Last week the U.S. Army and five other organizations sponsored a conference concerning how to cope with the new security environment. The Eisenhower Conference was an ecumenical affair, as reflected in the fact that the Office of Net Assessment, Conference Board, Woodrow Wilson Center, Drucker Foundation and Lexington Institute were all co-sponsors. David Gergen analyzed the lessons of Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency; Nobel prize-winner David North discussed the impact of nonrational belief structures on collective violence; Anne Krueger of the International Monetary Fund explained the dynamics of economic growth; Charles Krauthammer and John Eikenberry of Georgetown University explored the limits of multilateralism; Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Richard Myers reflected on emerging challenges.
If the Army’s goal was to assemble the broadest array of interesting insights on global security requirements, it certainly succeeded. From my perspective, though, the most striking comments were offered by Dr. Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution concerning military transformation. In addition to his doctorate in public affairs, O’Hanlon holds degrees in physics and mechanical engineering from Princeton. He has spent some time assessing the “revolution in military affairs,” and thinks the concept may have been oversold. As one of the very few public commentators on transformation with solid science credentials, his views are worth considering.
O’Hanlon agrees that progress in computers and micro-electronics is advancing so fast that it really is revolutionary. Intel founder Gordon Moore predicted in 1965 that the computing power of microprocessors would double every two years, and “Moore’s Law” (as it came to be called) seems to be holding up quite well. O’Hanlon sees similar leaps occurring in the biotechnology, particularly in genetics research. But he doesn’t think the revolution extends to other technology areas such as aerospace vehicles or warships. There he sees only evolutionary progress.
There’s a lot of evidence to support his thesis. People have been talking about putting directed-energy weapons in space for decades, but the technology is still many years from fruition. Access to space remains a dangerous and expensive proposition. The speed of warships isn’t much greater than what was seen in World War Two. And while information technologies have made the F/A-22 fighter a truly transformational system, the basic concepts of air warfare haven’t changed much in half a century.
O’Hanlon says the incremental advances outside chips and biotech mean there is really an “evolution” in military affairs under way, not a revolution. Proponents of the revolutionary perspective such as Adm. Arthur Cebrowski say breakthroughs in infotech are enough to drive transformation. O’Hanlon is too polite to say it, but the latter view makes the Office of the Secretary of Defense sound like the last refuge of dot.com mania — not ahead of the curve, but behind it. If there is a true disjuncture coming in human relations, it is probably in the embryonic (no pun intended) world of genetics research, not in computers and telecoms. But the Bush Administration’s ties to pro-life groups may make that revolution too tough for his Pentagon team to embrace.
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