History will remember Donald Rumsfeld as a dedicated defense secretary whose vision of military change was derailed by his own self-defeating idiosyncrasies. Rumsfeld’s prescription for what needed to be done — better intelligence, better teamwork, better technology — was largely validated by security developments on his watch. But the way he tried to go about implementing transformation alienated Congress and the military, undercutting an agenda that should have prevailed.
Aside from Rumsfeld’s notorious disdain for Capitol Hill, the quality most responsible for transformation’s uneven progress has been his naive belief that he could leave decisions on weapons programs to subordinates while he focused on more important matters. People come and go in Congress and the Pentagon, but big weapons programs take on a life of their own. They develop electoral and bureaucratic constituencies that enable them to survive shifting political fortunes. So programs like Space Radar and the Transformational Communications Architecture could have been the most enduring legacy of Rumsfeld’s tenure.
But because he chose to delegate responsibility for shaping and sustaining those programs to subordinates, the programs never became firmly rooted. As a result, technological tools essential to making transformation a durable feature of the nation’s defense posture are already disappearing from the investment plans of the military services.
A case in point is the Multi-Platform Radar Technology Insertion Program (MP-RTIP), a program funded to address emerging threats that Rumsfeld himself had highlighted in classified memos to the President. One such message, in 2002, warned that while the nation was putting almost all of its missile-defense money into countering ballistic weapons, cheap and elusive cruise missiles were entering the arsenal of every U.S. enemy. In fact, eighty countries now possess these weapons, and the technology for building them is readily available even to stateless terrorist groups. Experts have been warning for years of a Hezbollah-style assault on America and its allies using cruise missiles, because there are currently no defenses against them.
MP-RTIP was designed to address this danger by developing an agile airborne radar that could reliably track small, ground-hugging aircraft such as cruise missiles. It would also greatly increase the Air Force’s capacity to track small, slow-moving targets on the ground such as terrorists and camouflaged vehicles. According to an article by Amy Butler in the June 12 Aviation Week, the system would have seven publicly acknowledged operating modes, plus additional secret modes for monitoring a wide array of unconventional threats. The system could be installed on existing Joint STARS radar planes, or on a future reconnaissance aircraft.
Now that plan is in jeopardy. Not only is the next-generation E-10 radar plane terminated in the Air Force’s 2008 budget plan, but so is most of the funding for the radar. Some money would remain for a scaled-down version of the radar that could be carried on the unmanned Global Hawk aircraft, but that vehicle is too small to support the dimensions of a radar that tracks stealthy cruise missiles. Caught between a service that would rather buy fighters and senior policymakers who want to do the mission from space, MP-RTIP looks doomed. Unfortunately, there isn’t going to be a space-based solution and fighters aren’t much use if you can’t find the enemy. This is how transformation ends: not with a bang, but with a budget decision.
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