Sowing the Seeds of a Revolution

A persistent band of defense experts and futurists has argued for nearly a decade that the United States should launch a "revolution in military affairs" to dramatically change the way wars are fought. Their argument was greatly bolstered by recent military engagements such as Operation Allied Force against Serbia in 1999. During that conflict the United States successfully employed cutting-edge technologies such as unmanned aerial vehicles, stealth aircraft, satellite surveillance systems, laser-guided precision munitions and advanced information systems supplying unmatched command, control, communications and intelligence capabilities.

This year may go down as the moment when the advocates of a revolution in military affairs finally got a seat at the highest levels of government. President Bush has embraced publicly the idea of a "transformation" of the U.S. military. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has launched a fundamental review of military strategy and forces, placing a number of advocates of revolution in key advisory positions. To gauge the seriousness of the Bush administration's intent to transform the military, numerous defense experts are watching the Pentagon's research and development accounts, which will supply the seed corn for revolution.

"If you believe in the need to transform the U.S. military, you will look to leverage U.S. strengths such as high-tech precision strike capabilities, space-based systems, and dispersed and less vulnerable forces that can operate as a cohesive whole through the use of highly integrated information technologies," says Andrew Krepinevich, director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, and a key proponent of a major military overhaul.

The Bush administration already has pledged to provide an extra $20 billion for defense R&D over the next six years, and more may be needed. Over the past decade, the defense technology industrial base has declined markedly. Spending on R&D and procurement combined has dropped by nearly 60 percent over the past 10 years. Compared with average spending levels of the post-Vietnam period (1974 to 1990), the Pentagon spends about 23 percent less today on R&D and procurement. According to Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments analysis, the Pentagon needs to spend 20 percent more on R&D than the average during the Cold War if it is to successfully transform the U.S. military.

Another problem is that defense R&D funding today is primarily focused on the full-scale development stage of a small handful of weapons, such as the Air Force's F-22 Raptor, the Army's RAH-66 Comanche helicopter and the Navy's next-generation aircraft carrier. Proponents of the revolution in military affairs worry that not enough funding will be available for researching and developing new kinds of weapons systems, such as airborne and space-based lasers and small stealthy warships. Transformation proponents believe that more funding needs to be shifted to the earlier science and technology phase of R&D, where the most revolutionary breakthroughs in technology generally occur. Because this phase does not involve bending metal or developing finished, usable weapons systems, this kind of research tends to be relatively inexpensive.

Specifically, Krepinevich argues for a "wildcatting" approach to R&D, whereby the Pentagon would develop and experiment with a wide variety (but small numbers) of cutting-edge systems to forge a better understanding of which weapons and warfighting concepts have the greatest potential. The U.S. Navy adopted a wildcatting approach in the 1920s and 1930s, successfully transforming itself from a fleet positioned around battleships to one focused on aircraft carrier battle groups.

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