During the early days of the new millennium, “military transformation” was the driving force behind U.S. defense plans. Simply stated, military transformation was an attempt to organize the joint force around the new technologies emerging from the information revolution. Proponents of transformation argued the new tools could provide huge gains in combat effectiveness, and that the military therefore needed to rethink its doctrine and organization with an eye to realizing the full warfighting potential of emerging technology.
Things haven’t quite worked out the way transformationists planned. In fact, defense secretary Robert Gates has launched a “counter-transformation” that has deposed information networks from their primacy in Pentagon plans, returning the department to its traditional “platform-centric” thinking. It’s not that proponents of transformation misjudged the power of new information technologies. They just under-estimated how quickly America’s enemies would obtain the same tools, and develop “asymmetric” responses to joint-force capabilities. So what planners thought would be a golden age of U.S. military progress has turned into an era during which our warfighters are rapidly losing their edge.
The simplest way to understand this trend is by looking at the “cost-exchange” ratio in various types of engagements. In other words, how much resources must the joint force expend in order to prevail against a reasonably capable adversary, and how much resources might that adversary need to expend to prevail against the joint force. It appears that the U.S. is losing the capacity to prevail at an affordable price in many types of military exchanges:
— Patriot air defense missiles cost about $3 million apiece, but the cruise missiles and unmanned aircraft they must defeat typically cost less than a tenth that amount. And that’s not even counting the cost of deploying the radars and command centers needed to use the Patriot missiles effectively.
— Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles and next-generation jeeps (“Joint Light Tactical Vehicles”) cost hundreds of thousands of dollars each, mainly because they must withstand the blasts of improvised explosive devices. Yet the improvised explosives cost only a few hundred dollars to assemble, and you can probably get an Afghan kid to plant one for a pack of cigarettes.
— The U.S. is spending a billion dollars per month to protect its military and intelligence networks against penetration by overseas spies and hackers. The amount of money our enemies are putting into circumventing these protections is probably a very small fraction of that amount, and the cost of developing kinetic or non-kinetic means for disabling U.S. networks is quite modest.
— The number of military personnel the U.S. must deploy to defeat insurgents in places like Iraq and Afghanistan is many times the number of personnel insurgents must deploy to keep their movements viable. New technologies are helping the counter-insurgency campaign, but no more than cell phones and other digital tools are helping the insurgents.
What these examples suggest is that America is becoming less capable relative to adversaries than it was a generation ago — despite massive investments in new technology that have helped raise U.S. defense spending to nearly half of the global total. No doubt about it, America has the most capable military in the world by a country mile. But when it costs the Pentagon ten times as much to build an aircraft carrier as it costs China to buy hundreds on long-range antiship missiles, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out which side is doing better in the struggle for military advantage in the new millennium.
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