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.

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Several things are odd about these numbers. First, they're vague to the point of meaninglessness. "Transformation" has come to be defined in many ways. When Donald Rumsfeld declared it the key goal of his tenure as defense secretary, his chiefs and bureaucrats responded by labeling all of their most cherished weapons programs as "transformational." Some lists have included the missile-defense program (an idea that goes back to the 1950s) and the F-22 (which, as a short-range fighter plane, hardly qualifies as a weapon that can meet dangers "on a short moment anywhere in the world"). I have been unable to come up with a mix of transformational weapons, by any definition, that adds up to $16 billion for the last four years or $78 billion for the next four. When I asked the White House for assistance, a spokesman referred me to the Pentagon; when I asked the Pentagon, a spokesman referred me to the White House.

Second, whatever's inside these numbers, they're not very impressive. The Defense Department's combined budgets for the four years since Bush took office amount to $1.5 trillion. If $16 billion has been invested in transformation, that comes to just 1 percent of the total. (Or, if we take literally Bush's comment that he's invested $16 billion "to build" such capabilities, it still amounts to just 6 percent of the $269 billion procurement budget.) And while the next four years' $78 billion is a heftier sum, that's still just 4 percent of the $1.8 trillion in the budget plans for fiscal years 2006-09 (and 20 percent of the $376 billion planned for procurement).

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No, a look at the overall defense budget reveals not much transformation. The money is divvied up among the three services in almost exactly the same ratios as it's been divvied up for the last several decades—30 percent to the Army, 35 percent to the Air Force, 35 percent to the Navy. This bureaucratic reality, and not any overarching strategy, is what drives, always has driven, and (short of a true "revolution in military affairs") always will drive the Pentagon's decision-making. (For more on this point, click here.)

Finally—and here we return to the mismatch between Bush's vision and the grim realities—transformation and high-tech weaponry are no substitutes for manpower. In fact, they require more manpower—especially better-educated, more highly skilled manpower. The new synergy between smart bombs, satellite intelligence, and computerized communications worked as well as it did during the first phase of the Iraq war precisely because the American troops were so highly skilled and educated. About 95 percent of the U.S. military's recruits had graduated from high school. They also scored much higher on aptitude tests than their civilian counterparts.

The deterioration of these standards is what the military's real crisis is all about. Even if transformation were really the driving force behind Pentagon planning and spending—even if the weapons envisioned actually existed and worked, even if the concept were wise to begin with—none of it would matter unless the manpower crisis, the military's real crisis, were solved first.