Shortly after Donald Rumsfeld arrived at the Pentagon in 2001 with a mandate to remake the military, the Army and Navy began to sense they had a problem. A “strategic review” conducted by Rumsfeld’s closest advisors embraced the stealthy jets and orbital sensors of the Air Force, while giving short shrift to the signature weapons of the older services. When those same advisors proposed eliminating two of the Army’s ten active divisions and questioned some of the Navy’s biggest shipbuilding programs, the air-power bias of the new administration seemed all too clear. Army and Navy leaders feared the Air Force was recovering its Cold War status as first-among-equals in military councils.
Not any more. Although the Air Force still has a dominant role in the development of transformational technologies and enjoys the most dynamic leadership of any service, its relations with the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) are no better than average — despite the decisive role air power played in winning recent military campaigns. How this happened is a striking story of contending philosophies and egos colliding with real-world challenges that have rearranged the bureaucratic playing field.
In the case of the Army, the near-death experience of having its Crusader howitzer cancelled, its Secretary fired, and it Chief of Staff frozen out of OSD deliberations created a sense of urgency about change. Meanwhile, the unexpected counter-insurgency campaign in Iraq enhanced policymaker awareness of the Army’s unique competencies — in particular, its capacity to sustain control of hostile territory for long periods. The Army’s new Chief of Staff, hand-picked by Rumsfeld, has seized the moment to radically restructure the service into a lighter, more agile organization. Rumsfeld’s team is impressed by the Army’s willingness to rely more on the Air Force for firepower, and to quickly field cutting-edge technologies being developed as part of its Future Combat System.
The Navy faced a different problem. Traditionally the most intellectual of the services, it originated many of the ideas underpinning transformation (like network-centric warfare). Its ability to base at sea gave it special force-projection capabilities against anti-access strategies. But Navy innovation had been retarded in the past by the need to balance the interests of aviators, submariners and surface warriors — not to mention Marines. Under Chief of Naval Operations Vern Clark, the Navy has jettisoned its platform-centric ideas about warfare and teamed closely with the Marine Corps. Having accomplished a revolution in strike warfare, it is now reorienting its vision to stress the leverage afforded by sea basing. Rumsfeld likes Adm. Clark’s ideas so much that he talked him out of retiring.
As Rumsfeld has grown more comfortable with the Army and Navy, he has become less happy with the Air Force. It resisted his advisors’ efforts to buy more B-2 bombers, cutback the F/A-22 fighter and accelerate investment in unmanned combat vehicles. Some of Rumsfeld’s associates think Air Force plans to buy a next-generation surveillance plane undermine the case for Space-Based Radar (a transformation priority), and hint that the service is too attached to manned aircraft. So despite strenuous efforts to transform itself, the Air Force hasn’t become a dominant force in military deliberations — which is a little odd when you consider where the other services would have been in Iraq without the precision targeting, reconnaissance, communications and logistic support provided by the youngest service.
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