The Washington Post
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has surprised almost everyone in the Pentagon by taking seriously President Bush’s campaign rhetoric about the need to transform the military. The conventional wisdom among defense pundits (including me) was that after going through the motions of a strategic review, the new administration would then throw money at the military to fix its huge budget shortfall.
That isn’t what has happened. Instead, Rumsfeld has spun up a series of secret panels to review Pentagon operations from which military leaders are largely excluded. He has refused to endorse several new weapon systems until the panels have completed their deliberations. The administration has selected service chiefs from the corporate world whose reputations for breaking crockery are well deserved. And the President has shown little inclination to back away from his campaign pronouncements about “skipping a generation” of weapons.
Perhaps the clearest sign that real change is taking shape is the fear spreading among senior officers and defense contractors. They’re not accustomed to being this much in the dark about what is going on, and they’re beginning to sense that the new administration isn’t all that interested in what they think. That’s very different the Clinton Administration, which despite its reputation tried hard to keep the military happy.
It’s possible the new administration’s reformist zeal will degenerate into a Reaganesque spending binge as it is reined in by political forces. But with seasoned players such as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld driving security policy, it’s also possible the military is in for a real makeover. Having been away from Washington for a while, they probably share the average citizen’s perplexity as to why the Pentagon can’t make ends meet on nearly a billion dollars a day — especially given the absence of urgent threats.
But before they embark on a massive transformation of America’s military forces, there are a few things they ought to know about the limitations of any such exercise. Transformation could be the best thing that has happened to the military in a generation, or it could also turn into a political, budgetary and operational fiasco. Understanding the constraints on change could help prevent a disaster.
First of all, transformation isn’t going to save money on George W. Bush’s watch. Even if he is elected to a second term, it’s likely to be a net drain on resources, because the nation has to meet its existing commitments even as the military is being reformed. That means maintaining much of the current force in a relatively high state of readiness while investing in leap-ahead capabilities. The Clinton Administration preserved readiness largely at the expense of investment, but that has produced an aging force desperately
in need of modernization.
Rumsfeld can’t defer modernization any longer without running some pretty sizable risks. Unfortunately, many of the new systems waiting in the wings aren’t truly transformational. Transformation thus becomes a cost added to modernization, and the cumulative bill for both could easily top a trillion dollars just in the current decade. Transformation may save money over the long run, but those savings will accrue mostly to Bush’s successor.
Second, we shouldn’t fool ourselves that we know what the future holds for America’s military. Many of the emerging threats driving transformation, such as biological weapons and cyberwar, may prove to be today’s preoccupations rather than tomorrow’s. Moreover, some initiatives widely touted as transformational – “network-centric warfare,” for example – could actually increase our vulnerability over the long run.
The uncertainties caused by what we don’t know about the future are compounded by the things that we don’t seem to want to know. It doesn’t take a very deep reading of history to see that most of the threats to American democracy have originated in Europe. Nonetheless, a key feature of current transformation thinking is that U.S. forces should be postured for coalition warfare with European allies.
Finally, there are the limits imposed on change by domestic politics. Much of the congressional support for defense spending today originates in the desire of legislators to protect local programs or bases. Transformation could wipe out many of those activities, and thus diminish political support for defense spending.
Given the absence of a strong congressional constituency for transformation, Secretary Rumsfeld needs to be careful that the political system doesn’t translate his reform efforts into the latest excuse for underfunding military investment. After ten years of decay, the last thing America’s military needs is more daring rhetoric leading to minimal results.
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