In recent days, Clinton partisans have sought to take credit for the U.S. military’s awesome performance to date in the war on terrorism. While there is no question that the armed forces have been using the equipment they had before President George W. Bush came to office, the truth is that very little of it was acquired during the eight years of the Clinton presidency.
In fact, as Loren Thompson discusses in a powerful op.ed. article that appeared in today’s Wall Street Journal, under Bill Clinton, the Pentagon was largely forced to take a procurement holiday — deferring or canceling outright long-overdue acquisitions of ships, planes, armored vehicles and other modernization programs. It is a tribute to the men and women in uniform, not their former Commander-in-Chief, that they have managed to make what is, in many cases, obsolescing equipment perform as well as it has in Operation Enduring Freedom.
It is also a testament to the character of the operations being performed thus far (i.e., largely by small numbers of special operations forces, backed by long-range ground-based and naval aviation using, and largely depleting, stocks of precision-guided munitions). The United States would be hard pressed with the post-Clinton military to conduct larger-scale combat in Afghanistan, to say nothing of doing so simultaneously there and in, say Iraq. That is the true and dangerous legacy of the Clinton stewardship over the defense portfolio.
As Mr. Thompson correctly points out, it will take additional funding — and lots of it — to rectify the years of often malign neglect the Pentagon has experienced over the past decade or so. Fortunately, one of the few positive repercussions of September 11 has been the sea-change in the political environment with respect to providing adequately for the armed forces and for homeland security. Now Congress will support what the Pentagon needs.
According to today’s New York Times, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has decided to take advantage of this changed circumstance and to forego ill-advised force- structure cuts and programmatic cancellations that would otherwise been required to pay for the "transformation" of the U.S. military and its operations worldwide. Secretary Rumsfeld is to be commended for his leadership. He should, however, set his sights higher.
While the $20 billion increase the Secretary is reportedly seeking will certainly help if applied to procurement of power projection priorities like the V-22 Osprey, long-range bombers, sea-based anti-missile systems and space control technologies, Mr. Rumsfeld should request — and President Bush should endorse — a sustained commitment of not less than four percent of Gross Domestic Product for the Defense Department starting in Fiscal Year 2003 (roughly a $49 billion increase over last year’s levels.) Such direction should end any further obstructionism on the part of OMB’s staff and ensure that Mitch Daniel’s recent guidance — to the effect that national security, homeland defense and the war on terrorism will command such resources as they require — will be faithfully implemented.
The Lessons of ‘Enduring Freedom’
By Loren B. Thompson
The Wall Street Journal, 7 January 2002
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has asked a Pentagon civilian panel to begin identifying the lessons learned from Operation Enduring Freedom. Although no one thinks the campaign against terrorism is over, the rout of the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan provides a point at which to pause and ask hard questions.
Naturally, there are problems with such studies. First, their findings tend to be kept secret, so outsiders seldom get a precise idea of what warfighting challenges were encountered. Second, they tend to focus on technical questions such as force coordination and bandwidth allocation. These are important for soldiers, but they aren’t the sort of strategic insights useful to most legislators and policymakers.
Real-world lessons are particularly important today, because the Bush administration is about to send Congress the first military budget that fully reflects its strategic vision. A key part of that vision involves changing investment priorities and organizational arrangements to cope with new challenges. The best way to judge the budget priorities is to see how they compare with actual warfighting experience.
The first lesson of Enduring Freedom is that it is impossible to know with certainty when and where new challenges will arise. Who could have predicted on Labor Day that in September the U.S. would suffer a devastating air attack on its homeland, followed by bioterrorism, and then wage war in one of the world’s most remote countries? During the early months of his tenure, Mr. Rumsfeld repeatedly reminded Congress of how frequently the nation has been surprised by events such as the attack on Pearl Harbor and North Korea’s invasion of the South. That is why he proposes a shift from a "threat-based" to a "capabilities-based" investment plan that stresses versatile, flexible forces.
Military leaders say they support flexibility but their investment plans favor some contingencies over others. For example, the Air Force’s plan to buy 2,000 fighters and no bombers during the next 25 years is well-suited to a world of many overseas bases and allies, but could be a serious error if the U.S. is forced to act alone in Southeast Asia or the Persian Gulf. The Army’s continued investment in heavy armor, while neglecting its helicopter fleet, also seems ill-suited to potential contingencies.
A second lesson is that despite recent innovations in military doctrine, organization and hardware, geography still matters. A century after Halford Mackinder identified central Asia as the key to control of Eurasia (and thus the world), the U.S. finds itself still trying to assure access to the vast oil reserves located near Mackinder’s "geographical pivot of history." Operation Enduring Freedom is essentially an extension of the effort to assure access, but one that has revealed deep-seated antipathy to a U.S. presence among many people in the region.
The current policy of depending on weak, nondemocratic regimes to provide base access is doomed to failure, in part because it aligns the U.S. with leaders who lack legitimacy. A transformational military posture must be able to enforce access despite the absence of regional allies or bases by combining long-range aircraft, sea-based forces and space assets in a decisive force-projection capability. That is not what America has today.
A third lesson is that the revolution in military affairs is real. Military leaders have been predicting for years that information technology will produce huge gains in warfighting capability. Enduring Freedom proves they are right. Missions that took days to plan in Desert Storm and hours in Kosovo now take minutes. Moreover, the precision with which the missions are executed is unprecedented. It took 835 B-29 flights to achieve a 4% damage of a Japanese aircraft-engine plant in 1944; today, a single sortie by a carrier-based plane could shut the plant down.
A critical feature in this military revolution is "network-centric" warfare. It requires continuous, high-speed communication among all elements of a fighting force so that information can be shared instantaneously. Eventually, the networking of forces will enable all units to possess a common picture of the battle area reflecting inputs from dozens of sources, including unmanned aerial vehicles like Global Hawk, spy satellites, and Special Forces on the ground. Enduring Freedom has shown that the promise of digital technology is rapidly being realized.
A fourth and related lesson is how important "jointness" is to military success. This is Pentagon jargon for unity of purpose, the ability of individual services to mesh closely in pursuit of common goals. It was reflected in many ways during Operation Enduring Freedom. Army Special Forces provided target coordinates to Air Force bombers because they had the capacity to communicate quickly and precisely. Air Force tankers provided aerial refueling to Navy fighters because they had compatible fuel systems. Marines exploited tactical information generated by all the other services because they had interoperable data links.
Mr. Rumsfeld has identified jointness and interoperability as key features of military transformation, because they produce real synergies among the services in wartime. It was not so long ago that each of the armed forces was striving for self-sufficiency in warfighting, an expensive and duplicative process. The Rumsfeld paradigm demands a more rational division of labor in which each service focuses on core competencies, providing those capabilities as needed to the joint force.
A fifth, more troubling, lesson concerns the consequences of past spending priorities. In the 1990s, the Pentagon stopped buying new military systems, and as a result the revolution in military affairs is being implemented with weapons that often seem more suited to museums. The B-52 bombers that dropped much of the Air Force’s ordnance on Afghanistan are 40 years old. So are the KC-135 tankers that refueled them. The carrier-based Prowler aircraft that jammed Taliban ground communications have their origins in the Korean War. So do the C-130 cargo planes and CH-47 helicopters that delivered Marines to Kandahar. The Marines’ main attack helicopter is Vietnam-vintage.
These systems may acquit themselves well in warfare in Serbia and Afghanistan, but one day the U.S. will again face a well-equipped and resourceful adversary. When that day comes, something more than the insertion of digital technology into decrepit airframes will be required. The best contribution Mr. Rumsfeld can make to U.S. military capability is to keep production of next-generation systems like the F-22 fighter and Comanche attack helicopter on track, rather than indulging in yet another "procurement holiday."
Power and Money
A final lesson from Enduring Freedom concerns the inescapable link between military power and money. It is a lesson that Mr. Rumsfeld and the military have already learned, but which the White House has not. Sept. 11 shows that peace is a fleeting condition, and that war is never far away. It is irresponsible to plan a military posture based on the presumption of amity, or early warning, or a predictability of threats. An administration that entered office convinced of the need to scale back overseas military commitments now seems more likely to expand them.
That means much more money for the military than the Office of Management and Budget seems inclined to give. The president’s Pentagon team spent most of the spring and summer in an impasse with the military because OMB wasn’t willing to provide enough money for both readiness and transformation. Why should warfighters have to make such a choice? The military needs sufficient resources to address today’s threats while simultaneously preparing for tomorrow’s challenges.
President Bush’s predecessors paid lip service to both goals while consistently underfunding investment in new weapons. That’s why the Air Force has only 21 stealthy long-range bombers, why the Navy’s fleet is steadily shrinking to less than half its Reagan-era peak, and why the Army can’t find money to replace Vietnam-era helicopters. "Asymmetric threats" aren’t just about terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, they’re about attacking America wherever it is weak. Unless the military receives more money, future enemies will have a diverse menu of targets from which to choose.
Mr. Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, teaches in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program and consults for the Pentagon.