The Pentagon is putting the final touches on its fiscal 2009 budget request, which will be sent to Congress in February. Covering military spending for the years 2009-2013, it is essentially the last defense budget of the Bush era, because the next time a budget goes to Capitol Hill, a different president will sit in the White House. Preparation of the final budget has by all accounts gone smoothly, with Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England bringing order to a process that previously resembled a Christmas-eve car crash. But all the rigor and deliberation can’t obscure the fact that military transformation — supposedly the signature defense achievement of the Bush years — is slipping into history even before the administration does.
You remember transformation, that semi-mystical mélange of jointness, agility and dot.com mania that was going to prepare our military for quick defeat of any adversary. Nearly five years after U.S. forces invaded Iraq with a campaign plan designed to test key precepts of transformation, the whole idea looks a bit naive. Proponents of transformation managed to make a last stand in the 2006 quadrennial defense review, but after mid-term elections demonstrated widespread public dissatisfaction with Bush defense policies, the transformationists began departing public service. The proposed 2009 defense budget is the first to be prepared without their participation, and signals the beginning of a long retreat from transformation.
Tony Capaccio of Bloomberg Business News reported on November 30 that the Transformational Satellite Communications program to equip the joint force with a robust and resilient “internet in the sky” will be cut back 39% across the 2009-2013 period, probably dooming the program. Originally intended to launch its first satellite in 2009, the program will now delay its first launch beyond 2016, meaning it has slipped more than a year for every year it has been in existence. Capaccio reported earlier that the Navy’s transformational initiative to quickly field a modular, networked “littoral combat ship” for coping with emerging threats in coastal areas was being drastically cut back in the budget, delaying efforts to rebuild a dwindling fleet. The budget also confirms that Space Radar, the other big orbital initiative of transformationists, is effectively dead as a near-term deployment option; provides funding for interim alternatives to the “software-reconfigurable” Joint Tactical Radio System; and continues sizable increases in the headcount of ground forces that would have been unthinkable in the heyday of transformation.
None of this should come as a surprise. When Secretary England distributed a list of 25 “transformation priorities” on August 9 that needed to be brought to closure before the end of the administration, half of them weren’t about transformation at all — they were about coping with fallout from the war in Iraq that transformationists failed to anticipate. Those hoping for a leap ahead to new warfighting concepts and innovative business practices can point to some Bush-era initiatives that are still vigorously funded in the 2009 budget, such as the Army’s Future Combat Systems. But with the big backers of transformation gone and a change of administrations approaching, it isn’t hard to see which way the wind is blowing.
It also isn’t hard to see what went wrong with transformation. The way the administration pursued it, transformation required a generation of investment before fully coming to fruition. It should have been obvious that overseas threats and domestic politics would intrude to cloud the vision. Yet former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld made only modest efforts to sell transformation to the broader political system, while posing it as an alternative to weapons the military really wanted. So now the system is turning to other priorities, sobered by the mismatch between visionary rhetoric and actual results in places like Iraq.
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