The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
Just before Christmas last year, I traveled to Afghanistan and the neighboring countries, where I had the opportunity to spend time with American troops in the field. Among the many I met was an extraordinary group of men: the special forces who had been involved in the attack on Mazar-i-Sharif.
From the moment they landed in Afghanistan, these troops began adapting to the circumstances on the ground. They sported beards and traditional scarves and rode horses trained to run into machine gun fire. They used pack mules to transport equipment across some of the roughest terrain in the world, riding at night, in darkness, near minefields and along narrow mountain trails with drops so sheer that, as one soldier put it, "it took me a week to ease the death-grip on my horse." Many had never been on horseback before.
As they linked up and trained with anti-Taliban forces, they learned from their new allies about the realities of war on Afghan soil and assisted them with weapons, food, supplies, tactics, and training. And they planned the assault on Mazar-i-Sharif.
On the appointed day, one of the special forces teams slipped in and hid well behind enemy lines, ready to call in the air strikes. The bomb blasts would be the signal for the others to charge. When the moment came, they signaled their targets to coalition aircraft and looked at their watches. "Two minutes." "Thirty seconds." "Fifteen seconds." Then, out of nowhere, a hail of precision-guided bombs began to land on Taliban and al Qaeda positions. The explosions were deafening, and the timing so precise that, as the soldiers described it, hundreds of Afghan horsemen emerged, literally, out of the smoke, riding down on the enemy through clouds of dust and flying shrapnel. A few of these Afghans carried rocket-propelled grenades; some had fewer than ten rounds of ammunition in their guns, but they rode boldly—Afghans and Americans together—into tank, mortar, artillery, and sniper fire.
It was the first U.S. cavalry attack of the twenty-first century.
After the battle, one U.S. soldier described how an Afghan fighter motioned for him come over and began to pull up the leg of his pants. "I thought he was going to show me a wound," he said. Instead, the fighter showed him a prosthetic limb—he had ridden into battle with only one good leg.
What won the battle for Mazar-i-Sharif—and set in motion the Taliban's fall from power—was a combination of the ingenuity of the U.S. special forces; the most advanced, precision-guided munitions in the U.S. arsenal, delivered by U.S. Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps crews; and the courage of valiant, one-legged Afghan fighters on horseback.
That day, on the plains of Afghanistan, the nineteenth century met the twenty-first century and defeated a dangerous and determined adversary—a remarkable achievement.
When President George W. Bush called me back to the Pentagon after a quarter-century away and asked me to come up with a new defense strategy, he knew I was an old-timer. I doubt he imagined for a second we would bring back the cavalry. But this is precisely what transformation is all about.
Here we were, in 2002, fighting the first war of the twenty-first century, and the horse cavalry was back—and being used in previously unimaginable ways. It shows that a revolution in military affairs is about more than building new high-tech weapons—although that is certainly part of it. It is also about new ways of thinking and new ways of fighting.
In World War II, the German blitzkrieg revolutionized warfare, but it was accomplished by a German military that was only 10 to 15 percent transformed. The Germans saw that the future of war lay not with massive armies and protracted trench warfare, but in small, high-quality, mobile shock forces, supported by airpower, and capable of pulling off "lightning strikes" against the enemy. They developed the lethal combination of fast-moving tanks, motorized infantry and artillery, and dive-bombers, all concentrated on one part of the enemy line. The effect was devastating.
What was revolutionary and unprecedented about the blitzkrieg was not the new capabilities the Germans employed, but rather the unprecedented ways in which they mixed new and existing technology. In a similar way, the battle for Mazar-i-Sharif was transformational. Coalition forces took existing military capabilities—from the most advanced (such as laser-guided weapons) to the antique (40-year-old B-52s updated with modern electronics) to the most rudimentary (a man with a gun on a horse)—and used them together in unprecedented ways, with devastating effect.
This is not to suggest that this same combination of tactics and capabilities should be a model for future battles. The lesson from the Afghan experience is not that the U.S. Army should start stockpiling saddles. Rather, it is that preparing for the future will require new ways of thinking, and the development of forces and capabilities that can adapt quickly to new challenges and unexpected circumstances. The ability to adapt will be critical in a world defined by surprise and uncertainty.
During the Cold War, we faced a fairly predictable set of threats. We knew a good deal about our adversary and its capabilities, and we fashioned the strategies and capabilities needed to deter them. And we were successful. We built a nuclear arsenal and entered the jet age with supersonic fighters. We built nuclear-powered submarines and ships and the first intercontinental-range bombers and missiles. We massed heavy forces in Europe, ready to repel a Soviet tank invasion over the northern German plain, and adopted a strategy of containment—sending military aid and advisers to destabilize Soviet puppet regimes and support friendly nations threatened by Soviet expansion.
For almost half a century, that mix of strategy, forces, and capabilities allowed us to keep the peace and defend freedom. But the Cold War is now over and the Soviet Union is gone—and with it the familiar security environment to which our nation had grown accustomed. As we painfully learned on September 11, the challenges of the new century are not nearly as predictable as were those of the last. Who would have imagined, only a few months ago, that terrorists would take commercial airliners, turn them into missiles, and use them to strike the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, killing thousands? In the years ahead, we will probably be surprised again by new adversaries who may also strike in unexpected ways. And as they gain access to weapons of increasing range and power, the attacks could grow vastly more deadly than those we suffered on September 11.
Our challenge in this new century is a difficult one: to defend our nation against the unknown, the uncertain, the unseen, and the unexpected. That may seem an impossible task. It is not. But to accomplish it, we must put aside comfortable ways of thinking and planning—take risks and try new things—so we can deter and defeat adversaries that have not yet emerged to challenge us.
Well before September 11, senior U.S. civilian and military leaders of the Defense Department were already in the process of doing just that. With the 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review, we took a long, hard look at the emerging security environment—and we came to the conclusion that a new strategy was needed.
We decided to move away from the "two major-theater war" construct, an approach that called for maintaining two massive occupation forces, capable of marching on and occupying the capitals of two aggressors at the same time and changing their regimes. This approach had served us well in the immediate post-Cold War period, but it now threatened to leave us overprepared for two specific conflicts and underprepared for unexpected contingencies and twenty-first-century challenges.
To ensure that we have the resources to prepare for the future, and to address the emerging challenges to homeland security, we needed a more realistic and balanced assessment of our near-term war-fighting needs. Instead of maintaining two occupation forces, we decided to place greater emphasis on deterrence in four critical theaters, backed by the ability to swiftly defeat two aggressors at the same time, while preserving the option for one massive counteroffensive to occupy an aggressor's capital and replace its regime. Since neither aggressor would know which one the president would choose for regime change, the deterrent would be undiminished. But by removing the requirement to maintain a second occupation force, we can free up new resources for the future and for other, lesser contingencies that may now confront us.
We also decided to move away from the old "threat-based" strategy that had dominated our country's defense planning for nearly half a century and adopt a new "capabilities-based" approach—one that focuses less on who might threaten us, or where, and more on how we might be threatened and what is needed to deter and defend against such threats.
It's like dealing with burglars: You cannot possibly know who wants to break into your home, or when. But you do know how they might try to get in. You know they might try to pick your lock, so you need a good, solid, dead bolt on your front door. You know they might try breaking through a window, so you need a good alarm. You know it is better to stop them before they get in, so you need a police force to patrol the neighborhood and keep bad guys off the streets. And you know that a big German Shepherd doesn't hurt, either.
The same logic holds true for national defense. Instead of building our armed forces around plans to fight this or that country, we need to examine our vulnerabilities—asking ourselves, as Frederick the Great did in his General Principles of War, "What design would I be forming if I were the enemy?"—and then fashion our forces as necessary to deter and defeat that threat. For example, we know that because the United States has unparalleled power on land, at sea, and in the air, it makes little sense for potential adversaries to try to compete with us directly. They learned in the Persian Gulf War that challenging our armed forces head-on is foolhardy. So rather than building up competing armies, navies, and air forces, they will likely seek to challenge us asymmetrically by looking for vulnerabilities and trying to exploit them.
Potential adversaries know, for example, that as an open society, the United States is vulnerable to new forms of terrorism. They suspect that U.S. space assets and information networks are vulnerable. They know that America's ability to project force into distant corners of the world depends, in some cases, on vulnerable foreign bases. And they know that we have no defense against ballistic missile attack—creating an incentive to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and the means to deliver them.
Our job is to close off as many of those avenues of attack as possible. We must prepare for new forms of terrorism, to be sure, but also for attacks on U.S. space assets, cyber-attacks on our information networks, cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, and nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. At the same time, the United States must work to build up its own areas of advantage, such as our ability to project military power over long distances, our precision-strike weapons, and our space, intelligence, and undersea warfare capabilities.
Before the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, we had already decided that to keep the peace and defend freedom in the twenty-first century, the Defense Department must focus on achieving six transformational goals: first, to protect the U.S. homeland and our bases overseas; second, to project and sustain power in distant theaters; third, to deny our enemies sanctuary, making sure they know that no corner of the world is remote enough, no mountain high enough, no cave or bunker deep enough, no suv fast enough to protect them from our reach; fourth, to protect our information networks from attack; fifth, to use information technology to link up different kinds of U.S. forces so they can fight jointly; and sixth, to maintain unhindered access to space, and protect our space capabilities from enemy attack.
Our experiences on September 11 and in the subsequent Afghan campaign have reinforced the need to move the U.S. defense posture in these directions. That is why the 2003 defense budget has been designed to advance each of these six goals with significant increases in funding. We are increasing funding both for the development of transformational programs that give us entirely new capabilities, and for modernization programs that support transformation. Over the next five years, we will increase funding for defense of the U.S. homeland and overseas bases by 47 percent; for programs to deny enemies sanctuary by 157 percent; for programs to ensure long-distance power projection in hostile areas by 21 percent; for programs to harness information technology by 125 percent; for programs to attack enemy information networks and defend our own by 28 percent; and for programs to strengthen U.S. space capabilities by 145 percent.
At the same time, we have proposed terminating a number of systems not in line with the new defense strategy, or struggling, such as the DD-21 destroyer, the Navy Area Missile Defense program, 18 Army Legacy programs, and the Peacekeeper missile. We have also proposed retiring aging and expensive-to-maintain capabilities, such as the F-14 fighter and 1,000 Vietnam-era helicopters.
The goal is not to transform the entire U.S. military in one year, or even in one decade. That would be both unnecessary and unwise. Transforming the military is not an event; it is an ongoing process. There will be no point at which we can declare that U.S. forces have been "transformed."
Our challenge in the twenty-first century is to defend our cities, friends, allies, and deployed forces—as well as our space assets and computer networks—from new forms of attack, while projecting force over long distances to fight new adversaries. This will require rapidly deployable, fully integrated joint forces, capable of reaching distant theaters quickly and working with our air and sea forces to strike adversaries swiftly and with devastating effect. This will also take improved intelligence, long-range precision strike capabilities, and sea-based platforms to help counter the "access denial" capabilities of adversaries.
Our goal is not simply to fight and win wars; it is to prevent them. To do so, we must find ways to influence the decision-making of potential adversaries, to deter them not only from using existing weapons but also from building dangerous new ones in the first place. Just as the existence of the U.S. Navy dissuades others from investing in competing navies—because it would cost them a fortune and would not provide them a margin of military advantage—we must develop new assets, the mere possession of which discourages adversaries from competing. For example, deployment of effective missile defenses may dissuade others from spending to obtain ballistic missiles, because missiles will not provide them what they want: the power to hold U.S. and allied cities hostage to nuclear blackmail. Hardening U.S. space systems and building the means to defend them could dissuade potential adversaries from developing small "killer satellites" to attack U.S. satellite networks. New earth-penetrating and thermobaric weapons (such as those recently used against Taliban and al Qaeda forces hiding in the mountains near Gardez, Afghanistan) could make obsolete the deep underground facilities where terrorists hide and terrorist states conceal their WMD capabilities.
In addition to building new capabilities, transforming the U.S. military also requires rebalancing existing forces and capabilities, by adding more of what the Pentagon calls "low density/high demand" assets (a euphemism, in plain English, for "our priorities were wrong and we didn't buy enough of the things we now find we need"). For example, the experience in Afghanistan showed how effective unmanned aircraft could be—but it also revealed their weaknesses and how few of them we have. The Department of Defense has known for some time that it does not have enough manned aircraft for reconnaissance and surveillance or command and control, enough air defense capabilities, enough chemical and biological defense units, or enough of certain types of special operations forces. But in spite of these shortages, the department postponed the needed investments, while continuing to fund what were, in retrospect, less valuable programs. That needs to change.
As we change investment priorities, we must begin shifting the balance in our arsenal between manned and unmanned capabilities, between short- and long-range systems, between stealthy and non-stealthy systems, between shooters and sensors, and between vulnerable and hardened systems. And we must make the leap into the information age, which is the critical foundation of all our transformation efforts.
After September 11, we found that our new responsibilities in homeland defense exacerbated these shortages. No U.S. president should have to choose between protecting citizens at home and U.S. interests and forces overseas. We must be able to do both. The notion that we could transform while cutting the budget was seductive, but false.
Of course, although transformation requires building new capabilities and expanding arsenals of existing ones, it also means reducing stocks of unnecessary weapons. Just as the country no longer needs a massive, heavy force to repel a Soviet tank invasion, it also no longer needs the many thousands of offensive nuclear warheads amassed during the Cold War to deter a Soviet nuclear attack. Back then, U.S. security depended on having a nuclear force large enough, and diverse enough, to survive and retaliate against a Soviet first strike. Today, our adversaries have changed—and so has the deterrence calculus. The terrorists who struck on September 11 were clearly not deterred by the massive U.S. nuclear arsenal. We need to find new ways to deter new adversaries. That is why President Bush is taking a new approach to deterrence: one that combines deep reductions in offensive nuclear forces with improved conventional capabilities and missile defenses that can protect the United States and its friends, forces, and allies from limited missile attack.
At the same time as we reduce the number of weapons in our nuclear arsenal, we must also refashion it, developing new conventional offensive and defensive systems more appropriate for deterring the potential adversaries we face. And we must ensure the safety and reliability of our nuclear weapons.
Taken together, this "new triad" of reduced offensive nuclear forces, advanced conventional capabilities, and a range of new defenses (ballistic missile defense, cruise missile defense, space defense, and cyber-defense) supported by a revitalized defense infrastructure, will form the basis of a new approach to deterrence.
But getting there will also require a new approach to balancing risks. In the past, the threat-based approach focused attention on near-term risks, crowding out investments in people, modernization, and transformation. Building a twenty-first-century military means balancing all of these risks, so that as we prepare for the nearer-term threats, we do not cheat the future, or the people who risk their lives to secure it for us.
We must transform not only our armed forces but also the Defense Department that serves them—by encouraging a culture of creativity and intelligent risk-taking. We must promote a more entrepreneurial approach: one that encourages people to be proactive, not reactive, and to behave less like bureaucrats and more like venture capitalists; one that does not wait for threats to emerge and be "validated" but rather anticipates them before they appear and develops new capabilities to dissuade and deter them.
Finally, we must change not only the capabilities at our disposal, but also how we think about war. Imagine for a moment that you could go back in time and give a knight in King Arthur's court an M-16. If he takes that weapon, gets back on his horse, and uses the stock to knock in his opponent's head, that is not transformation. Transformation occurs when he gets behind a tree and starts shooting. All the high-tech weapons in the world won't transform the U.S. armed forces unless we also transform the way we think, train, exercise, and fight.
Some believe that, with the United States in the midst of a difficult and dangerous war on terrorism, now is not the time to transform the U.S. armed forces. I believe the opposite is true: Now is precisely the time to make changes. The events of September 11 powerfully make the case for action.
Every day, the Department of Defense is faced with urgent near-term requirements that create pressure to push the future off the table. But September 11 taught us that the future holds many unknown dangers, and that we fail to prepare for them at our peril. The challenge is to make certain that, as time passes and the shock of what befell us that day wears off, we do not simply go back to doing things the way they were done before.
The Pentagon is up to the task. In just one year—2001—we adopted a new defense strategy. We replaced the decade-old two-major-theater-war construct with an approach more appropriate for the twenty-first century. We adopted a new strategy for balancing risks and reorganized and revitalized the missile defense research and testing program, free of the constraints of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. We reorganized the department to better focus on space capabilities. Through the Nuclear Posture Review, we adopted a new approach to strategic deterrence that increases security while reducing our reliance on strategic nuclear weapons. And we will soon announce a new unified command structure. All this was done while fighting a war on terrorism—not a bad start for a department supposedly so resistant to change.
Of course, as the Pentagon transforms, we must not make the mistake of assuming that the experience in Afghanistan is a model for the next military campaign. Preparing to refight the last war is a mistake repeated through much of military history and one that we must and will avoid. But we can glean important lessons from recent experiences that apply to the future. Here are a few worth considering.
First, wars in the twenty-first century will increasingly require all elements of national power: economic, diplomatic, financial, law enforcement, intelligence, and both overt and covert military operations. Clausewitz said, "War is the continuation of politics by other means." In this century, more of those means may not be military.
Second, the ability of forces to communicate and operate seamlessly on the battlefield will be critical to success. In Afghanistan, we saw composite teams of U.S. special forces on the ground, working with Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps pilots in the sky to identify targets and coordinate the timing of air strikes—with devastating consequences for the enemy. The lesson of this war is that effectiveness in combat will depend heavily on "jointness"—that is, the ability of the different branches of our military to communicate and coordinate their efforts on the battlefield. But achieving jointness in wartime requires building it in peacetime. We must train like we fight and fight like we train.
Third, our policy in this war of accepting help from any country, on a basis comfortable for its government, and allowing that country to characterize how it is helping (instead of our creating that characterization for it), is enabling us to maximize both other countries' cooperation and our effectiveness against the enemy.
Fourth, wars can benefit from coalitions of the willing, to be sure, but they should not be fought by committee. The mission must determine the coalition, the coalition must not determine the mission, or else the mission will be dumbed down to the lowest common denominator.
Fifth, defending the United States requires prevention and sometimes preemption. It is not possible to defend against every threat, in every place, at every conceivable time. Defending against terrorism and other emerging threats requires that we take the war to the enemy. The best—and, in some cases, the only—defense is a good offense.
Sixth, rule nothing out—including ground forces. The enemy must understand that we will use every means at our disposal to defeat them, and that we are prepared to make whatever sacrifices are necessary to achieve victory.
Seventh, getting U.S. special forces on the ground early dramatically increases the effectiveness of an air campaign. Afghanistan showed that precision-guided bombs from the sky are much more effective if we get boots and eyes on the ground to tell the bombers exactly where to aim.
And finally, be straight with the American people. Tell them the truth—and when you cannot tell them something, tell them you cannot tell them. The American people understand what we are trying to accomplish, what is needed to get the job done, that it will not be easy, and that there will be casualties. And they must know that, good news or bad, we will tell it straight. Broad bipartisan public support must be rooted in a bond of trust, understanding, and common purpose.
Our men and women in uniform are doing a brilliant job in the war on terrorism. We are grateful to them—and proud. And the best way we can show our appreciation is to make sure that they have the resources, the capabilities, and the innovative culture not only to win today's war, but to deter and, if necessary, defeat the aggressors we will surely face in the dangerous century ahead.