Printer Friendly

The art of war: Lengthened shadows: III.

The American military today may be in the best position of any military in history. Its victories over Iraq and Afghanistan have transformed not merely the way the U.S. thinks about and conducts war, but the way the entire world sees violent conflict. American technological prowess and the skill of the professional American armed forces have opened a gap in capabilities between the U.S. and its closest competitors that many see as unbridgeable. Those triumphs, as well as the American people's perception of the threats that the U.S. faces, have also served dramatically to reduce the mutual mistrust and hostility that had separated the military from the public since the Vietnam War. Trusted by its people, emulated by its friends, feared by its foes, unequalled in capability and skill, the American military is in many respects at the height of its power. Properly handled, the U.S. armed forces might be able to maintain and even extend their preeminence into the distant future.

The challenges facing the military today, however, are no less daunting than the opportunities are promising. Most leaders and observers agree that the U.S. military will have to "transform" itself in order to maintain its lead as well as to be able to meet the challenges of the present and the future for which it was not designed. At the same time, the U.S. is engaged in a war on terrorism, in peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Kosovo, and in a massive peacekeeping, counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism, and reconstruction effort in Iraq. Tensions over nuclear proliferation remain high on the Korean peninsula and in Iran. Tensions also remain high over the cooperation of states like Syria in the war on terrorism and operations in Iraq.

These ongoing operations and threats have combined to stretch the U.S. armed forces beyond the breaking point. The Army has been compelled to deploy tens of thousands of soldiers for a full year at a time rather than the normal six months, to forego important training for those soldiers, and sometimes to send soldiers returning from one such deployment immediately into another. The National Guard and Reserves have been mobilized to an extent unprecedented since the 1970s first for "homeland defense" in the wake of the September II attacks and now in support of operations in Iraq, the Balkans, and elsewhere. The strain on soldiers and their families is growing, morale is declining, and it is hard to believe that these trends will not begin to take a serious toll on recruitment and retention in the near future, potentially exacerbating the problem.

The issues of transformation and military overstretch are inextricably linked. The Secretary of Defense has adopted a vision of transformation that relies on high-technology weapons systems rather than on soldiers. He has continued to pursue this program even as the armed forces have been stretched thinner and thinner. He has even resisted efforts by Congress to expand the military--a virtually unimaginable stance for a sitting Secretary of Defense--in order to preserve his program of military transformation. As a result, the U.S. is now attempting to transform its military in ways that hinder the conduct of current operations, even as those operations literally rip it apart. Worst of all, the current program of transformation turns its back on the approach that had brought America success so far, and flies in the face of the historical lessons about how to transform a military. If these problems remain unacknowledged and unaddressed, the U.S. may lose its predominance and endanger its security.

America achieved military dominance in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since no other state or group of states had been attempting to compete directly with the two superpowers, U.S. preeminence arrived unexpectedly and by default. The roots of the dominant position America holds today lie, therefore, in efforts American leaders made in the period from the late 1960s through the early 1980s to transform the military in order the better to face the U.S.S.R.

This first transformation had both a technological component and human element. In the twenty years from 1965 to 1985 America fielded a host of new weapons systems, created a global satellite constellation and advanced communications systems, and pioneered the development of entire new technologies such as stealth and precision-guided munitions (PGMS). In the midst of that technological transformation, a sociological transformation was also taking place within the armed forces. In the mid-1970s the U.S. abandoned the draft and recruited an all-volunteer professional military. Current military theory focuses almost exclusively on the technological aspect of transformation, but the human element was at least as important in bringing the American armed forces to their current level of excellence.

Almost all of the main weapons systems American forces used in Iraq and Afghanistan were developed and fielded in the 1960s and 1970s. The Air Force used new concepts of aircraft design and took advantage of computerization to produce the first generation of "super-fighters," including the F-15 and F-16, while the Navy developed its equivalent in the F-14. These aircraft, together with the F/A-18 fielded somewhat later, dominated the skies over Iraq and have led many of America's likeliest competitors to focus on air defense systems rather than on building their own aircraft with which to challenge the super-fighters.

Fear of the Soviet air defense systems, through which American bombers would have to penetrate to strike their targets, led to an intense program in stealth technology in the 1970s and 1980s. That program bore fruit in the form of the F-117 fighter and the B-2 bomber, used to great effect over Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

The family of super-fighters and other advanced aircraft designed in the 1960s and 1970s was intended to provide versatility and redundancy. It reflected a determination to be the best at everything. The F-16 was designed to be the world's best dogfighter, able to achieve extremely high kill ratios either with its Sidewinder missiles or with its guns. The F-15 is an air-superiority fighter that was always meant to rely on its superior missiles and missile control technology to defeat enemy aircraft before they got within anything like dogfighting range. The F-14 attempts to duplicate the better characteristics of both planes in a naval version--the F/A-18 is an improvement on it, especially in the area of ground attack. Each plane overlaps the others in capabilities, but each is also designed to excel in a particular niche.

At the same time, the Air Force also fielded the A-10 ground attack aircraft. This ungainly, heavily armored plane with a 23mm anti-tank gun in its snout was designed to be the best tank-killer in the air. Its armor protects it from anti-aircraft machine guns and allows it to fly low to the ground and slowly enough to identify and engage its targets directly. It was enormously effective in Iraq, filling a specific niche that directly supported the Army's missions as well as the larger goal of destroying Iraq's armored forces. In short, it was not simply the development of PGMS that has made the U.S. Air Force the best in the world, but the quality of its aircraft across the board and in every specialty.

The current American Army is also the result of changes made in the 1970s designed to allow it to excel in many areas. In the wake of the Vietnam War, Army Chief of Staff Creighton Abrams determined to revolutionize the Army's equipment by fielding a new generation of weapons systems including the M1 "Abrams" Tank, the Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle, the Apache and Blackhawk helicopters, the Multiple-Launch Rocket System (MLRS), the Stinger surface-to-air missile, and the Patriot air defense system. These were the main weapons systems Army forces have used to such success in all of the post-Cold War conflicts.

The goal of this technological transformation was to provide balanced capabilities to the Army. The MI tank is a case in point. It was armored better than any other vehicle in the world at the time, and remains incredibly hard to kill. Its 120mm main gun firing depleted uranium anti-tank rounds gave it unprecedented destructive power--there are virtually no vehicles in existence today that an M1 cannot destroy. The M1 can move at up to fifty miles per hour, an extremely high speed considering the tank's seventy-ton weight. The M1, therefore, offered superb offensive and defensive power and excellent tactical mobility.

It has proven remarkably versatile. In open maneuver warfare in the Iraqi desert the M1 fulfilled its initial design goals. The Iraqis were unable to kill it even with direct hits from their T-72 tanks, and M1s killed almost every Iraqi vehicle they fired on with one shot. In 1991 as in 2003, American armored forces were able to move much faster than the Iraqis had expected.

The M1's defensive characteristics have also made it invaluable for a range of missions its designers had not foreseen. In peacekeeping operations in dangerous areas such as Bosnia and Iraq, the M1'S virtual invulnerability has been important in deterring attacks and keeping critical areas secure. The Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle has also proved invaluable in this regard. It is no accident that almost all of the casualties American forces in Iraq have taken (apart from friendly-fire incidents) were to soldiers who were either dismounted or riding in trucks or Humvees.

The willingness to accept redundancy and inefficiency in defense programs that characterized the Army and Air Force transformations around the 1970s reflected a larger willingness to balance the development of capabilities, sometimes different, sometimes similar, across the services. At the same time the Army was developing the Patriot anti-aircraft missile, the Air Force was fielding the planes that convinced all of America's subsequent foes not even to try to fly. As the Army was planning a tank that was both nearly indestructible and indescribably lethal to enemy armored vehicles, the Air Force was fielding an aircraft specifically to kill enemy tanks. The examples of redundant development are legion.

The most recent wars have made the virtues of this redundancy manifest. On numerous occasions, including as recently as the 2003 Gulf War, weather conditions restricted the Air Force's ability to fly sorties against enemy armored concentrations. The ability of the tanks and Bradleys of the 3rd Infantry Division to survive encounters with those enemy armored forces saved American lives. The Patriot has proven largely unnecessary in its role as a system to shoot down enemy aircraft. Its transformation into a ballistic missile defense system, however, gave the coalition much greater confidence in its ability to handle Saddam Hussein's missiles during the last war. Redundancy in war can yield flexibility and security. It ensures that when one system fails for whatever unforeseen reason, another can take its place. It provides the ability to meet unexpected challenges. In military affairs, redundancy is a virtue.

Redundancy, of course, is expensive. During the Vietnam War and the Reagan build-up, the overriding threat of Soviet military power helped overcome America's traditional reluctance to spend money on its defense. Even Jimmy Carter, at the height of an economic recession that would cost him his presidency, felt obliged by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to begin the massive rearmament program that Ronald Reagan inherited and enlarged still further. The excellence of the American military in the 1990s owes a great deal to those days of open coffers.

The coffers inevitably closed with the fall of the Soviet Union. As Boris Yeltsin was attempting to forge a democratic Russian Federation on the ruins of the U.S.S.R., American defense officials and civilian experts were already talking of the "strategic pause" and the "peace dividend" that were supposed to follow that epochal event. Defense budgets dwindled and efficiency became the watchword in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill.

The focus on efficiency and economics led to an effort to adopt "business practices" into the work of the military. This effort has a long history. Robert McNamara, himself a retired Ford executive, attempted to bring business models into the Pentagon in the 1960s. He applied new metrics to the Vietnam conflict, centering on body counts. He introduced a "game-theory" approach to war in the form of "graduated pressure" in which military forces were explicitly used to send messages to the enemy, whose responses could then be predicted. In general he preferred the advice of his "whiz kids," who understood the new way of thinking, to that of the professional military officers who clung to the "outdated" modes of conducting war. The results of this approach are well known.

Since then, the armed forces have adopted successively almost every major business fad, like "total quality management," "velocity management," and "just-in-time logistics," among others. Efforts to reduce the defense budget in the 1990s in order to expand the "peace dividend" led Secretary of Defense William Cohen to announce a "revolution in business affairs" in the Pentagon, to parallel and support the "revolution in military affairs" that he sought to bring about by transforming the military. The goal was to make the Pentagon more efficient and to use the funds recouped by that efficiency to support transformation.

At the same time that Cohen and his successors were attempting to bring business models once again to the economic side of the Pentagon, others were attempting to replicate McNamara's attempts to bring business models into the conduct of war. Throughout the 1990s a series of articles and books argued that the "information revolution" then sweeping the economy had an equivalent in the realm of war. Just as businesses had had to change their entire approaches to their work as a result of information technology, so too did armies. The "new economy" according to the wisdom of its advocates in the late 1990s, had its own new rules. Military thinkers like retired admirals William Owens and Arthur Cebrowski, among others, argued that war in the information age also had its own new rules. They argued further that the lessons of the new economy could be translated more or less directly to the business of waging war.

In Network-Centric Warfare (1999), a book central to the current U.S. program to transform its military, three defense analysts argued that the "information revolution" had fundamentally altered both business and war. In the past, they claimed, success relied upon the ability to move material objects around. Businesses that could produce items more rapidly and ship them faster and cheaper succeeded; those that could not failed. Similarly, armies succeeded by moving their forces to the decisive point and time and there concentrating them to defeat a similarly concentrated enemy.

The information revolution changed all that. Success in business now lay, they argued, in moving information around. Businesses that could acquire, disseminate, and analyze information would succeed; those that could not would fail. They described the reasons for Wal-Mart's success, pointing to its tightly integrated system for gathering information at the point-of-sale and disseminating that information not only to its own executives and other stores, but also to its suppliers.

Armies, they argued, now faced the same challenges. It was no longer necessary to concentrate forces--in fact, given the speed of events and the dangers of weapons of mass destruction, it had become dangerous. Instead, the successful army was the one that acquired the most exact possible knowledge of the enemy, that analyzed that knowledge to determine which "nodes" to attack, and that directed weapons systems launched from widely dispersed platforms to strike those nodes. It would not be necessary to move many forces around, only to ensure that they were within the thousand-kilometer range of their proposed targets.

These proposals received a powerful support when Donald Rumsfeld became Secretary of Defense in January 2001. Like McNamara, Rumsfeld came from the business community, and was determined to bring his business expertise to bear on the Pentagon bureaucracy. He believed enthusiastically in the Network-Centric Warfare model then being propounded, and he went even further. Determined to transform the military in accord with NCW ideas, Rumsfeld was also determined to do it at the lowest possible cost. He adopted a business approach to that problem as well.

A business can improve its bottom line by focusing its resources on the few things it does very well and abandoning markets in which it is performing poorly. Efficiency is all in business, a fact reflected in the many mergers that have taken place during the recent economic downturn. By eliminating redundancy and focusing on the areas in which they can excel, companies can dramatically improve their competitive position in some markets, even at the cost, sometimes, of abandoning others. Rumsfeld has adopted this approach in the area of military transformation.

America's biggest lead, the "market" in which the U.S. has the best competitive advantage, now lies in the realm of long-range reconnaissance and strike capabilities. No other state or group of states can begin to match America's ability to identify a huge number of targets and to attack them from platforms thousands of miles away.

The advantage in this area is greater than that in others. The U.S. has the best ground forces in the world, but China has larger ground forces, Germany has excellent tanks, Russia has large amounts of artillery, and so forth. America has the greatest ability to move and supply large forces to distant theaters, but Britain, France, and Russia can project force halfway around the world as well. None of those states, however, can come close to matching America's ability to identify, track, and destroy targets from great distances away.

Even if Rumsfeld had not been an enthusiastic supporter of Network-Centric Warfare, it was only natural that his application of business principles to war would lead him to focus on America's capabilities with precision-guided munitions. This is currently the area of America's greatest competitive advantage. By directing funding into it, the U.S. can obtain an even greater competitive advantage--perhaps even the "lockout" that NCW advocates seek. In business, "lockout" occurs when one company attains such a predominant position that it can not be challenged.

The watchwords for the Rumsfeld Pentagon have, therefore, been focus and efficiency. The Pentagon has repeatedly stated that all new weapons systems will be evaluated primarily on the degree to which they further the armed forces' ability to conduct Network-Centric Warfare. Systems that bring other capabilities to the force have received less attention, less funding, and have sometimes been cancelled.

All of the services have participated in this race to a single goal. For example, the Navy now sells every new ship design on the basis of its ability to support Network-Centric Warfare. The Air Force has focused most of its development in the past decade on upgrading its PGMS and the ability of its aircraft to carry and control them. It now attempts to justify the F-22 and the Joint Strike Fighter on the grounds that they will support NCW the better, although the evidence for that claim is sketchy at best.

The result of these service changes will be to homogenize the armed forces. No longer will each service bring unique capabilities to the table, but all will now provide the same capability--the capability to identify and attack targets with PGMS at great distances. This homogenization will inevitably create redundancies that Rumsfeld's business model cannot tolerate in its search for efficiency. The Secretary of Defense recognized that fact early on. He cancelled the Crusader artillery system in part on the grounds that it did not provide capabilities different from those already provided by the air forces. He planned, prior to the Iraq war, to eliminate at least two and possibly as many as four of the Army's ten active duty combat divisions, since they, too, were becoming redundant as organizations that could identify and destroy enemy targets.

Although the Joint Strike Fighter and the F-22 seem to be extremely redundant and do not really provide dramatically different capabilities, ironically, both systems have survived initial searches for efficiency on the grounds that they directly support the NCW concept.

The Rumsfeld vision of military transformation, therefore, is completely unbalanced. It will provide the U.S. with armed forces that do one thing only, even if they do it superbly well. They will be able to identify, track, and destroy enemy targets from thousands of miles away and at little or no risk to themselves. The suite of capabilities that the transformation of the 1970S and 1980S provided will be narrowed into a confined band of excellence. The business model that brought success to many companies in the 1990s will be adopted as the basis for this transformation, and all of America's future success will rest upon this one capability and the applicability of this single model. It is one of the most seductive and dangerous visions of modern times.

The Rumsfeld vision of military transformation suffers from a wide variety of flaws, some of which I have already considered in another forum (1) One of the most significant flaws is the misunderstanding of the concept of the "revolution in military affairs" (RMA) that underlies this vision.

Although current documents mention a "revolution in military affairs" or the "information revolution" much more rarely these days, the concept remains central to present-day efforts to transform the military. All of the theoretical justifications for the current approach to transformation, written mostly at the turn of the millennium or just before, rely on this concept as their essential justification. The fact that it is slipping from current parlance reflects the reality that agencies responsible for transformation are focusing increasingly on the nuts-and-bolts of their task, and have stopped thinking seriously about the philosophical underpinnings and assumptions on which it is based.

The concept of RMA is a relatively new one in the history of military theory. Soviet military leaders coined it in the 1960s to describe the effects of mating thermonuclear weapons (hydrogen bombs) with intercontinental ballistic missiles. They argued that the unprecedented destructive power of thermonuclear weapons and the ability of ICBMS to penetrate even the densest air defense network created conditions for war so fundamentally different from those that had existed beforehand as to have brought about a revolution in the nature of war itself. Virtually overnight many of the basic guidelines that had led previous commanders to success had become irrelevant and new principles had to be sought.

The concept made its way slowly to the West, and really only came into vogue in the late 1980S to describe an entirely different revolution--the "information revolution" that we have considered above. In the interim, however, military historians have taken up the concept with enthusiasm, many to support it, a few to attack it. "Revolutions in Military Affairs" now form an important part of syllabi at defense educational institutions such as West Point and the National Defense University. Historians and military theorists have labeled everything from the advent of armored warfare to Napoleonic logistics and the development of the longbow as RMAS. Others have sought out the absurdities of some of these arguments to assail the entire concept as meaningless. Whatever the merits of those assaults, however, they will fall on deaf ears in the Pentagon, where the RMA has become the critical concept underpinning American defense policy today.

In truth, the concept of a revolution in military affairs is an important one for understanding the evolution of military development. In the course of military history there have been a series of dramatic breaks in the way war is fought at the most basic level. Warfare changed dramatically from 1700 to 1760, from 1813 to 1863, from 1870 to 1915, from 1942 to 1991. Although many of the traditional guidelines to success continued to apply from one period to the next, many others also changed. In each change there were elements of long-term evolution, which has led some to argue that the term "revolution in military affairs" is inappropriate. Yet the nature of war changes most rapidly when major wars are actually being fought, so that for all the theorizing and development that preceded them, the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, World War I in 1914, and World War II in 1939, for instance, led to sudden and dramatic changes nevertheless.

The problem with the current vision of military transformation, therefore, is not that it relies on the concept of a revolution in military affairs, but that it does not properly understand that concept. Since the 1980S, advocates of an "American RMA" based on information technology have tended to define the term as an "asymmetrical advantage" that one state acquires over its opponents. They have sought to develop transformation programs to extend that asymmetrical advantage indefinitely into the future, so that the other states of the world would never catch up, and American pre-eminence (or "lockout") would be secured, to all intents and purposes, forever.

History does not support such an interpretation of this concept, however. In each of the periods in recent history in which one might see a fundamental change in the nature of war, it is true that normally one state begins with a dramatic lead. Revolutionary France's ability in the 1790S to mobilize vast conscript armies and to sustain that mobilization for years gave her an important advantage over continental states unable to match such levels of mobilization. Prussia's early and enthusiastic development of a dense railroad net and of the general staff structure needed to plan for and control a railroad mobilization led directly to her crushing victories over Austria in 1866 and over France in 1871. The Nazis' creation of a technologically advanced and highly trained armored force, along with a significantly better armored warfare doctrine, led directly to the destruction of the Franco-British army in 1940.

In each case, however, we must also consider the sequel. Napoleonic France, Imperial Germany, and Nazi Germany all ultimately lost subsequent wars and were destroyed. The reasons for those failures are enlightening about the limitations of the current definition of revolution in military affairs.

Faced with the challenge of Revolutionary France, the other states of Europe were initially reluctant to make the social and political changes necessary to raise and maintain the large armies required to meet that challenge. Over years of sustained and unsuccessful warfare, however, France's enemies gradually changed their minds. Austria, Prussia, and Russia all eventually mobilized large forces. In Russia's case the army went from around 250,000 at the end of the eighteenth century to about 850,000 in 1815, a level at which it remained until an even more dramatic increase during the Crimean War. The mobilization and support of such large armies caused problems for all of the states of Europe, and led, in part, to the revolutionary disturbances that wracked the continent following Napoleon's final fall. The leaders of those states, however, ultimately accepted such costs in order to be able successfully to adapt to the new requirements of war. They were thereby able to defeat Napoleon.

The Germans went through a similar process twice. Their advantages in railway mobilization in 1866 and 1870 had been greatly reduced by 1914. France and Russia had spent fortunes upgrading their own railway systems and had developed general staff structures able to match the Germans' planning abilities. As a result, the German mobilization in 1914 was matched by equally skillful French and Russian mobilizations, the German war plan broke down, and Germany was ultimately crushed under the weight of superior allied forces. Germany's enemies had successfully adopted the methods that had led Germany to success in the mid-nineteenth century and then turned those methods against the Germans during World War I.

Hitler faced a kindred problem. The techniques that generated his initial successes against the French and the British, who had both developed inappropriate armored doctrines and tanks largely unsuitable for the sort of rapid mobile warfare the Germans fought, did not lead subsequently to victory against the Soviets. Problems of planning and confused objectives, among other things, vitiated initial German successes in 1941, and allowed the Soviets time to recover. When they did, they began to implement an armored warfare doctrine superior to the one the Germans had been using and to build tanks excellently designed to support that doctrine. Beginning with their victory at Stalingrad in late 1942, the Soviets conducted a virtually unbroken march to the west that resulted in the capture of Berlin in May 1945.

Even the "nuclear revolution" itself, the change in warfare that had led to the coining of the acronym RMA, saw a similar rapid balance. The U.S. and the Soviet Union fielded thermonuclear-tipped ICBMS at virtually the same time, and throughout the Cold War each advance by one side in this area was matched almost immediately by the other.

It goes without saying that each of these examples had much more complexity than can be explored in this article. Napoleon's adversaries made many changes to their armies other than simply increasing their size, including incorporating and improving on other aspects of Napoleonic warfare that had brought Bonaparte his early successes. Germany's Schlieffen Plan failed in 1914 not simply because the French mobilized well, but also because Schlieffen's successor had altered it in important ways. Hiders invasion of the Soviet Union failed partly because of Hiders inappropriate interference in the operation and because of his insistence on trying to achieve all of his ultimate objectives simultaneously, among other things.

The issues identified in this article, however, were central parts of the explanations for the outcome of all of these conflicts. If the allies in 1813, the French and Russians in 1914, and the Soviets in 1942 had not successfully adopted the critical features of the new military thinking that had brought their enemies victory, it is most unlikely that the other factors contributing to their success would have saved them from defeat. The key point is that the failings of Napoleon and the Germans would have been irrelevant if they had retained the asymmetrical advantages with which they had started. Their inability to react perfectly when they had lost those advantages was what led them to defeat.

History so far, therefore, has been very clear that "asymmetrical advantages" gained by one state do not normally last very long. Technology and technique inevitably spreads. Other states acquire either similar or counteracting capabilities. The final victors of each new "revolutionary" epoch have not usually been the states that initiated the revolution, but those that responded best once the technologies and techniques had become common property.

It also shows that the initial successes those "revolutionary" states achieved have tended to breed arrogance and overconfidence, hindering their ability to respond as other states began to match their capabilities. Napoleonic France, Imperial Germany, and Nazi Germany all ossified in their techniques after the initial victories, and lost to enemies who, forced by defeat, built on their own advances more successfully.

The search for an indefinite American "asymmetrical advantage," therefore, requires not merely a revolution in military affairs: it also requires a fundamental revolution in human affairs of a sort never seen before. It requires that America continue to change her armed forces so rapidly and successfully that no other state can ever catch up--indeed, that no other state in the world even try.

This unrealistic requirement is central to the current vision of military transformation. Since, according to this vision, American armed forces will only be able to do one thing--strike targets precisely from great distances away--they will succeed only on two conditions. First, they will always have to fight wars in which striking targets precisely from great distances will lead directly to victory, and second, they will always have to fight enemies incapable of either matching that skill or of preventing the U.S. from using it. The precise weapons will always have to get through, their effects will always have to be decisive, and no enemy will ever be able to fire them effectively at American forces.

History suggests that these conditions will not be met for very long. But transformation enthusiasts today argue that the u.s. is in a unique position and that the rules really have changed. It is worth considering in some detail, therefore, whether or not it is likely that the U.S. will be able to retain its asymmetric advantages for decades to come.

The first question in this debate concerns the proliferation of the technology the U.S. relies upon now to maintain this advantage. The situation in this regard is both promising and alarming. On the one hand, American technological superiority rests primarily on computerization. Precision guided munitions are precisely guided because of the computer chips in their guidance systems and the communications systems that allow them to home in on either GPS coordinates or laser designators. The ability of American forces to identify, track, and strike targets also relies on such computer chips, and on the satellites that support the communications systems. The proliferation of microprocessors and satellites, therefore, could start an adversary on the road to challenging American technological preeminence.

It hardly needs stating that computerization is a revolution racing throughout the world, not just in America, or even that most microprocessors these days are made outside of the u.s. The American satellite constellation is the most sophisticated and dense of any, but many states have the ability to launch satellites themselves or to hire private companies to launch them. The real American advantage in this regard results from two things: money and time.

Building the current satellite constellation was exorbitantly expensive. The U.S. probably would not have undertaken it initially but for the fear of the Soviet Union. The development of PGMS and building large numbers of them was also extremely expensive. Very few states in the world today have the economic resources necessary even to begin such massive programs, let alone see them rapidly through to conclusion.

The very age of the American systems, moreover, is also an asset. The U.S. has had time not merely to computerize all of its major weapons systems and the weapons they fire, but to develop dense computer networks that connect them. That networking is an important part of America's technological advantage today, and it is not something that any would-be adversary could easily or rapidly replicate. Despite the ready proliferation of the technologies themselves, therefore, it would seem, after all, that the U.S. should expect to maintain its current technological lead for quite a considerable time.

Several factors militate against this happy conclusion. For one thing, few if any of America's enemies will have the vast resource-stretching responsibilities that America has. They will be concerned only with their own region of the world and will focus their efforts on developing communications and target tracking systems only over a small portion of the globe. They will not need a dense global satellite constellation or the ability to project Power over thousands of miles. The costs to them of developing systems comparable to America's, but only in a restricted geographic area, will accordingly be much smaller than the price the U.S. has had to pay to achieve that capability everywhere.

Then, too, other states can reap the benefits of modern communications systems without bearing the expensive burden of basic scientific research and development. Microprocessors, satellites, encrypted laser communication systems, cell phone systems, and the whole host of technologies that form the basis of American military superiority are now the property of the world. It will not cost America's enemies anything like what it cost the U.S. to develop its capabilities, either in money or in time. Since technology inevitably becomes less expensive as it proliferates and as time goes on, moreover, the situation for America's would-be adversaries will only improve in this regard.

Moreover, just as many European states drastically improved their railway networks in the nineteenth century, so now many states are improving their satellite constellations and naturally networking government and economic computer systems in order to support economic growth today. They are thereby also laying the groundwork for a rapid development of the military advantages that flow from those communications and networking capabilities. Many of the technologies that have led in the past to American success are now latent in every aspect of modern economic life, and this fact will reduce both the cost and the time required for a potential adversary to "revolutionize" its armed forces to match those of the U.S.

It should also be noted that technology is only part of the story of America's success. The way the U.S. military has integrated the technology into its professional, highly-trained armed forces has been at least as important as the quality of the technology itself. In this area, too, the U.S. has had an advantage since the mid-1970S, since most of America's likely enemies retained conscript militaries unable to match America's troops in skill, educational level, or experience. Even this advantage, however, is evaporating.

The first Gulf War started a global trend toward transforming large conscript armies into smaller professional forces. The second one has accelerated that trend. The Russians have struggled toward this goal, with only limited success, for a decade. The French abandoned their conscript military whose traditions harked back to the Revolution of 1789. Even the Chinese have recently announced that they would reduce their military and concentrate on developing a smaller, more professional and highly quail fled force. The U.S. made the transition and garnered the advantages of that transition in about fifteen years. It remains to be seen how long it will take the rest of the world to do so.

When America's enemies have developed the technology and trained the people who will use it, they will also have to develop the doctrines and techniques to make it effecfive. In this regard, they have the most significant advantage of all. Much of America's tested doctrine has been published, much can be deduced from the CNN coverage of America's most recent wars. Once again, America's enemies can start from the position of proven success that the U.S. armed forces achieved, and build from there.

Their real advantage in this area, however, results from the fact that they will be developing armed forces specifically designed to fight an enemy with the same capabilities. America's military has not done so. American military doctrine continues to foresee fighting enemies lacking any significant capacity to deploy precision guided munitions, without dense satellite constellations and communications systems, and without the ability to strike targets precisely at great distances. It is one of the more troubling lessons of the history of new military technology that the states that pioneer the new technologies and techniques generally fail to adapt successfully to the situation in which all major states have the same technologies and techniques. It remains to be seen whether America will do any better than her predecessors in this regard.

The problems identified above are nearly all inherent in any program of military transformation. They are not unique to Rumsfeld's vision. History suggests that whatever program America adopts to transform its armed forces, her enemies will tend to catch up and level the playing field. The problem with the current program is that it relies on maintaining an overwhelming advantage in a single area of military performance indefinitely. The failure to contemplate having to fight creditable opponents and the imbalance of the effort to transform the military both create serious risks and vulnerabilities for American armed forces in the future.

The solution is to refocus America's efforts at transforming its military on a program designed to produce balanced capabilities and to defeat a comparably armed and capable enemy. In the first instance, that will mean rebalancing the efforts to remake the ground and the air services. Right now, the initiative is primarily reliant on air- or sea-launched weapons. Advocates of this approach point out that it is cheaper and safer--cheaper because maintaining large ground forces divisions is costly, and safer because it obviates the need to put America's young men and women in harm's way. This is one of the main reasons that Rumsfeld and others have repeatedly advocated cutting the size of the Army and transferring the funds saved thereby into the purchase of advanced munitions, communications, and targeting systems for the Air Force and Navy.

It is easy to show the consequences of this approach in Iraq. Armies do more than destroy targets. They hold ground passively. They provide critical police functions. They can still conduct counter-guerrilla operations much more effectively than airlaunched munitions. For a country engaged in nation-building, counter-insurgency, and counter-terrorism, there is no escape from the need to have a large and capable army, and America is suffering badly now from having an army that is too small.

It is not simply that current operations require significant ground forces, however, or even that the conditions that drive that requirement are likely to persist for some considerable time. The real reason to maintain a robust army that does more than simply add sophisticated launchers to the targeting mix is that it greatly complicates the enemy's ability to respond to America's movements and capabilities.

If the enemy knows that all he will face is a barrage of precision-guided munitions, he will find counter-measures--digging too deeply for the weapons to penetrate, jamming or blinding U.S. reconnaissance assets, etc. If the enemy must face advancing American ground forces as well as PGM strikes, however, his possible reactions are much more limited. He will have to concentrate his forces to a much greater extent in order to ensure that they can face an American ground attack. It will not be sufficient for him to blind American satellites or disrupt computer networks if the ground forces rolling forward can see his soldiers through their viewing prisms and kill them with their own weapons. Deeply dug bunkers may still protect vital command and control centers and weapons, but the importance of that fact will be greatly diminished when American soldiers have control of the enemy country above ground.

Recent history highlights the importance of this fact repeatedly. In 1991 Saddam Hussein withstood thirty-nine days of devastating aerial attacks and remained undaunted. After three days of a coordinated air-ground campaign, he made peace. In 1998 he withstood another barrage of cruise missile attacks following his expulsion of weapons inspectors, and did not change his policy in the least. In 2003 he had prepared himself and his country for yet another drawn-out bombing campaign, and was stunned not by the "shock and awe" of the air campaign, but by the incredibly rapid ground offensive spearheaded by the 3rd Infantry Division, the 101st Air Assault Division, and the 1st Marine Division.

Throughout the history of airpower, evidence abounds that unbalanced attacks are much less successful than balanced attacks. German strategic bombing of Great Britain in World War I and World War II failed to bring that country to the peace table. Allied strategic bombing in World War II was equally ineffective until it was combined with a massive ground campaign in Germany, or the threat of a massive invasion of the Japanese home islands. Strategic bombing directed at North Vietnam, unaccompanied by any meaningful threat of a ground invasion, failed completely to achieve its purpose.

The advocates of such bombing attacks are always ready to explain that if they had been given a little more time, a few more bombs, fewer political restrictions, and so forth, they would have brought the enemy to his knees without the need for ground forces. That assertion has never been proven. Even in Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Kosovo, ground forces or the threat of their use played the decisive role in bringing the enemy to surrender. In Afghanistan and Bosnia, the U.S. relied on local forces to supply the ground troops, which helped convince the hostile regimes to give in, but also left the u.s. politically beholden to its allies and unable to achieve its political aims as a result. During the Kosovo operation Slobodan Milosevic withstood the American air attack right up until it became dear that a ground attack might follow--and then he surrendered.

In this world, anything is possible. The U.S. might win a future war relying solely on airpower, for the first time in history, with no American or local ground forces involved and no meaningful threat of their deployment. That possibility cannot be excluded. The Rumsfeld vision of military transformation, however, does not pursue that as a possibility: it relies on it as a certainty. By focusing all of America's defense resources on the single medium of airpower, Rumsfeld is betting America's future security on the conviction that the U.S. armed forces will be able to do every time what no military to date has ever been able to do. In doing so, he is greatly simplifying the task of those preparing to fight the u.s. by presenting them with only one threat to defeat.

A sound program of military transformation would proceed in exactly the opposite way. It would recognize the value of America's technological advantage in the area of precision guided munitions. It would continue to enlarge and enhance them, much as Rumsfeld currently proposes. But it would not do so at the expense of the unique capabilities that ground forces bring to bear. It would focus, instead, on developing the capabilities of ground forces that are distinct from the capabilities provided by airpower. Ground forces can seize and hold terrain, separate hostile groups, and comb through urban areas with infinitely greater precision and distinction between combatant and non-combatant than can airpower. They can present the enemy with unacceptable situations simply by occupying a given piece of land, forcing the enemy to take actions that reveal his intentions and expose him to destruction. And it goes without saying that only ground forces can execute the peacemaking, peacekeeping, and reconstruction activities that have been essential to success in most of the wars America has fought in the past hundred years.

Above all, the U.S. must avoid the search for "efficiency" in military affairs. Redundancy is inherently a virtue in war. America's leaders should intentionally design systems with overlapping capabilities, spread across the services, and should intentionally support weapons that do not directly contribute to the overarching vision of war that they are pursuing. America should continue to try to build armed forces that are the best in every category and have the latent capabilities to meet challenges that cannot now even be imagined.

(1) See "War and Aftermath" in Policy Review, August-September 2003.

Frederick W. Kagan is a military historian and the co-author of While America Sleeps: Self-Delusion, Military Weakness, and the Threat to Peace Today.
COPYRIGHT 2003 Foundation for Cultural Review
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2003 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Kagan, Frederick W.
Publication:New Criterion
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2003
Words:7827
Previous Article:Notes & comments: November 2003.
Next Article:Friends of humanity?
Topics:


Related Articles
Salvatore Astore.
Maybelline's new Lash Discovery mini-brush mascara lengthens.
Casting Shadows: Images from a New South Africa.
TURKEY - Feb. 6 - Parliament Allows US To Upgrade Bases.
Dracstic moves.
Shadows in the Desert Ancient Persia at War.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters