Tuesday, June 17, 2003

The Shape of Things to Come


When the 20th century opened, the British Royal Navy had ruled the oceans, unchallenged, for more than a century. It had more then 150 steel warships, far more than it's nearest naval rival. There was only one problem: the technology existed to make them all obsolete. Rather than await events, Sir John Fisher, the First Sea Lord of the Admiralty in the years before World War I, decided to make all the King's warships obsolete before the King's enemies could. He built the revolutionary HMS Dreadnought, which set the naval tables back to zero. At a stroke, the world's navies would have to start from scratch using Dreadnought building-blocks.

Chuck Spinney argues that the United States cannot afford to modernize its Armed Forces because the sheer size of the defense establishment means it cannot be constantly renewed, any more than New York city can be razed and rebuilt every twenty years. Moreover, most of it's weapons were designed to fight armies like those of the former Soviet Union. So although the America spends as much as the next 20 powers combined, it's vast military legacy is ill suited to Fourth Generation Warfare, as exemplified by the Al-Qaeda attack on Manhattan on September 11, and finds itself in much the same position as the British Navy a century ago.

Rumsfeld the Destroyer

Enter Donald Rumsefeld, who may elect not to modernize the US military in any traditional sense at all, and choose, as Fisher did, to jettison the panoply of brightwork and sail and begin building anew from a totally new set of bricks. The political name for that effort is called transforming the military. Rumsfeld, like Fisher, is letting nothing stand in his way. Army Secretary Thomas White was forced to resign and retired Special Operations General Peter J. Schoomaker tapped to be US Army Chief of Staff in the furtherance of Rumsfeld's vision.

If making the US Armed Forces smaller sounds like a good idea, it is not without danger, says Phil Carter, who quotes outgoing General Eric Shinseki as saying, "Beware the 12 division strategy for a 10 division army". Carter says:

This note of caution should resonate around the Pentagon, because this is a real problem. America's military is stretched very thin right now, and Secretary Rumsfeld has proposed troop cuts and realignments which would cut it even further. I'm a huge fan of transformation and efficiency, wherever it can be done. But many missions require manpower -- boots on the ground -- to be accomplished. They can't be done with money or machines.

In the months following September 11, 2001, aircraft carriers like the Abraham Lincoln spent almost a year at sea, as much as a man-o'-war in Hornblower's day. Units like the 101st Division and the 3rd ID have not returned from Iraq, but are being kept there to perform new missions. And the unease is growing that, if revolution breaks out in Iran and there is trouble in North Korea, there will not be enough United States forces to go around. Although the United States is using French, Italian and German troops to perform second-tier missions like the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan in order to reserve American troops for real combat missions, it is cold comfort to those who must hold the line while the Armed Forces are being transformed.

The New Dreadnought and the End of Armies

Into what? Although there will always be a specialized  military organizations, there are suggestions that in the future, war-making will no longer be the exclusive function of soldiery. Entire societies will become weapon's systems in a way never formally recognized before. Although Victor Davis Hanson claims that, from ancient times, war has always been a contest of civilizations, traditional strategy never built an operational doctrine around the concept. But in a seminal work entitled Into the Fourth Generation  in 1989, five US officers predicted that terrorists would simply bypass each other's militaries and strike "directly at his homeland at civilian targets". In such a war, societies would be at war at many levels with each other, and ideas, beliefs and economies will be as important as weapons. Osama Bin Laden understood this, and killed 3,000 people in Manhattan. Donald Rumsfeld understands this too, and will battle the djinn in his cave.