The Vision Thing

With Rumsfeld out, what's next for remaking the military?

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had a specific vision in mind as he tried to transform the American military into a high-tech 21st-century force. It was taken from Afghanistan, where small teams of American Special Forces rode into battle on horseback, and called in devastating precision air strikes on Taliban fighters.

In speeches, he often referred to that "transformational" battle, as he called it, when he pushed for a lighter, more agile military, capable of rapidly reaching distant trouble spots and bolstered by swarms of overhead sensors and long-range precision-strike munitions. In the invasion of Iraq, he decided to test his pet theories, intentionally keeping the invading, then occupying, army small, substituting precision munitions, robotic eyes and processor power for boots on the ground.

Shortly after American armored forces blitzkrieged across southern Iraq and stormed into Baghdad in spring 2003, military historian Max Boot wrote that the world had just witnessed a new American way of warfare. But the new way of war crumbled as Iraq turned into a low-tech, bloody slugfest with no clear winner, despite four years of heavy fighting and the most advanced weaponry in the U.S. arsenal.

So what of transformation? Some analysts say Rumsfeld forever altered the course of a ponderous Pentagon establishment notoriously resistant to change. "By compelling the officer corps to organize, think and operate above the levels of their respective services"-as a collective rather than as individual services-"the changes Rumsfeld brought about were revolutionary," says Dan Goure, a vice president at the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va., think tank.

The maverick secretary forced the military to shift its weapons-buying approach from focusing on each service's wants to seeking capabilities, in other words, enhancing collective effectiveness. "That is transformation, and that has worked," Goure says.

Robert Martinage, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington-based defense think tank, wonders how much of the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, intended to match military strategy to available money, will be implemented absent a clear champion for transformation and with entire ranks of the Pentagon's civilian leadership expected to follow Rumsfeld out the door.

Because the QDR avoided cutting weapons programs, the military's future shape and way of fighting now will be dictated by the reality of the grinding wars in Iraq and Afghanistan rather than a theoretical vision. Military leaders are more interested in what will help them win now versus fending off potential threats, Martinage says.

The likelihood is that the ballooning Pentagon budget, driven by the costs of multiple wars, the need to repair battle-worn equipment, provide salaries and health care to troops and buy costly new weapons, will be trimmed by deficit hawks in the new Congress. In a recent speech, Comptroller General David M. Walker questioned whether the Defense Department can afford the F-22 and Joint Striker Fighter as well as transformational programs such as the Army's costly Future Combat Systems and missile defense.

FCS is the embodiment of the notion of wiring together troops on the ground, sensors, aircraft, satellites and commanders to provide a clear picture of the battlefield and allow troops to make lightning-quick decisions. Transformation has become synonymous with this network-centric approach. But studies show that too much of this kind of transformation puts military operations at risk.

In 2004, GAO reported that networking causes command to become overly centralized and overloads soldiers with so much information that combat operations bog down. As information flows up the chain, commanders thousands of miles from the battlefield but linked by real-time video and communications become involved in decisions at lower and lower levels. An Air Force officer based in the Persian Gulf recently told Government Executive that before a bomb is dropped in Iraq or Afghanistan, at least six people, all networked together from widely separated command posts, must sign off. "Increased networking capability does not necessarily increase warfighter effectiveness," according to a RAND report released in November.

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