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.

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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.

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).

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.