The idea of a "revolution in military affairs" (RMA) based on new information technology (IT) has sparked the imagination of defense intellectuals and policymakers for nearly three decades. In that time, it has also guided a sizable chunk of the U.S. Defense Department's experiments and investments in new technology. The related but ill-defined notion of a "military transformation" even found its way into candidate George W. Bush's campaign rhetoric in 2000. And transforming the U.S. military became Donald Rumsfeld's chief goal when he was named Bush's secretary of defense after the election.
Six years later, U.S. forces are mired in Iraq, fighting valiantly but without enough forces or the right weapons and operational concepts for the job. Rumsfeld is out of a job, and many pundits blame his vision of a small, high-tech fighting force for the problems U.S. troops now confront. The RMA seems to have ended before it got very far.
But the unpopular war in Iraq has brought more dishonor to the idea of transformation than it deserves. As Max Boot affirms in his splendid history, War Made New, RMAs have been critical to the success of various countries throughout history, and the U.S. government would be foolish not to continue pursuing the present one. As Frederick Kagan points out in his very different but equally stimulating book, Finding the Target, the more contemporary notion of "transformation" is problematic, in part because the term has come to mean almost anything, but more important because Rumsfeld's version incorporated a very limited view of warfare that made it relatively easy for the United States to get into Iraq but very hard to get out. Kagan himself makes no attempt to codify the term but rather uses it to mean simply "a big, important change." Armed with that definition, he offers a few transformations of his own. These are no less compelling for the lack of a capital T.
Between them, these two very different books offer fascinating insights for those seeking to understand how the U.S. military got where it is today: namely, bogged down in Iraq. The books also help explain the peculiar ways in which the Defense Department conceives of war and invests its money. Each book suggests ways forward. Neither has a plan for getting out of Iraq -- the books deal with overarching themes, not particular policies. But the authors' advice could well help Washington avoid similar conflicts in the future -- or at least handle them better if they do occur.
A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE
It would be unfair to expect Boot's lengthy book to offer solutions for all of today's dilemmas. His is a sweeping history of RMAs over half a millennium, and the current era occupies considerably less than half of its pages. Still, when he gets to the present, he has much to say about contemporary events in historical context.
Boot barely mentions the modern phrase "military transformation," preferring to focus strictly on the notion of RMAs, which he defines as "great change[s] in warfare" that occur when "new technologies and tactics combine to reshape the face of battle." Boot identifies four RMAs that have taken place since 1500, each grounded in the technological advances that marked the era in which it occurred: the gunpowder revolution, the first Industrial Revolution (involving rifles and railroads), the second Industrial Revolution (involving tanks and aircraft), and today's information revolution. In each case, he singles out a few battles to illustrate how war changed, how those changes emerged, and how they affected those who mastered them.
Although Boot's RMAs are all rooted in technological innovations, he makes it clear that a successful revolution also requires adaptations in military organization, training, and doctrine. And if there is a single dominant factor to explain why some states have managed RMAs while others have failed, it is not technical genius but rather "an efficient bureaucracy." Boot weighs organization and politics as heavily as technology, and rightly so.
As he shows, when states do manage change properly, the rewards are impressive. Successful revolutionizers, such as England in the 1500s or Germany at the start of World War II, have used the power thus unleashed to upset local, regional, and even (in the case of the nineteenth-century imperialists) global power balances. The rise of the West, Boot contends, cannot be explained without reference to the relatively substantial military lead that Western states acquired after 1500. Not surprisingly, he stresses "the importance of not missing out on the next big change in warfare."
The changes Boot documents are not limited to the military. Many of the successful states he describes were fundamentally reshaped by their military revolutions. Thus, the gunpowder revolution, by making standing armies larger and more lethal, hastened the development of the centralized state. And the enormous materiel demands of war in the early twentieth century hastened economic centralization, while the growing demand for conscripts encouraged the breakdown of old political structures and the rise of egalitarian systems.
The cases Boot uses to illustrate today's IT-based RMA -- Operations Desert Storm, Enduring Freedom, and Iraqi Freedom -- all involved U.S. forces. According to Boot, this is because the U.S. military has, so far at least, "gone the furthest fastest" in exploiting the new information technologies. It has outstripped all competitors by combining new and sophisticated hardware, volunteer professionals capable of using it, superb training under realistic conditions, and the right tactical doctrines. The result has been an enormous yield in conventional military power. Although the United States' economic power and "soft" power have also contributed to its strong global position, it is its military power -- based partly on the mastery of information technologies -- that truly distinguishes the country today.
According to Boot, however, the information revolution is still in its early stages, and thus the U.S. lead cannot be taken for granted. Although he doubts that any other country will challenge the United States across the full range of its military power anytime soon ("the entry barriers are simply too high," he writes), certain states and nonstate actors are already finding ways to pose new "asymmetric" threats. A case in point is Iraq's insurgents, who have found novel methods -- some high-tech, some not -- for countering the overwhelming power of U.S. forces. In this conflict as in the greater war on terrorism, writes Boot, "most of the expensive weapons being purchased by the U.S. and its allies are almost completely irrelevant."
How did the United States reach such an impasse in Iraq? Boot contends that part of problem has to do with the Bush administration's technocentrism: "Senior leaders, such as Donald Rumsfeld, believed that the future of warfare lay in high-tech information systems, not in lowly infantrymen," he writes. Presumably, Boot would favor a shift today toward more investment in those lowly infantrymen, as well as in military police and civil-affairs experts.
In a larger sense, Boot implies that the problems afficting U.S. forces in Iraq are a predictable way station on the road to further change. As defense experts like to say, "the enemy gets a vote" on a country's tactics in any conflict, and Iraq's insurgents have been "voting" by figuring out frustrating ways to counter U.S. military capabilities. But the adaptation process need not end there; instead, the U.S. military must react to the insurgents' adaptations with still further adaptations of its own. This is the standard action-reaction cycle that has characterized military encounters throughout history, and in Boot's view, technology can speed things along despite the people-intensive character of counterinsurgency and stability operations. "When combined with the right organization, doctrine, training, and leadership," he writes, "sophisticated weaponry can confer a decided advantage even in battling irregular foes."
His real worry is that the Pentagon's continued exploitation of the information revolution will be "hindered by a sluggish, bloated bureaucracy that has resisted countless reform efforts." Boot never fully explains why this bureaucracy, which has been sluggish and bloated for many years, did not hinder the U.S. military from moving so far and so fast in the first stage of the information revolution. But he suggests one reason: the bureaucracies of U.S. adversaries were even more sclerotic. On the other hand, "nimble, networked groups like al Qaeda may be better positioned than the United States to pursue today's brand of transformation into its next phase."
To counter such an advance, Boot favors the emergence of a flatter and more nimble bureaucracy in the United States. Pentagon reformers have tried to achieve just that for several decades, of course, and none has succeeded; indeed, the goal may be no more realistic today than it was in the past. Fortunately, Pentagon reform may prove to be less important for the next phase of the revolution than it was for the last one. This is because information technologies are a lot cheaper than tanks and aircraft; software can often be incorporated for free. In other words, at least some of the fruits of the information revolution can be spontaneously adopted by troops in the field, without waiting for orders from on high. In fact, this process is already occurring in Iraq, where, for example, unit-level Web-based networks have been created to help spread ideas, lessons, and tactics laterally across the force. The changes resulting from such efforts are only partly the result of plans hatched in the Pentagon; they also incorporate input from the bottom up. Such a two-way process will produce a certain amount of confusion, not only in the Pentagon but across units in the field. But it will ultimately redound to the U.S. military's great benefit.
Putting aside the bureaucracy issue, Boot also encourages the pursuit of change in seemingly undramatic ways: "History indicates that the wisest course is to feel one's way along with careful study, radical experimentation, and freewheeling war games. ... Revolutionary transformations often can be achieved in evolutionary increments." It helps to have real threats to plan against, he adds, and the United States currently faces plenty of those. Now it needs to start experimenting more freely to devise ways to meet them.
EYES ON THE PRIZE
Although Kagan, like Boot, is concerned with change in the military, in many ways his focus differs sharply. For starters, Kagan's concern is much narrower: he analyzes military developments over half a century, not half a millennium, and in the United States only, not around the globe. Kagan is also less concerned with RMAs as such. Although he recognizes that an IT-based RMA is taking place, he sees it in far more limited terms than does Boot, as a "precision-strike RMA" that is "extremely unlikely to add sufficient new capability to bring about another revolution" on the scale of past RMAs.
Kagan's interest lies in the more general notion of "transformation." Rather than clarify that word's meaning, however, he demotes it to its common usage of representing major change. This allows him to deal with a variety of changes the U.S. military either has undergone or should undergo. The result is a fast-paced, occasionally angry book with compelling recommendations for Washington.
Kagan's core theme has to do with what makes for a truly successful transformation of the military. He is concerned not with who is in charge -- he makes no mention of Boot's "efficient bureaucracy," for example -- but rather with how planning proceeds. The best military transformations, he argues, result from efforts to solve real tactical, operational, and strategic problems. "Attempts to change warfare through an inwardly focused transformation, looking only at one's own capabilities and programs," by contrast, "are unlikely to succeed." Thus, in his view, the U.S. military services transformed themselves very successfully in the years after the Vietnam War, when they confronted a serious Soviet threat. The "strategic pause" that followed the disappearance of that threat in 1991, on the other hand, allowed U.S. military planners to concoct an array of "transformational" schemes scarcely related to the realities of war. Kagan wants military planners and policymakers to reengage with the real world. To prod them along, he offers a daunting list of serious threats the United States now faces and a "transformed" way of planning to meet them.
Few would dispute Kagan's view of the U.S. military's painful but ultimately impressive post-Vietnam War recovery. This process involved the whole cluster of changes Boot associates with a successful RMA: the adoption of new technologies, the creation of a professional force able to use them, the evolution of new doctrine, and the implementation of more realistic training. Nor would anyone dispute Kagan's thesis that these advances were achieved mainly to counter the threat posed by Soviet forces, weapons, and doctrine. Still, it may seem strange to use the word "transformation" to refer to that process. Kagan himself acknowledges that few of the U.S. military planners working at the time thought they were "transforming" anything. They were simply trying to create forces able to take on an increasingly daunting Soviet Union -- and perhaps, he adds, to overcome the sense of having failed in Vietnam.
Planning clearly went astray, however, after the Soviet Union collapsed. Deprived of a massive threat and presented with new information technologies, defense planners and intellectuals spun out exotic theories of warfare increasingly divorced from reality. Kagan is especially scornful of two of these ideas: "network-centric warfare" and "shock and awe," both of which focused on "collapsing" enemy forces but paid no attention to the need to construct a positive set of political conditions after combat ended.
Driving this flight from reality was, in part, a view of airpower fed by the success of the 1991 Gulf War and pushed to extremes by interservice rivalry encouraged by shrinking defense budgets. Kagan places much value in the theories of John Warden, a retired air force colonel and airpower's most enthusiastic and articulate proponent, and is especially impressed with Warden's portrayal of the enemy as a "system" that can be "collapsed," rather than destroyed, with cleverly targeted and accurate bombing (and, one might add, by a rapid and unexpected attack by ground forces). But Kagan accuses Warden and other airpower advocates of overlooking the "important synergies between the [Gulf War's] ground operations and the air campaign" -- synergies that actually enhanced the power of the air attacks -- and of arguing instead that "airpower could win future wars by itself."
Perhaps this excessive emphasis on airpower in the 1990s was inevitable. IT clearly enhanced the effectiveness of air attacks by providing ways to find and hit targets with unparalleled accuracy. The result was an obvious and important increase in airpower's value in fighting wars.
IT's contribution to ground forces, on the other hand, was more problematic and harder to demonstrate. Although the U.S. Army integrated new information technologies into individual weapons during the Cold War, it was not until the early 1990s that the army, in its Force XXI program, began to experiment with the effects of networking on units and operations. Force XXI (under which the army "digitized" elements of a division at Fort Hood, Texas, to facilitate networked communications across units) was a great idea -- indeed, it gave the army many of the new and useful technologies that sped the invasion of Iraq in 2003 -- but its sizable expense brought it under near-constant attack from budget cutters seeking immediate results.
Late in the last decade, the army switched direction, setting out to create a lighter and more mobile force through its Stryker brigades and the ambitious Future Combat Systems, a program to develop networked brigades comprised of lighter vehicles. But because these vehicles were inevitably more vulnerable, the army had to plan to protect them with accurate, long-range firepower -- precisely what the air force offered to do, and from a safe altitude. Thus, "the Army ... consciously or unconsciously embrac[ed] the concept that war is nothing more than a targeting drill without recognizing that such a vision, whatever its merits, would make the Army less relevant than ever," Kagan explains.
Kagan points out that all of these improvements in ground and air capabilities have been useful mostly for taking on traditional armed forces in conventional combat -- not for war in its full political context, nor for the kinds of missions the United States finds itself engaged in today. Absent a compelling threat, defense thinkers and planners focused narrowly on the destructive power of emerging military capabilities and failed to remember what war really is: a political act aimed at producing a positive political outcome. Nowhere was this narrow focus more evident and tragic than in the Bush administration's failure to plan adequately for postcombat operations in Afghanistan or Iraq, or even to understand that the combat phase would inevitably affect the political circumstances after it.
This observation leads Kagan to a different kind of transformation: namely, the need for the U.S. military to change the way it plans for war. "Military operations of any scale must be planned from back to front," he writes. Planners should start with a vision of the political outcome they want to achieve and then work backward, being sure only to apply force in ways that encourage the desired outcome. Had this approach been applied to the invasion of Iraq, the Pentagon would at the very least have called for substantially more ground forces than were used to bring down Saddam Hussein. And the very operation itself might have been called into question.
Having emphasized the importance of linking military planning to real military challenges, Kagan closes his book with a list of threats that should guide Washington in the near future: China, Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan, among others. He adds as a general proposition that "regime-change wars," such as in Iraq and Afghanistan, are likely to remain an endemic feature of the war on terrorism. Thus, to the question of whether the United States will do in the aftermath of the Iraq war what it did after Vietnam -- pull out, say "never again," and focus on something else -- he gives a decisive no. The challenges Kagan outlines are simply too serious to ignore.
TRANSFORMATION AND TODAY'S WARS
Between them, Boot and Kagan lay out a depressingly long and demanding agenda for U.S. defense planners. Both imply that, to be effective, Washington must change the size, and not just the composition, of its armed forces. Kagan is right, for example, to predict more regime-change wars in the future; the current standoff with North Korea, for example, could easily lead to one, and could perhaps lead to a stability and counterinsurgency campaign as well. To ready the U.S. military for such tasks, Kagan calls for an increase in defense spending of at least one percent of GDP over the current level and the addition of 200,000 active-duty ground forces. Those hoping that transformation would shrink U.S. defense budgets will not be encouraged by this recommendation.
The real challenge the authors raise has to do with the character of U.S. forces. Both Boot and Kagan agree that the U.S. military currently has a strong preference for fighting high-tech conventional wars, and it deserves credit for doing this very well indeed. Inevitably, however, this specialization has prompted adversaries to pursue radical asymmetric responses, and the face of warfare may already be changing as a result. Indeed, adversaries such as North Korea and Iran may well be modifying their plans for conflict with U.S. forces based on what they see in Iraq. If it is to remain preeminent, the U.S. military must change as well.
Kagan's call for a back-to-front approach to planning points in just this direction. His idea is dead-on and applies to all conflicts, not just regime-change wars. If U.S. defense planners are going to start with the need to produce from conflicts more favorable sets of political circumstances, they will inevitably have to plan for postconflict stability operations as well. This would represent a marked change from recent practice, with profound implications for force structure and training. All services would have to develop so-called full-spectrum capabilities: namely, personnel, equipment, and training geared to a wide range of missions.
Accomplishing all of this will be a tall order and will require a deep cultural shift in the way the U.S. armed services think about conflict. For example, the military services have traditionally plotted the range of conflict as a smooth curve on a plot with only one important axis: that indicating the level of violence. They have assumed that forces able to operate at the high end of that curve could easily slip down the curve to take on lower-level contingencies. In actual practice, however, counterinsurgency, peacekeeping, and stability operations may not belong to the same curve at all; they differ from major conventional combat along several axes, some more important than the level of violence. The technologies required for these operations often differ markedly from those useful in conventional conflicts, as do the skills required and the mindsets involved. Whereas conventional conflicts call for decisive action, stability and counterinsurgency operations call for securing populations -- long-term projects in which the search for decisive blows can be counterproductive. Developing military leaders capable of slipping back and forth between these different mindsets, sometimes in the same day, will be a huge challenge.
The change to real full-spectrum forces may be the toughest transformation of them all. Already, however, the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq are forcing the U.S. military, especially its ground forces, not only to rebalance and reorganize but also to change the way it trains its troops and develops its leaders -- even as it continues to search for new and better technologies. Boot and Kagan both think the way forward lies in incremental decision-making based on the close study of real military challenges, careful technological innovation, and open-minded experimentation. That may not sound like "transformation" as Rumsfeld defined it. But, as both authors make clear, it is how successful transformations actually come about.
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