America’s defense establishment has an awful track record when it comes to predicting future threats. From Pearl Harbor to North Korea’s invasion of the South to Sputnik to the Bay of Pigs to the Tet Offensive to Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan to 9-11, military leaders almost never see what’s coming next. But they still manage to convince themselves they see the future clearly. Unfortunately, what they usually see is the recent past, extrapolated into the future. So they began the new millennium preparing for information-age warfare and instead ended up combating improvised explosive devices in backward places they never expected to go.
Having gone through this cycle of confounded defense predictions over and over again, we all should have grown skeptical about visions of the joint force’s future. But we still embrace new ideas with great enthusiasm, especially when they provide an excuse for not spending money that we’d prefer to use for other things. So it will probably be with the ideas propounded this week by former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright. Having set up shop at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, he now is out on the lecture circuit educating the policy community on what modern military preparedness demands of us. Here’s how Walter Pincus of the Washington Postdescribed remarks Cartwright made to reporters Tuesday at the National Press Club:
One area that he sees changing in the military is what he calls “the platforms” — by which he means tanks, troop carriers, ships, aircraft, heavy guns and even rifles. They are becoming less important in Cartwright’s view than the new electronics, sensors and other gadgetry…
Pincus quotes Cartwright to the effect that soldiers now would rather leave base without their rifles than without their iPads, and that the whole joint force is migrating away from a “platform-centric” mindset to the brave new world of information-enabled operations. Isn’t that fashionable — and oh so convenient for a political system that would like to avoid having to pay for things like a new bomber or ballistic-missile submarine? Unfortunately, there’s no compelling reason to think that Cartwright’s crystal ball is any clearer than yours or mine. As is often the case with military seers, his view of the future is really a retrospective on the recent past — when we were fighting enemies who had no navy or air force. Guess what your iPad gets you when you go up against a real enemy like China? It gets you a computer virus courtesy of the People’s Liberation Army.
Cartwright’s perspective doesn’t sound so much like a new point of view as a remix of the transformational thinking that infected joint deliberations at the end of the last century. You remember military transformation, right? The Pentagon’s answer to dot.com mania? It became an excuse for not doing all sorts of things that really needed to be done, like replacing the Air Force’s aging fleet of radar planes. And it gave us an unwarranted faith in the efficacy of cheap solutions like drone attacks that persists to this day. I’m not against being fashionable, but saying that platforms don’t matter anymore hands the political system yet another excuse for not investing in military hardware at a time when the joint arsenal has become quite decrepit. We should always be ready to listen to former four-stars when they have something to say, but that doesn’t mean we should always believe what they are saying is right.
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