This evening I want to express some doubts about military transformation.
Since transformation has acquired an aura of unassailable virtue, I suppose I should begin by saying that I am not a Luddite.
I teach the emerging-technologies class in Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, and I have significant publications pending in digital networking, directed energy and genetic engineering.
Moreover, I agree with Andy Krepinevich’s view that the military needs to be shaken from its post-communist lethargy to face the implications of new threats and new technologies.
But it is one thing to accept such points in the abstract, and quite another to embrace the prevailing approach to transformation.
Revolutions often descend into excess, or provoke destructive reactions.
If military transformation is to avoid those fates, it must be informed by some reasonable degree of discipline regarding goals, assumptions, timelines and consequences.
Here are some areas where I think intellectual discipline has been lacking.
First, transformation as currently practiced in the Pentagon does not appear to be supported by a serious assessment of future threats.
The Bush Administration says its is pursuing a posture that is “capabilities-based” rather than threat-based, as if certain capabilities are so potent and versatile that they can cope with any danger.
In the absence of a rigorous threat assessment, policymakers implicitly assume that tomorrow’s dangers will closely resemble today’s, even though we know threats have changed considerably in the recent past.
That’s a convenient assumption, because it means future enemies won’t have the technology we have and won’t understand how to counter it.
But it’s also a dangerous assumption, because many of the technologies that drive our transformation initiatives are readily available in global commerce — as is the knowledge underpinning them.
It would be nice to believe that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden are the worst enemies the world will throw at us over the next several decades, but that’s unlikely to be the case.
We need to think much more systematically about how clever, capable adversaries might unravel our bold visions of future victory.
Second, and in a related vein, policymakers have not thought through the vulnerabilities inherent in new technology.
At some point in the late 1990s, the notion of military transformation became thoroughly intertwined with the dot.com mania then pervading popular culture.
There’s no doubt that digital networking and other innovations of the information age will change warfare, but we need to be aware of what the limitations of that technology are before we maximize its role in our military posture.
Satellite guidance permits pinpoint accuracy, but signals are weak and easily jammed.
Wireless networks facilitate efficient employment of warfighting assets, but they too are readily impaired or collapsed in ways that can be lethal to warriors grown dependent on them.
And robotic vehicles are an interesting niche capability, as long as we realize our best efforts at machine intelligence barely match the intellectual prowess of a rodent.A senior admiral recently conceded that once the Navy is reorganized for network-centric warfare, loss of access to the net could make the fleet more vulnerable than it is today.
Our military planners need to pay more attention to that problem.
Third, because transformation is such an trendy idea, it has a tendency to degenerate from science into subjectivity.
At its inception in the Clinton years, military transformation was a modest series of initiatives promoted by policymakers with exceptional technical credentials — people like Bill Perry, Paul Kaminski, Hans Mark and Delores Etter.
Today it has become an all-embracing ideology propounded by people with far fewer scientific credentials.
In other words, there seems to be an inverse relationship between the enthusiasm with which it is implemented and the expertise of the implementers.
Andy Krepinevich has long argued that the only sound way to sort out the good ideas from the bad is through rigorous experimentation.
But the Bush Administration is in too much of a hurry to wait for the results of empirical inquiry, and is making bets largely on the basis of bias.
Once we depart from rigorous standards of analysis, we begin to subvert the process that made transformation possible in the first place.
Finally, there is the problem of a rapidly aging arsenal.
If we were at the beginning of the Clinton years rather than midway through another Bush Administration, all these new ideas might pose no danger to military preparedness.
In the early 1990s the Cold War arsenal was still young, and we could afford to delay modernization while we waited to see whether new ideas would pan out.
But today the design of our top fighter is over 30 years old, the wings of our electronic-warfare aircraft are failing, and a third of our aerial-refueling tankers are grounded every day due to age-related problems.
Everybody heard about the test crashes of the Marine’s next-generation Osprey tiltrotor, but few policymakers seem to notice the frequency with which the decrepit helicopters it is supposed to replace crash.
We can’t wait any longer to modernize — especially if we want to do transformation the right way, which means experimenting with new concepts before we give the go-ahead for production.
Nonetheless, the Bush Administration has sought to find funding for transformation in modernization accounts.
That is the wrong place to look, because it means robbing readiness over the next two decades to fund bold ideas that may never come to fruition in the distant future.
We must resist the tendency to use transformation as the latest pretext for deferring procurement, otherwise we may never arrive at that beckoning future.
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