Article published in Defense News
On August 21, as President Bush’s summer vacation was winding down, senior Defense Department officials traveled to Crawford, Texas to brief the chief executive on military spending plans. In a dozen densely-packed charts, the Pentagon’s director of program analysis and evaluation, Dr. Stephen Cambone, described how the defense establishment was being reoriented to cope with emerging threats.
The briefing went well. Although Bush was not conversant with some of the programs discussed, he found the overall approach faithful to the defense priorities that he had set forth both before and after entering office. Since those priorities anticipated unconventional attacks on the American homeland, the events of 9-11 have tended to reinforce the President’s belief that his Pentagon team was on the right track.
Areas targeted for spending increases in the Crawford briefing included chem-bio defense, persistent surveillance of “fleeting” targets, information operations, protection of space assets, joint electronic aircraft, and cruise-missile defense (a complement to ballistic-missile defense). Areas identified as potential billpayers for these new investments included force structure, business practices, and virtually every major weapons-development program inherited from the Clinton years.
You’d have to be pretty obtuse not to expect such tradeoffs. Since he first addressed defense in a speech at the Citadel three years ago, Mr. Bush and his advisors have hewn to the same “transformational” course regardless of what critics said. While the programmatic consequences of that vision are only now becoming visible, there has already been a dramatic shift in the way military services package their spending proposals. The services know that if they can’t connect programs to the new paradigm, they’re toast.
“Paradigm” is a good word to use here. The term was popularized by Thomas Kuhn in the 1960s, when he employed it to identify contending worldviews in scientific revolutions (like Copernicus’ challenge to geocentric astronomy). Kuhn noted that new paradigms often gain a following for emotional reasons, or because they seem to answer burning questions, only to be discredited later.
Is that what will happen with military transformation? Maybe. There are important flaws in the way the Pentagon is currently pursuing transformation that raise doubts about its long-term benefits.
First of all, transformation is said to be “capabilities-based” rather than threat-based. The result is that it favors lowest-common-denominator technologies like networks that can be plugged into any conceivable scenario. But a close look at how the Pentagon plans to use the new technologies reveals implicit assumptions about future threats — assumptions that make the technology look more robust than it really is. Clever adversaries won’t have much difficulty coping with many of the systems currently deemed transformational.
Second, it is unsettling to see policymakers with limited technical credentials making such bold claims for the transformative power of emerging technology. At its inception in the first Clinton Administration, transformation was a relatively modest initiative pushed by policymakers with
impressive scientific credentials. Now it is an all-embracing concept being pushed by people with much less grasp of the relevant technologies. In other words, transformation has become an ideology.
Third, the internal Pentagon processes shaping transformation exclude many of the players with a stake in the outcome, including those with the greatest operational and technological expertise. Complaints from senior military officers about the practical consequences of decisions are frequently dismissed, and even participants in the secretive inner circle risk being ostracized if they don’t show proper fealty to the new paradigm.
Fourth, because key choices are being made in isolation from the organizations that will have to implement them, there is little likelihood they will be sustained beyond Rumsfeld’s tenure. This top-down approach compounds the mismatch between political rhythms and development cycles which results in promising programs being killed just as they approach fruition. The rapid purging of John Lehman’s protŽgŽs and ideas once he left the Pentagon should be a lesson for those who think they can dictate outcomes without eliciting the buy-in of stakeholders.
Finally, and most ominously, transformation has become the latest pretext for deferring modernization of the nation’s military arsenal. The Bush Administration inherited a rapidly aging force desperately in need of renewal after a decade of depressed procurement spending. The Crawford briefing acknowledged the urgent need to replace aerial tankers and jamming aircraft, but failed to explain the broader problem.
By questioning the value of next-generation development programs such as the F/A-22 multirole fighter without offering a viable alternative, transformation potentially impairs military preparedness for decades to come. While it may be feasible someday to accomplish key missions with novel technologies, those technologies are not ready for prime time today. Robbing focused, near-term requirements to fund nebulous ideas for the future could result in disaster.
The Bush Administration embraced military transformation before taking office, only to find that most of the interesting concepts had already been developed by its predecessors. In trying to offer something new and distinctive, it has backed into an extreme variant of transformation that is out of step with military needs and the institutional setting. Unless it reconnects with reality, history will remember transformation as a costly distraction rather than a revolutionary paradigm shift.
Loren Thompson is Chief Operating Officer of the Lexington Institute and teaches in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program
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