Saturday, May 07, 2005

Back to the Future

Max Boot describes on vision of 21st century US forces: the 19th century British Army. In Foreign Affairs article (hat tip: MIG), Boot argues that while Iraq has shown US forces to be masters at blitzkrieg, they were less than adept at handling guerilla war. To remedy that, he suggests looking to the past.

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 old British Army, he says enjoyed four advantages: a technological edge over their native opponents; an army optimized for colonial fighting; a system of native auxiliaries; and "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." One way to pay for the transformation, Boot suggests, is to abandon certain highly expensive weapons programs -- like the F-22 -- an investing in more and better ground troops and equipment, understanding that these ground troops will be better not merely as fighters, but as linguists and nation builders.

The immediate objection that comes to mind is the fate of the 19th century British Army itself. The splendid colonial force was shredded by its first encounters with a technologically equal enemy as it went to war against the Boers at the turn of the century, then later against the Germans in the First and Second World Wars. The British Army could not in the end prepare itself to fight against opposite ends of the spectrum with equal success. The close order tactics developed in the colonial wars (for force protection) were to spell their doom when confronted by the Mauser rifles and automatic cannon of the Boers. The real challenge is to transform the US military in ways that will make it effective both against terrorist tactics and a conventional threat, like China's, where an F-22 may have some worth.