President Bush seems to be genuinely interested in changing U.S. defense policy. At the Naval Academy’s commencement on May 25 the president gave another speech filled with soaring rhetoric on the transformation of the military. “[W]e must build forces that draw upon the revolutionary advances in the technology of war that will allow us to keep the peace by redefining war on our terms,” he said. And during his campaign, though the issue brought Bush no great returns politically, he kept it alive before the American public.

But the address at the Naval Academy, originally expected to announce specific radical initiatives, was yet another speech without details on Bush’s military plan. Meanwhile, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has recently sought to reduce expectations for dramatic transformation, arguing that any change would be incremental. “The reality is that no one is going to be making any dramatic changes in anything because that’s just not how Washington works,” says Rumsfeld. The disparity between the Bush’s continuing rhetoric and Rumsfeld’s fatalistic attitude couldn’t be more pronounced or more curious.

One is led to conclude that Rumsfeld is either out-of-step with the president or may be trying to covertly undermine Bush’s defense reform agenda. Although it is impossible to tell which is the case, the latter is more likely than the former. First, Rumsfeld is the consummate Washington operator who has led the Defense Department previously. From his prior experience in the nation’s capital, he should have known that any radical policy change would have had to be formulated quickly and rammed through Congress before members of Congress--and the vested interests they represent--killed it.

Yet Rumsfeld appointed numerous panels to study the problem to death. Of any possible candidate for the secretary’s job, Rumsfeld, having served in the position before, should have known what he wanted to do and how to do it so that he could have hit the ground running.

Of course, the findings of key study panels, stocked with members of the defense establishment, ended up admiring the current dismal state of affairs. For example, a key panel charged with studying “transformational” weapons concluded that many questionable programs supported by the Clinton administration should be retained. Another of Rumsfeld’s panels--studying substantial reductions in ground forces--avoided recommending cuts. A Washington insider like Rumsfeld should have known that the composition of the panels would determine their findings.

In his campaign, the president advocated taking advantage of today’s relatively benign international environment to modernize existing weapons only selectively and skip a generation of military technology. To adequately prepare for future wars, Bush said his goal would be to move beyond marginal improvements by replacing existing programs with new technologies and strategies. In the address to the Naval Academy, the president repeated that, “We cannot transform our military using old weapons and old plans.”

Yet that rhetoric flies in the face of a recent Defense Department decision to continue producing the troubled V-22 Osprey transport aircraft for the Marine Corps at low rates until engineers can come up with a fix. The aircraft, designed during the Cold War, is $15 billion over budget and 10 years behind schedule. The aircraft has experienced recent crashes and allegations that Marine Corps personnel doctored maintenance records to hide the plane’s low reliability. Vice President Dick Cheney tried to kill it more than once when he was defense secretary. But the vested interests persuaded Congress to keep the aircraft alive. If any weapon system should be terminated, it’s this one. The decision to keep producing a flawed aircraft may foreshadow a future “slow-rolling” of Bush‘s defense reform agenda.

Most troubling is Rumsfeld’s decision to fold defense reform into the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review. That decision will allow the defense bureaucracy to capture and suffocate any major changes in defense policy. During the last two four-year reviews, the bureaucracy wasted much time and energy in coming up with only incremental adjustments to the status quo.

The next excuse for lack of defense reform will probably be that there was no money left after the tax cut. But President Bush promised us both. Contrary to conventional wisdom, reforming the Pentagon does not depend on additional funding for defense. If President Bush genuinely wants to transform the U.S. military, he must be willing to use political capital to convince Congress--and apparently his own secretary of defense--that some of the weapons currently in development or production should be terminated to free up money to produce the “futuristic” weapons about which he so often speaks. If he is unwilling to expend such capital, future U.S. wars may not go well.