"Military transformation"? Mission not-yet-accomplished.
An article in last Sunday's New York Times, musing on which Cabinet officers might stay or leave in a hypothetical second Bush term, reported that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld would like to remain, in part to avoid the appearance of admitting guilt over Abu Ghraib and other catastrophes, but also for another reason. As the piece put it: "He also wants to stay until his main legacy—the transformation of the military—is well under way."
The striking thing about this sentence is that Rumsfeld has done so little to push this legacy in the four years that he's been in office. Another puzzle worth contemplating: Given the quagmire that Iraq has become in the 18 months after the genuinely stunning battlefield victory, is Rumsfeld's brand of transformation—even if it were put in place—the sort of transformation that the U.S. armed forces really need?
"Military transformation"—remember the phrase? It was all the rage in the spring of '03. It's a theory of warfare that envisioned lighter, faster, more agile, yet also more lethal combat forces. And it seemed vindicated by the back-to-back toppling of the Taliban in Afghanistan and then of Saddam in Iraq.
The theory took hold in certain quarters of the Pentagon in the mid-1980s, with the development of new "precision-guided munitions"—popularly known as "smart bombs"—that could destroy enemy targets with a single shot, as opposed to the dozens of attempts required in olden times. Some analysts realized that these PGMs—combined with higher-resolution intelligence sensors and more rapid communications networks—meant victory could be achieved with much smaller forces. We wouldn't need so much heavy armor and artillery, for example, if enemy forces could be knocked out from the air. Since armor and artillery require elaborate and usually sluggish supply lines, armies could now take the offensive more quickly and potently, bursting through the holes in enemy defenses, then surprising, surrounding, and killing the enemy troops that remain before moving on to the next face-off.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—at least in the initial battlefield phases—fit this pattern of transformation, and Rumsfeld deserves credit for making it so.
However, transformation is a concept not just for military operations but also for military budgets and institutions. It was always assumed that the new style of operations could not be sustained for long without a vast overhaul of the Pentagon itself. This latter overhaul Rumsfeld has barely begun to undertake. At the start of the Bush presidency, Rumsfeld seemed clear on what had to be done. In his "quadrennial defense review" of 2001, he wrote that without such a transformation in management, mission priorities, and weapons procurement, "the current defense program will only become more expensive to maintain over time," and we will "forfeit many of the opportunities" that the new technologies have made possible.
Three years later, that's exactly what has happened. The military establishment has become more expensive to maintain—its budget has risen from $362 billion to $420 billion (not including the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan)—but the extra money has purchased little in the way of "transformational" combat power.
Rumsfeld has changed a few things. He canceled the Army's Comanche helicopter. With the enthusiastic backing of President Bush, he's added billions of dollars to missile defense. And he has purchased a lot of drones and smart bombs. Beyond that, in the words of a report from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments—a Washington think tank directed by Andrew Krepinevich, a former Pentagon official who invented the phrase "military transformation"—Rumsfeld's programs "fairly closely resemble those of previous years and the plan … inherited from the Clinton administration."
Nearly all the big-ticket items in the fiscal year 2005 military budget—which a House-Senate conference committee approved this month—have nothing to do with transformation, nothing to do with any threat on the horizon. Look at them:
- $4.1 billion for 24 F-22 stealth fighter planes—at a time when our prospective enemies can barely fly fighter planes, much less shoot down our non-stealth aircraft;
- $4.3 billion for continued development of the F-35 Joint Strategic Fighter, a smaller version of the F-22;
- $2 billion for a new "Super Hornet" version of the F/A-18 fighter plane;
- $2.3 billion for a new Virginia-class nuclear-powered attack submarine, at a time when our Navy faces virtually no threat and possesses more subs than it knows what to do with.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Photographs of: Donald Rumsfeld by Susan Walsh/Reuters.