No sooner had Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta presented the details of the budget priorities and choices that accompanied the new defense strategy, than critics began to pick his presentation apart. Interestingly, much of the criticism was of the strategy’s decision to reduce Army and Marine Corps end-strength and to focus instead on maintaining current equipment and investing in new technologies and capabilities. These critics argued that the new defense strategy repeats the misplaced belief of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s transformation strategy which asserted that future wars could be fought and won at a distance by more accurate firepower. They argue that as demonstrated in Iraq and Afghanistan, superior technology was not sufficient and the U.S. required lots of boots on the ground. Some analysts have gone farther to argue that superior technology is no advantage without skilled and experienced warriors to employ it and that it is far easier and less time consuming to develop technologies in time of war than it is to recruit and train the military personnel who will employ them successfully.
There is no doubt that the critics are correct when they say that the proposed reductions to the U.S. force structure will limit the military’s overall flexibility and responsiveness. Moreover, the downsizing of the Army and Marine Corps will increase the risks of military failure should this country find itself engaged in more than one major conflict at any given time, particularly if both require seizing and holding significant chunks of territory.
But they are wrong when they criticize the new strategy’s emphasis on maintaining U.S. technological dominance over manpower. I might put it even more bluntly: the key to U.S. success in every modern war has been superior firepower. There are a number of elements that go into achieving an advantage in this area. One of the most important elements is the industrial capacity to produce the necessary quantity of offensive platforms and, in particular, munitions to even outshoot or even swamp an adversary. In World War II, it was U.S. superiority in firepower, most notably artillery but also tactical and strategic airpower that enabled our military to prevail. The success of the initial U.S. assaults on Taliban and Iraqi forces in 2001 and 2003 respectively was the result of our ability to bring superior firepower to bear halfway around the world. Another element leading to success has been the quality of ISR and precision navigation that allows the proper placement of weapons on target. A third element leading to a successful firepower strategy is mobility and sustainment, without which, U.S. forces could not be deployed and maintained forward in sufficient numbers and with adequate stocks of munitions to conduct successful operations.
The critics of the Obama Administration’s decision to invest in technology also are wrong to the extent that they fail to appreciate that we are in a competition with prospective adversaries large and small to maintain our erstwhile superiority in firepower capabilities. China is deploying precision-guided ballistic missiles in numbers; but so too is Hezbollah. Iran has acquired deadly anti-ship cruise missiles. China is working on the ISR to allow them to accurately target their long-range ballistic and cruise missiles. These countries and others also are deploying or seeking to acquire advanced surface-to-air missiles. So in addition to sheer numbers of soldiers, missiles, rockets, tactical aircraft and attack boats, these adversaries are moving up the technology ladder. We must either invest in superior technologies, particular to support overwhelming firepower, or risk defeat.
The new defense strategy is correct to focus on platforms and technologies. Defeating China, North Korea or Iran will require countering their advantages in local geography and quantity of forces with loss of precision firepower. That is why the new strategy focuses on the current and future strategic bomber force, carrier battle groups, nuclear submarines with cruise missiles, long-range ISR, airlift and aerial refueling. Countering the growing surface-to-air threats means a commitment to the F-35 as well as to new air-to-air weapons and electronic warfare systems. Yes, we need the best people in uniform with superb training. But without the right platforms and weapons in the proper numbers even the best warriors are likely to be defeated.
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