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Battling for the military’s future

By Thomas A. Cardamone Jr.
Special to the National Catholic Reporter

The competing factions have defined their objectives and are positioning themselves for the impending clash ahead. Some of the world’s finest military minds are planning for a battle whose outcome is far from apparent. No less than the nation’s security is at stake. The potential casualties, at this juncture, are incalculable.

The narrative above is not a newspaper report from some turbulent developing nation. Nor is it the beginning of a new Tom Clancy thriller. Rather, it describes the brewing battles that are taking shape in the corridors of the Pentagon.

Ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, with numerous unpredictable and violent events in the intervening years acting as a catalyst, U.S. military strategists have begun to contemplate what the likely opponent of the future will be. And, as a consequence, the theorists are trying to discern what types of weapons will be needed to dominate that opponent.

As might be expected of an institution that has a $268 billion budget and a civilian and active military work force of about 2 million, change will not come quickly or cheaply. Entrenched bureaucracies and competing opinions about the very nature of the future threat will prevent any rapid change in force structure.

However, changes in the military’s structure, some say, are vital to the nation’s future security. Decisions made in the next few years could have a far-reaching effect on the types of foreign operations the military can undertake and the funding levels the taxpayer will be required to allocate toward the Pentagon.

Tactics and technology

The task at hand is formidable. During World War I it took the European armies years to adjust their tactics to early 20th-century technology -- primarily the machine gun. Millions died when, using mid 19th-century tactics, continuous waves of human flesh charged well-hidden guns that fired a torrent of singeing metal. In World War II, France’s static Maginot Line became a new symbol of laughably outdated tactics. The Nazi blitzkrieg simply out-flanked the French defenses and took Paris in short order. However, despite these tactical lags, the general concept of waging war had not changed a great deal in the previous 100 years -- that is, massive armies would move across national borders in order to take and hold new territory.

Today’s Pentagon can’t simply adjust its tactics to keep pace with technology because war fighting isn’t as clear-cut as in the past. In the last decade American military personnel have been involved in several distinctly different types of operations. From the desert battles of the Gulf War, street-to-street fighting in Mogadishu, Somalia, peacekeeping operations in Bosnia, to the air campaign over Serbia, U.S. forces have had to rely on myriad capabilities, including heavy armor and high-tech fighter planes as well as the training and discipline of ground troops under fire.

And although the United States is at the forefront of technological advances in military equipment, defense planners face a doubly difficult quandary. They must try to anticipate what types of wars are likely to be fought in the new century and then decide which of the currently available technologies can be used and updated, which must be jettisoned and which of those on the drawing board should be funded.

So while the Pentagon has the wealth to build the equipment it needs, the equipment it needs could very well be dictated by the whims of a Somali clan leader. According to Andrew Krepinevich, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, “The principal challenge to our security isn’t fiscal, it’s strategic.” Simply spending more money “won’t help,” Krepinevich said. Rather, the question is: Are we building the right kind of force?

Moreover, according to a report released in September 1999 by a special commission mandated by the secretary of defense, the threats could evolve still further over the next 10 years. Among the 14 conclusions listed by the report’s authors (including a team of analysts led by former Sens. Gary Hart and Warren Rudman), several make the case for creating a military force with a new outlook. The study, called “New World Coming: American Security in the 21st Century,” noted:

  • “America will become increasingly vulnerable to [a] hostile attack on our homeland;”
  • Proliferation of new technologies “will create new vulnerabilities for U.S. security;”
  • “Excellent intelligence [gathering ability] will not prevent all surprises.”

As if to underline the seriousness of their endeavor, the authors said, “The essence of war will not change.” They say that in the future war “will not be like a video game,” and they make the chilling prediction that some future conflicts could include “levels of violence shocking to our sensibilities.”

The three scenarios

Although the Cold War is long over, thus far the Pentagon has lived up to the old maxim that armies prepare to fight the last war. Specifically, the Defense Department continues to purchase and design expensive weaponry to fight great land and sea battles. Indeed, the Air Force’s $64 billion F-22 fighter program, the Navy’s $60 billion New Attack submarine fleet and the Army’s plan to spend $22 billion for a massive 110-ton Crusader howitzer are all glaring examples of equipment needed to fight an opponent like the former Soviet Union.

This approach represents a “stay the course” plan. The basic thinking is that the United States has the best-trained and best-equipped military in the world, so there’s no great impetus to create a massive upheaval to change the way business has been done for decades. Surely the United States will continue to be at the forefront of technological development, but a substantial shift in strategy isn’t likely in the near term. This philosophy, of course, ignores the conclusions of the “New World Coming” report, which suggests, “the mix and effectiveness of overall American capabilities need to be rethought and adjusted.”

While there would be little structural upheaval at the Pentagon if the status quo is maintained, the cost considerations could still be substantial. Some analysts believe that by 2005, when many of the new weapon systems enter service, defense costs could rise $30 to $40 billion per year above the current $268 billion to cover production costs. And at a time when some Capitol Hill lawmakers, such as Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), begin attacking production funds for the F-22 due to performance concerns, as happened last September, it is unclear if legislators would permit such a steep increase.

A second option would speed up the pace and scope of new technologies being incorporated into the military but essentially assumes that future threats won’t radically change. This concept, dubbed “even more of the same” by defense analyst John Pike at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, would create a more efficient airlift capability to get its heavy equipment to the battlefield more quickly. This would help to counter criticisms levied during the Kosovo crisis where it took weeks to get Apache helicopters to the theater of operations.

An example of this type of capability was outlined in an October speech by Gen. Eric Shinseki, chief of staff of the Army, who said that by using “strategic mobility,” his goal would be the ability to transport 10,000 to 15,000 soldiers and their equipment anywhere in the world in just five days. When compared to the time it took to get troops to the gulf during Desert Shield in 1991, such a transport rate is a tremendously difficult task.

Shinseki also noted he wants to “transform the Army” to create a “strategically responsive force that is dominant across the full spectrum of operations.” Specifically, he wants to maintain the current mix of heavy divisions, which contain tanks and other large firepower, and light divisions comprised of more mobile infantry troops. While the general noted that by using new technology and strategy these divisions would be more effective than they are today, the basic assumption is that the types of weaponry will not change.

But, if you do that “you’ll build the wrong kind of force,” according to Krepinevich. The proliferation of missile technologies, he said, will render heavy tanks and other equipment vulnerable at the point of entry. “You’ll be moving equipment more quickly into an ambush -- it’ll be like Omaha Beach,” Krepinevich said.

The other downside is the cost: Some analysts say the Pentagon would need to add $100 billion per year to the budget to achieve such a rapid increase in equipment and mobility -- an amount of money which, in the current climate, is politically untenable.

A third option, advocated by Krepinevich, would not “just add technology but change the way it works -- prepare for different sorts of threats.” Over the next 10 years security challenges will change, he and others believe. They are likely to include not only conventional opponents but also unconventional or “asymmetrical” threats such as electronic warfare and chemical and biological weapons proliferation.

A mobile force

Among the ideas put forth to defend against these threats is the development of a more mobile, long-range force. For example, the number of aircraft carrier battle groups could be reduced to 10 from the current 12. In their place would be smaller ships that fire Tomahawk missiles with a range of 1,000 miles. This approach would keep pilots out of harm’s way while maintaining a deep-strike force capability with a fraction of the personnel. Adherents to such a plan believe these types of adjustments would add just $5 to $10 billion to the Pentagon budget.

Others however, are not so sure there is fertile ground at the Defense Department for such a radical departure from current practices. Pike of the Federation of American Scientists said that since the current force is “so substantial, there is no incentive for innovation.” As an example, Pike noted that a concept to build an “arsenal ship” for the Navy, which would be a floating missile launch system with 500 missiles on board and a crew of just 50 sailors, was squashed as too revolutionary.

Nevertheless, it is likely that the next president will have to make some tough decisions about the form and function of the national security structure early in his first term. According to the “New World Coming” study, the stakes are rising. “The evidence suggests,” the report noted, “that threats to American security will be more diffuse, harder to anticipate, and more difficult to neutralize than ever before.” Further, despite a dynamic economy, the government’s pot of money is not limitless. In that light, the next election takes on an added importance.

Thomas Cardamone is a project director at the Council For A Livable World Education Fund in Washington.

National Catholic Reporter, January 28, 2000