The president's recent speech about "military transformation" makes no sense.

Military analysis.
June 2 2005 5:51 PM

It's the Manpower, Stupid

The president's recent speech about "military transformation" makes no sense.

President Bush's May 27 commencement address at the Naval Academy was one of his strangest speeches. The U.S. military is approaching a genuine crisis—the iceberg looms before the Titanic—and here stood the commander in chief boasting of the new high-gloss deck chairs.

The speech received scant attention outside Annapolis; it was, by and large, the usual grab bag of platitudes, spilled out on the Friday before a holiday weekend. But tucked between the huzzah lines was a resuscitation of an idea that hasn't been mentioned much lately (for good reason): "military transformation." And this is where the oddities began.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan

Fred Kaplan is the author of The Insurgents and the Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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"Transformation," you may recall, was the buzzword in defense circles a mere two years ago. It was the slogan of a new concept of warfare, based on lighter, faster, more agile forces; smart bombs, aided by unmanned drones; and vast intelligence-and-communications networks that would coordinate all the elements of combat—land, sea, and air—under a single, joint command.

The invasion of Iraq at first seemed vindication—the blitz across the desert, the seamless interplay between airstrikes and ground maneuvers, the swift toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime by a surprisingly small assault force. But then came the shock that winning the battle did not mean winning the war; that for the next phase of fighting, old-school basics—rifles, armor, boots on the ground and lots of them—were more important than high-tech gizmos.

The military's big challenge today, it turns out, is not developing a new generation of weapons; it's finding a new generation of soldiers. Intoday's Slate, Phillip Carter and Owen West detail the stunning depths of this problem—not just the serious shortfalls in recruitment and retention (some of which have been documented elsewhere) but, more troubling, the drastic lowering of standards to keep the ranks from depleting still further.

One could excuse President Bush for skipping past these grim facts on the joyous occasion of a commencement ceremony. It was a day to make the graduating midshipmen feel proud and eager, not apprehensive or hesitant.

This is what the first half of the speech—the usual bromides about duty, honor, the war on terror, and so forth—accomplished. But then came the second half, with its focus on transformation, which he began by saying:

To meet the threats of the 21st century, we are developing new technologies that will make our forces faster, lighter, more agile and more lethal. In our time, terrible dangers can arise on a short moment anywhere in the world, and we must be prepared to oppose these dangers everywhere in the world.

He then enumerated just how much he has spent on these new technologies:

Since taking office, my administration has invested $16 billion to build transformational military capabilities. We've requested an additional $78 billion for these efforts over the next four years.