Vermont Senator James Jefford’s decision on Thursday to exit the Republican Party and overturn President Bush’s majority in the upper chamber is being widely interpreted as bad news for the Pentagon. The assumption is that with Democrats in control of key committees, the Bush Administration’s ambitious plans for transforming the military are now dead on arrival.
That reasoning is wrong on two counts. First, most of the key ideas for transforming defense originated in the Clinton Administration – in other words, among Democrats. Second, despite all the rhetoric about how Clinton ran down the military, Rumsfeld and his key associates are hard pressed to find anything conceptually wrong with the Perry-Kaminski-Cohen-Gansler plan for modernizing military capabilities. Their main complaint is that Clinton didn’t find the resources to actually pay for his plan, a fact all four of the aforementioned Clinton appointees would concede.
Anyone who is conversant with the findings of the Rumsfeld strategic review to date knows that the new Pentagon team has basically been reinventing the wheel. It is gradually backing into all the beliefs about geopolitical, technological and managerial trends that the Clinton team had arrived at after eight laborious years. That’s why its list of program plus-ups for conventional-forces transformation looks like a warmed over version of Joint Vision 2020, and why its missile-defense plan is little more than an acceleration of Clinton-era programs.
The truth of the matter is that after nearly a decade of having academics in charge at the Pentagon, just about every interesting idea concerning military transformation has been thoroughly explored. The Clinton team made a few missteps in implementing those ideas, most notably in its neglect of long-range aviation. For the most part, though, the Clinton team’s big failing was simply that it didn’t step up to the bill for maintaining ready forces while also investing in the future.
With Democrats now in control of the Senate, the most likely outcome for defense is that Donald Rumsfeld will end up carrying the Clinton transformation plan to fruition by adequately funding it. That’s not the way he will describe it, but that is what it will amount to. That means increased funding for all three tactical-aircraft modernization programs, more airlift, and more investment in space access. It means increasing the rate and speed at which next-generation warships enter the fleet. And it means embracing the Army’s overdue but underfunded transformation plan (including the misunderstood Crusader).
Most of the other “neat ideas” Rumsfeld has been discussing recently in the press weren’t going to happen even if Republicans had retained control of the Senate. There aren’t going to be massive base closures or outsourcings of logistics functions. What’s going to happen is that the political system is going to follow the path of least resistance, protecting the status quo while also spending more money on next-generation weapons. Maybe that doesn’t sound like a revolution, but after a decade of upheaval, some continuity in defense plans would be refreshing.
Loren B. Thompson, Ph.D. is Chief Operating Officer of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia, and teaches military topics at Georgetown University.
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