Many of you may remember the famous Peanuts cartoons in which Lucy would play the psychiatrist, offering to diagnose Charlie Brown’s problems for five cents a session. Well, a new therapist has hung out his shingle. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the Pentagon’s own Doctor Phil, has looked deep into the psyche of the Military Services and pronounced them deeply disturbed.
What ails the military? “Doctor” Gates says they suffer from “next-war itis.” This malady prevents the sufferer from focusing 100 percent on the war. It causes those afflicted with it to forget their history. Most serious of all, this condition leads military leaders to hedge against an uncertain future by seeking to buy advanced weapons systems capable of defeating future threats.
What evidence does the Secretary cite to support his diagnosis? First, the military failed to incorporate the lessons of Vietnam in its doctrines, plans and programs prior to September 11. Never mind the fact that this nation did not fight a major insurgency for a quarter century between 1975 and 2001. It was madness not to think then about the war we are fighting now. Second, the military worries about spending tens of billions of dollars on equipment that may be used only in this conflict and then placed in mothballs. Third, the “doctor” says, the military is risk averse. The answer to the possibility of future threats, says Gates, is the acceptance of risk. A future war is unlikely; therefore, it is alright to not plan for the future and accept the attendant risk. The military, however, would like to buy insurance that reduces the consequences of taking such a risk. How sick is that?
“Doctor” Gates fails to recognize that the force he commands was acquired twenty or more years ago. Our tactical fighters, strategic bombers, tanker aircraft, missile cruisers, attack submarines and transport helicopters are all reaching the end of their service lives. The problem for the military is not the next war; but keeping old equipment viable to fight this one. We have already accepted too much risk by postponing modernization way too long.
Moreover, it is impossible to avoid making decisions today about the future. A fighter, surface combatant or combat vehicle built today is likely to be in service for thirty, forty or even fifty years. Just look at the B-52 and the KC-135 aerial tanker. The failure to invest today in programs such as the F-22, Virginia-class submarine, V-22 and Future Combat Systems will have little consequence for the current war but could well determine the outcome of the next. These systems incorporate cutting edge technologies that will enable the Armed Forces to preserve their qualitative edge into the middle of this century. This too is a lesson of our military history that should not be forgotten.
Physician, heal thyself. Consider for the moment that the good “doctor” may himself be suffering from an affliction. Let’s call it “this war myopia.” The cure is to remember that the future is unpredictable and the best way to hedge against military-technical surprise is by investing in those capabilities that can fight all our wars, present and future.
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