Donald Rumsfeld's tenure as secretary of defense will continue to be marked by his attempt to transform the military into a lighter, nimbler force better able to take advantage of new technology and respond to new threats. Despite (or perhaps because of) the rancor he has generated within the Pentagon, Rumsfeld has managed to shake up a hidebound institution that, if left to its own devices, would probably prefer to endlessly refight the 1991 Gulf War.
The continued fighting in Iraq, however, shows the limits of what he has accomplished. The U.S. military is superb at defeating conventional forces--as its three-week blitzkrieg from Kuwait to Baghdad in the spring of 2003 demonstrated--but not nearly as good at fighting the kind of guerrilla foes it has confronted since. To be sure, many of the current problems in Iraq result from Rumsfeld's failure to send enough troops there and from the precipitous disbandment of the Iraqi military. But they also reveal more fundamental shortcomings in U.S. capabilities for dealing with unconventional threats.
Many policymakers and military officers will no doubt react to the problems in Iraq by trying to eschew this type of conflict in the future. Just as there was an aversion to fighting guerrilla wars after Vietnam (manifested in the Powell Doctrine), there will be a similar backlash after Iraq, no matter how it turns out. Most U.S. soldiers understandably prefer to focus on what they do best: beating conventional foes in the open field.
Unfortunately, the United States cannot determine the nature of its future wars; the enemy has a vote, and the more evident the U.S. inability to deal with guerrilla or terrorist tactics, the more prevalent those tactics will become. There is a limit to how much "smart" weapons can achieve against a shadowy foe. Recall the ineffectual cruise-missile strikes on targets in Sudan and Afghanistan in 1998, which served only to highlight U.S. weakness. Defeating terrorism, as Washington has learned in Afghanistan, requires putting boots on the ground and engaging in nation building. Yet it is precisely those areas in which the United States remains weakest and that Rumsfeld's high-tech defense transformation agenda has neglected. Strengthening those capacities should be the goal for the next stage of military transformation, and continuing that revolution should be a top priority in President George W. Bush's second term.
ENCUMBRANCES OF EMPIRE
Whether or not the United States is an "empire" today, it is a country with interests to protect and enemies to fight all over the world. There is no finer example of how to do this cheaply and effectively than the British Empire. In 1898, it maintained only 331,000 soldiers and sailors and spent only 2.4 percent of its GDP on defense, considerably less than the 3.9 percent the United States spends today. This puny investment was enough to safeguard an empire that covered 25 percent of the globe.
The British Empire's most easily emulated strength was advanced technology, a product of the Industrial Revolution. The Royal Navy was always near the forefront of technological development, such as the adoption in the nineteenth century of steam-powered steel warships that fired high-explosive rounds. The army usually lagged behind its rivals in Europe but always had a decisive edge over tribal adversaries, thanks to such weaponry as rapid-firing Maxim guns and Lee-Metford repeating rifles. Gunboats and railroads allowed the movement of men and supplies deep into the interior of inhospitable environments in places such as China and Africa. The British also benefited from the extensive use of telegraph lines and advances in medical science: quinine pills, for example, helped to conquer malaria, which had previously turned tropical climes into a "white man's grave."
Beyond technology, the British enjoyed three other key advantages. First, they had an army optimized for colonial fighting. They did not always have more firepower than their foes, but they invariably had greater discipline and better training. At the battle of Assaye in 1803, Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, defeated an Indian force that had at least three times as many musketeers and five times more artillery; in the stirring 1879 defense of Rorke's Drift in southern Africa, a garrison of 140 men held off 4,000 Zulu warriors. British soldiers were all volunteers. They served for long terms (21 years until 1870, 12 years after that), and most were stationed abroad throughout their service. This combination of long tenure and long exposure to foreign lands made them formidable fighters. Their quality was further enhanced by the regimental system: officers and enlisted men spent their careers in the same unit, which fostered group cohesion and esprit de corps.
Second, the British relied on native auxiliaries. The vast majority of the British Indian Army was made up of Indians; only the officers and some of the noncommissioned officers were British. As late as 1931 the British were able to control India--a land of 340 million people--with only 60,000 police and army personnel sent from home.
Third, and perhaps most important, the United Kingdom possessed an unparalleled group of colonial administrators, intelligence agents, and soldiers--many of whom would, in their spare time, double as linguists, archaeologists, or botanists. Adventurers such as Richard Francis Burton, Charles "Chinese" Gordon, T. E. Lawrence ("of Arabia"), and Gertrude Bell immersed themselves in local cultures, operating to advance the empire's interests on their own, with scant guidance from Whitehall.
Any praise of the Victorian army must be tempered by acknowledgment of its defects: it was an insular, snobbish institution, with troops who were barely literate and officers who were interested more in polo than in professional education. Compared with the first-class German military, it was doctrinally and technologically backward. And it suffered its share of defeats (the First Afghan War) and embarrassments (the Crimean and Boer Wars). Still, few forces have ever done a better job of fighting small wars.
Today, the U.S. lead in high-tech warfare is even greater than the British Empire's was in the nineteenth century. The U.S. military, with a panoply of advanced strike, surveillance, and communications systems, can bomb any target on the planet with impunity, dominate any ocean, and move its forces anywhere to defeat just about any army. But when it comes to old-fashioned nation building and counterinsurgency operations, the United States lags behind both the Victorian British army and its modern successor.
Transforming the U.S. military to address these deficiencies is not a matter of spending money on expensive weapons systems (the Pentagon's preferred solution to problems). Instead, it will take organizational and cultural changes to emulate some of the strategies employed by the British. This, in turn, will require changing a military personnel system that dates from World War II and an organizational structure that dates from the Napoleonic Wars. Both are so encumbered with red tape that they hinder the U.S. armed forces' basic ability to respond to threats.
The American military is already making some much-needed changes in response to its experiences in Iraq, but much more has to be done. The challenge of the second Bush term will be to continue to crack through institutional resistance that comes not only from the usual suspects--service bureaucracies, defense contractors, and their allies on Capitol Hill--but also from some "transformation" advocates overly enamored of advanced technology. It will be necessary not only to reform the Pentagon, but also to integrate it more closely with other parts of the government, such as the Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department. It is a daunting agenda, especially with a war in progress, but it is a necessary one.
The U.S. military must first focus on training and equipping infantry for irregular warfare. Counterinsurgency and peacekeeping are manpower intensive. Tanks and armored vehicles provide vital support, and high-tech surveillance systems and precision-guided munitions bring important advantages. But when all is said and done, controlling a civilian population requires using soldiers to patrol the streets like cops on the beat, and the United States does not have nearly enough of them.
Infantry makes up just 4.6 percent of the entire active-duty military. The Army has 51,000 infantry, the Marine Corps no more than 20,000. (The United States has about as many floral designers.) Even if the Defense Department wanted to dramatically increase the size of the force in Iraq--a step that many experts believe is essential--it would be hard pressed to find the necessary troops. As it is, active-duty divisions are being worn down by constant rotations through Afghanistan and Iraq, and the National Guard and reserves are now feeling the strain as well. Essential equipment, such as Humvees and helicopters, is getting worn out by constant use in harsh conditions. So are the soldiers who operate them. Many officers worry about a looming recruitment and retention crisis.
This points to the need to increase the overall size of the U.S. military--especially the Army, which was cut more than 30 percent in the 1990s. Bush and Rumsfeld have adamantly resisted any permanent personnel increase because they insist, contrary to all evidence, that the spike in overseas deployments is only temporary. Rumsfeld instead plans to reassign soldiers from lower-priority billets to military policing, intelligence, and civil affairs, while temporarily increasing the Army's size by 30,000 and moving civilians into jobs now performed by uniformed personnel. In this way he hopes to increase the number of active-duty Army combat brigades from 33 to at least 43.
These are welcome moves, but they are only Band-AIDS for a military that is bleeding from gaping wounds inflicted by a punishing tempo of operations. The U.S. armed forces should add at least 100,000 extra soldiers, and probably a good deal more. This can be done without a draft (in 1990, the U.S. military had 600,000 more active-duty personnel than today, all of them volunteers), but it will not be cheap. Some of the cost can be offset by canceling or cutting back big-ticket items such as the F-22 fighter ($72 billion), national missile defense ($53 billion over the next five years), and the Virginia-class submarine ($80 billion); the Pentagon has already proposed some of these reductions. But even with some cutbacks, the military budget--which currently consumes a much smaller percentage of U.S. GDP than it did during the Cold War--will need to grow to address critical shortfalls that have accumulated since the early 1990s.
The additional recruits should go to the Army and Marine Corps, and the new soldiers (as well as the old ones) should be better trained for peacekeeping and counterinsurgency assignments. This does not necessarily mean creating special constabulary divisions, as was suggested in a study by the National Defense University. Combat veterans say that it is easier for troops trained for high-intensity combat to deal with peacekeeping than it is for peacekeepers to deal with high-intensity combat. Since troops in a place like Iraq often have to switch at a moment's notice from fighting to peacekeeping, Washington should aim to create high-quality general-purpose forces that can shoot terrorists one minute and hand out candy to children the next.
Unfortunately, most U.S. troops have received too little training in missions other than high-intensity combat against a conventional foe. Countless soldiers in Iraq have said they were unprepared for the kinds of tasks they have had to undertake, such as setting up a police force or running a sewage plant. One field artillery officer told The Washington Post in the fall of 2003, "We're doing a lot of things that we didn't know we were getting into."
In response, the Army and Marine Corps are now doing more training for counterinsurgency and "stability and support operations," but much more is needed. The Army has just released its first counterinsurgency manual in decades, and West Point is only now offering its first-ever class entirely focused on counterinsurgency warfare. In addition to improving education, the military needs to stage freewheeling war games to improve its ability to cope with guerrilla tactics; today, most exercises are tightly scripted to exclude unconventional attacks.
The military should also change some of its personnel policies. Soldiers shuttle through units with dizzying rapidity: two-thirds of army personnel change stations every year, and the average officer spends only 18 months at each assignment over the course of a 25-year career. This system is designed to create a cadre of generalists who will be qualified for the upper echelons of command, but it prevents the kind of unit cohesion and inspired leadership that characterizes the highest-quality armies. Even the best troop leaders do not get to spend very much time with the troops: the average officer spends no more than 30 percent of his or her career in the field, with the rest spent in staff jobs and schools. Ordinary soldiers shuffle in and out of units just as rapidly. One armored brigade due to deploy to Iraq in February had experienced 40 percent turnover since rotating out of Iraq only nine months earlier. "Units, crews, squads are not kept together long enough to fully exploit their combat capabilities," writes Major Donald Vandergriff, an expert on the military personnel system who recommends emulating the British regimental model by keeping combat units together for years at a time.
High-quality infantry must have high-quality equipment--which too many U.S. units, especially those from the National Guard and reserves, did not have at the outset of operations in Iraq. Many suffered unnecessary casualties because they lacked armored Humvees and the most advanced bulletproof vests. (This is another sign of how little emphasis the U.S. military has placed on infantry: there is money available for the best jet fighters, which cost hundreds of millions of dollars, but not for the best body armor, which costs a few hundred dollars each.)
Most of this shortfall is belatedly being addressed, but the "ground pounders" remain underserved in some less-noticed areas such as communications. The Pentagon spends billions of dollars on the latest digital technology, but little of it makes it from headquarters down to the tip of the spear. During the Iraq war, many units found out where the enemy was just as soldiers have for thousands of year: by "movement to contact"--the military term for running into your foes. In many units, high-tech gadgets like Blue Force Tracker (mobile computer terminals that can send e-mail and display the location of friendly forces) were either hastily installed in a few command posts on the eve of hostilities or not available at all. Most front-line Marine Corps and Army units continued to rely on fm radios for short-range communications, just as they did in World War II. The military needs to extend its broadband information network down to the lowliest buck private--an oft-proclaimed goal that is still years from becoming a reality. The deployment of portable computer communications equipment will especially benefit counterinsurgency operations, in which information is at a premium. It will, for instance, enable a soldier at a checkpoint to determine instantly whether a driver he or she has stopped is a suspected terrorist.
Peacekeeping requires other specialized equipment, such as nonlethal weapons that allow soldiers to protect themselves without killing anyone. The military has developed a variety of such weapons--ranging from guns that shoot beanbags and rubber bullets to immobilizing foam, megaphones that emit excruciating noise, and lasers that can heat up the body to produce an effect akin to touching a hot stove. But the fielding of such weapons has been slowed by the Pentagon's lack of interest and objections from humanitarian groups who worry that such weapons could cause permanent injuries and violate treaties such as the Chemical Weapons Convention. The perverse result of such criticism is that U.S. troops end up taking lives that might have been spared by such new technologies.
The United States has been engaged in nonstop nation building since the end of the Cold War, in places such as Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Yet every one of these operations started virtually from scratch, with little attempt to tap the expertise developed in the past. This shortcoming has been especially glaring in Iraq, where the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance was created just two months before the conflict began. Its successor, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), was a similarly slapdash affair.
In order to be better prepared the next time--and yes, there will be a next time--Washington must create a U.S. government agency specifically tasked with rebuilding war-torn lands in cooperation with international agencies, allied governments, and nongovernmental organizations. The United States needs its own version of the British Colonial Office for the postimperial age. The recent decision to set up an Office of Reconstruction and Stabilization within the State Department is a good start, but it is unclear how much funding and authority this new office will have. It may be necessary to create an outside agency entirely devoted to nation building (perhaps by retooling the Agency for International Development) or, as suggested by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, to create directors of reconstruction on the White House staff to manage individual countries.
The creation of greater civilian nation-building capacity would not let the armed forces off the hook. No matter how much civilian management improves, the bulk of the manpower for any nation-building assignment would still have to come from the Pentagon. The armed forces need to do a much better job of preparing for such work in order to avoid the mistakes made in Iraq, where General Tommy Franks and his civilian superiors gave postwar planning short shrift.
Advanced command-and-control gear is a two-edged sword: it can lead to less-centralized operations or to more micromanagement from afar. Formal doctrine within the U.S. armed forces calls for high-ranking officers to issue "mission-type" orders broadly spelling out what needs to be done and then stand back to allow soldiers in the field to achieve these objectives as they see fit. But the reality is that satellite communications have allowed decisions on the battlefield in Iraq or Afghanistan to be made at the headquarters of Central Command (Centcom) in Tampa, Florida, or at the offices of the defense secretary or the president in Washington. Sometimes involvement by the highest echelons is necessary, if only to shield subordinates from possible blame in a high-risk operation. But these many layers of bureaucracy have become an encumbrance for the U.S. military.
In order to field a single soldier for the invasion of Iraq, Franks, the Centcom commander, had to put in a request with the Joint Staff in Washington, which in turn had to work with the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Army staff, the U.S. Joint Forces Command, the Army Forces Command, the Army Reserve Command, and the National Guard Bureau to provide the needed units. Once in the field, the chain of command ran from Bush to Rumsfeld to Franks to the Third Army (cross-designated as Combined Forces Land Component Command) to the Army's V Corps or the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, then to various divisions, brigades, battalions, companies, and finally to platoons and squads. That means there are at least eight layers of bureaucracy separating senior decision makers from soldiers wielding M-4 carbines or driving m-1 tanks. Soldiers refer to many of these top-heavy staffs as "self-licking ice cream cones"--institutions that create unnecessary work for themselves. Various proposals have been advanced for cutting out some of the fat, but none has gotten very far. (The Army chief of staff, General Peter Schoomaker, is now working on a promising plan to make brigades, rather than divisions, the "basic unit of action." It is unclear, however, whether any higher headquarters will be eliminated.)
Part of the problem is that the military has far more officers than commands. The Army has 3,700 colonels but only 33 maneuver brigades; the Navy has 3,500 captains but only 359 ships. There are some other commands available, but most wind up on staff duty, whether they are needed or not. Vandergriff argues that the most effective armies throughout history have had only 3 to 8 percent of their numerical strength in the officer corps; the figure for the U.S. Army today is 14.3 percent. The military has traditionally kept extra officers around in peacetime so that they can command a larger draftee army in wartime. Since conscription is unlikely to return, that approach needs to be rethought.
The benefits of a leaner way of warfighting were clear in Afghanistan in 2001. A force of a few hundred special operations troops, backed up by a small number of CIA operatives and a large number of aircraft, was able to topple the Taliban within two months. They were so successful in part because of their use of native allies, but also because the bureaucratic rulebook was temporarily tossed out the window: the commandos were told to achieve their objectives any way they could. Yet it was not long before the Pentagon bureaucracy arrived to stifle their freewheeling ways. Today, Special Forces teams in Afghanistan report that it can take three to five days for them to get approval to carry out a proposed mission. By the time they clear all the bureaucratic hurdles, their quarry has often vanished.
In Iraq, meanwhile, troops have had great success in disbursing money informally through the Commander's Emergency Response Program. Yet this program has consistently been shortchanged by shortsighted federal bureaucrats. The bulk of Iraqi reconstruction funds have gone through the cumbersome procurement bureaucracy, whose primary beneficiaries are giant American contractors such as Halliburton. This helps explain why, as of December 2004, only $2 billion of the $18.4 billion appropriated in October 2003 for Iraqi reconstruction had been spent.
WAR BY PROXY
Some of Washington's biggest successes abroad--from defeating a communist insurgency in El Salvador in the 1980s to toppling the Taliban in 2001--have come from working through foreign forces. Afghanistan revealed some of the pitfalls of relying on proxies of dubious reliability: warlords and Pakistani frontier forces were not terribly effective in stopping the escape of al Qaeda fighters at Tora Bora in December 2001. But overall, the record of proxy wars provides an encouraging alternative to sending large numbers of U.S. troops to fight guerrillas themselves. As the journalist Robert Kaplan notes in his forthcoming book Imperial Grunts, "fifty-five Special Forces trainers in El Salvador accomplished more than did 550,000 soldiers in Vietnam."
Flooding a country with U.S. troops is often a mistake, because they are so ignorant about local conditions that they often wind up doing more harm than good; better for a small number of highly specialized soldiers to work behind the scenes in cooperation with indigenous security forces. "Foreign internal defense" and "unconventional warfare" mostly fall to the CIA and Army Special Forces (the Green Berets, or, as they prefer to call themselves, the "Quiet Professionals"), although in a pinch regular marines and soldiers have been called on to train foreign militaries. Such work has paid off in recent years in countries such as Georgia, the Philippines, Djibouti, and Colombia. Most of the high-profile terrorists in U.S. custody were caught with the help of allies: the Pakistanis helped snare Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the planner of the September 11 attacks, and the Thais helped snare Hambali, the leader of the Indonesian terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah.
This important work does not get enough support from the military. Franks, for instance, resisted suggestions before the invasion of Iraq that he create "Free Iraqi Forces" to work alongside U.S. troops. After the fall of Baghdad, both the military and the CPA were slow to train and equip Iraqi military units, a failure that continues to haunt the United States to this day.
Even within the U.S. Special Operations Command, which now has primary operational responsibility for the war on terrorism, the focus is on more glamorous direct-action units such as the Navy's seals and the Army's Delta Force and Rangers that swoop down to kidnap or kill suspected terrorists. The Army's Special Forces, which focus more on brains than brawn, are relatively neglected by comparison. There are just 9,500 Special Forces out of a total of 47,000 uniformed personnel in the U.S. Special Operations Command. Civil-affairs and psychological warfare specialists also focus on the softer side of conflict, and a secretive unit formerly called Gray Fox concentrates on intelligence gathering, but there remains more focus on kicking down doors than on figuring out which doors to kick down. The key strength of Special Forces is that they can generate intelligence from the local population and act with local allies. Twelve-man Special Forces A-teams are composed of regional specialists trained in the languages and culture of the area where they operate. Unfortunately, some opportunities to snare "high-value targets" such as Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar may have been missed because A-teams near the scene in Afghanistan were told to wait for the arrival of elite hunter-killer units--which did not get there until it was too late.
Addressing these problems does not require implementing the 9/11 Commission's recommendation that the military take over the CIA's paramilitary division; a little redundancy is not a bad thing, especially since CIA actions come with greater official "deniability." But the Pentagon does need to think creatively about how to enhance the effectiveness of special forces. Congress's recent decision to provide the Special Operations Command with $25 million annually in discretionary money that can be used to buy foreign allies--a tactic previously reserved for the CIA--is a good start. Special Forces also need to be given authority to go after "high value targets" themselves without having to call in Delta Force or other special mission units. In addition, bureaucratic rules need to be ironed out to allow Special Operations Command to infringe on the geographic boundaries of other jurisdictions (such as Centcom) in the pursuit of terrorists. Another way to enhance effectiveness would be to allow Special Forces to go out on actual combat missions with foreign forces that they train. Under today's rules, they are generally prevented from doing so, which can impair the operational effectiveness of their trainees.
There are other ways the United States can take advantage of foreign fighters. Washington could, for instance, create its own version of the French Foreign Legion or the British sepoy regiments--the "Freedom Legion," a force that would be led by a handful of American officers but made up of non-Americans who would be lured into service by the promise of U.S. citizenship when they completed their tours of duty. Unlike the hordes of freelance security contractors hired today, the Freedom Legion would at least be under the direct control of the U.S. government.
THE POWER OF INFORMATION
It is by now a truth universally acknowledged that the United States government is woefully deficient in "human intelligence." Nobody is better at high-tech snooping, but as Brigadier General John DeFreitas III, the top U.S. Army intelligence officer in Iraq, told The New York Times, "insurgents don't show up in satellite imagery very well."
The only way to figure out what is happening in a complex society such as Afghanistan or Iraq is to spend a lot of time there, drinking countless cups of tea with an endless procession of sheiks and mullahs. The current personnel system seems designed to make such sustained contacts almost impossible. The Marine Corps rotates its forces out of war zones every six to seven months, the Army every year; as soon as soldiers figure out what is going on, they are sent home. The State Department and the CIA, even with a dearth of Arabic and Pashto speakers, also move their employees around constantly. At least some of Washington's emissaries need to be stationed abroad long enough so that, like "Chinese" Gordon or Lawrence of Arabia, they learn the lay of the land and win the trust of the locals.
There are plenty of Americans willing to move to lands that Wal-Mart has not yet penetrated. Most of them work for charities, businesses, media organizations, and other nongovernmental entities. Those who work for the government cannot possibly hope to advance their careers by long service abroad: one wins promotion by spending time inside the Beltway, not in Baghdad or Tora Bora. That has to change. Robert Scales, a retired general and former commander of the Army War College, has proposed creating "global scouts"--military officers who would spend years, even decades, living abroad "with no diminution in career progression." Even if such scouts fell behind on the promotion ladder, they could still be compensated in other ways. Such a program could be built on the back of the existing foreign area officer program, which allows some officers to specialize in foreign cultures but which is generally regarded as a dead-end career move. Scales argues that, as part of a transition to "culture-centric warfare," global scouts should be given precedence in military intelligence agencies over the "technologists" now in control. The State Department and the CIA need to institute similar programs to allow talented individuals to spend longer in the field so that they can develop true expertise.
The United States must do better at disseminating as well as gathering information. In the age of satellite news, the success or failure of a military operation can hinge on how it is portrayed in the media. Witness the assault on Fallujah in April 2004, which was stopped prematurely because incendiary coverage on Al Jazeera gave the false impression that marines were deliberately targeting mosques and civilians.