new ways to cooperate and that the only way to bring about change is for Owens to take the lead, strengthen his staff and try to build a consensus within the military.

"What is under way could be the biggest change since McNamara came to the Pentagon," said one official who supports the admiral's effort, referring to former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara's decision to introduce rigorous systems analysis to the Pentagon 30 years ago. But it is exactly those sorts of predictions that alarm some of the military services.

So far, Owens has moved deliberately, publicly reassuring the services while establishing a precedent for bolder action.

He has revived the moribund Joint Requirements Oversight Council, a panel headed by the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs and including the second-ranking officials in the military services.

Officially, the panel is to examine military "requirements." But that is a vague term that enables Owens and his staff to give advice on what military systems should be developed, to suggest what money should be used for operations and maintenance and to debate the military's changing roles and missions.

Already, Owens has used the panel to prepare a classified 30-page analysis of the services' budget plans, which Shalikashvili has submitted under his own name to Defense Secretary William Perry.

The vice chiefs offered their ideas but were not given a veto over the analysis, which proposed reallocating billions of dollars and included specific recommendations, like canceling further purchases of the Air Force F-111 plane.

Zakheim said that if the services and Owens found a way to work together, the big losers in the power struggle would not be the military services, but the civilians who are supposed to run the Pentagon.

For now, however, the consensus that Owens hopes to build has proved to be elusive, setting the stage for further debates. Next spring, Owens plans to take another crucial step by outlining guidance that he would like Perry to give to the services on what types of programs to pursue.