Courtesy Reuters

The General's Folly: Old Thinking for a New Military

Far from a desire to transform the U.S. military, William E. Odom's comments represent a nostalgia for a Cold War military more suited to the 1950s than to the next millennium ("Transforming the Military," July/August 1997). The future will be an age of uncertainty, with rapid economic growth, increased competition for resources, massive population increases, particularly along the world's coastlines, and rising urbanization, especially in the Third World. This chaotic state will present new challenges, and will require changes in why, where, and how U.S. forces are employed.

The Defense Department's Quadrennial Defense Review faced the difficult task of maintaining and developing forces that could simultaneously shape the current security environment, respond rapidly to emerging threats, and prepare for the long term, which to almost everyone except Odom remains uncertain. The review upheld the Marine Corps' role as the nation's force in readiness and approved plans to sharpen this instrument of national power. The military strategy outlined in the review called for "flexible and multi-mission capable" forces to respond to a full range of crises, not just those at the high end of the conflict spectrum. Furthermore, it stressed the need for forces capable of participating in multiple small-scale operations, while retaining the ability to move rapidly from one end of the spectrum to the other. Odom's tanks and bombers cannot meet these demands.

ON THE RIM

Odom decries the Pentagon's planning efforts for not setting regional priorities, but he does not present or defend his own. In fact, he only mentions yesterday's flash points-areas of Cold War-era importance such as the Fulda Gap, northern Japan, and the Korean Demilitarized Zone. Although Europe and the Middle East remain important to the United States because of its allies and energy requirements, the keys to America's future economic growth and national security lie in Asia.

Speaking before a group of Asian scholars and businessmen, Secretary of Defense William Cohen acknowledged the critical importance of this region when he noted, "The Mediterranean is the ocean of the past. The Atlantic is the ocean of the present. And the Pacific is the ocean of the future." He later elaborated his concerns about Asia's future if U.S. forces were withdrawn or could not operate throughout the region. This would be "a frightful future, a future in which the Asia-Pacific region would be known not for its promise but its perils . . . where America could no longer claim to be a Pacific power and lose its influence to shape its destiny."

The Pacific Rim is of great importance to U.S. national security interests. Indeed, by the year 2000, the United States' trade with Asia will be twice the volume of its trade with Europe. Instability in Asia, fed by resource shortages, territorial disputes, or ethnic clashes, will adversely affect the United States' economy and citizens. The best way for the United States to protect these vital interests is to remain politically, economically, and militarily engaged. But since America cannot afford to be everywhere, all the time, the key to this engagement is an agile naval force capable of flexible forward presence.

BEING THERE

The United States will continue to be the critical guarantor of regional political stability through its forward deployment of combat power. But it cannot continue to conduct business as it has in the past, as Odom argues, with land-based forces. America's regional allies rely on it to provide military forces to maintain stability and security, but they are coming under increasing pressure to reduce the numbers of American land-based personnel and their support infrastructure, as has happened in the Middle East, the Philippines, Japan, and Europe. The same economic and political factors will shape the United States' presence along the Pacific Rim. The United States must be able to project its strength with a force whose basing posture is acceptable to its allies. Naval forces can best provide this kind of flexibility and acceptability-they leave a less intrusive political footprint, and are not formally tied to a single mission. Designed to operate from both land and sea bases, naval forces are like a rheostat: they provide a tailorable, on-the-scene team that can deter threats to stability, conduct assistance operations, or participate in major conflicts.

Land-based forces offer a tremendous degree of war fighting capability and a strong show of American commitment, but they are costly, less flexible, and more diplomatically constrained. Odom's suggestion to base 100,000 American soldiers and their families in Hokkaido, Japan, is a classic example of Cold War thinking. Such a multibillion-dollar investment would only be warranted if the United States were defending northern Japan from a Russian invasion. Equally untenable is Odom's suggestion that the United States disengage from critical regions and rely on strategic airlift to bring heavy forces into presumably targeted airfields and ports.

The DAY AFTER TOMORROW

Despite what Odom says, traditional systems like heavy tanks and self-propelled artillery systems-no matter how souped-up-are not the answer. The United States has no copyright on technologies and strategies, which are easily subject to diffusion and proliferation. The next "bad guy" will be smarter-he will not play to the United States' strengths and fight it tank to tank, plane to plane. He will study its tactics and find its Achilles' heel: its reliance on fixed ports and airfields and its rear area supplies and communications. Odom misses the deadly implications of the potential use of ballistic missiles, armed with weapons of mass destruction, against his large land force as it deploys into an airport or major port facility. There is no better recipe for disaster.

But Odom's views are by no means those of the entire army. Indeed, within the army, young, forward-looking officers are calling for changes within their service that depart significantly from his Cold War-era ideas. For example, Colonel Douglas MacGregor has been highly critical of the army's current doctrine, programs, and hierarchical force structure. In his book, Breaking the Phalanx, he proposes that the army restructure itself into modularly organized, highly mobile, self-contained, combined arms teams that look extraordinarily like the Marine Corps' Air Ground Task Forces.

In another example, Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters recently expressed the need for the army to think past its current armor-intensive forces, observing that "we are preparing for the war we want to fight someday, not for the conflicts we cannot avoid." These conflicts will involve U.S. forces operating in crowded urban slums, in chaotic and often ambiguous situations, giving little justification for the sort of force that Odom advocates. "There is not one compelling reason to buy a single additional bomber, submarine or tank today," Peters argues, until the military steps back and conducts the painful, rigorous analysis necessary to employ technology properly in shaping a joint force that fits the times.

The United States needs strong land-based ground forces. They remain a key element of any war-winning force. However, they are not as adaptive or as flexible as naval forces for the multi-dimensional missions joint commanders will face in the future. That is why the single service remedies Odom offers are ill-suited to an era where the necessity for joint approaches is so clear.

The American military must be able to master all types of crisis and conflict, and the forces designed today for the day after tomorrow must be right for a range of operating environments, from open deserts to densely populated urban centers. Large armored forces might be invaluable in defeating an opponent like Iraq in 1991, but they will offer little when confronting the next adversary. It would be an ironic strategic mistake to lock into Odom's short-sighted architecture for the future. At the cusp of a revolutionary era, new mental molds and military paradigms are needed. The military should use the strategic breathing space offered today to think hard about preparing for tomorrow's challenges.

Stephen A. Cheney, Brigadier General, is Inspector General of the United States Marine Corps.

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