War Stories

Rumsfeld’s Legacy

“Military transformation”? Mission not-yet-accomplished.

The Transformer? Not quite.

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.

The list could go on. (Click here if you want it to.)

Military operations are now run through joint commands—i.e., as interservice endeavors. (U.S. Central Command, or Centcomm, which ran the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is one of these joint enterprises.) But military budgets are still devised, weapons are still purchased, and priorities are still set by the individual services—Army, Air Force, and Navy. (The Marines are part of the Navy, but they’ve been allowed increasing autonomy on these matters.) Overall military budgets have gone up and down, at varying rates, over the past 20 years—but none of the services has had its apple cart toppled.

For instance, look at the three services’ allocations in the FY 2005 military budget that Congress just passed. The Army received $114 billion, the Navy $123 billion, and the Air Force $124 billion. (The total sum, $361 billion, does not include money for other Defense Department agencies or for the Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons divisions.) This amounts to 32 percent for the Army, 34 percent for the Navy, 34 percent for the Air Force.

Now look at the Pentagon’s archive for fiscal year 1994, the Clinton administration’s first military budget. The relative shares are nearly identical: 30 percent for the Army, 36 percent for the Navy, 34 percent for the Air Force.

In fact, go back to fiscal year 1984. It’s 29 percent for the Army, 35 percent for the Navy, 36 percent for the Air Force. Go back to nearly any year in the past quarter-century, and you’ll see the same pattern. This is no coincidence. This reflects an informal accord among the service chiefs on how to divvy up the budget, and anyone who disturbs this arrangement can count on unleashing a storm of backbiting dissent and bureaucratic warfare.

In short, partly for reasons beyond the control of all but the most tenacious defense secretaries (and it looks as though Rumsfeld, for all his bluster, will not join those ranks), “military transformation” has not begun to gain a grip on the bowels of the Pentagon.

But let’s take another look at where the theory, to some degree, has been put into practice—in actual military tactics and operations. The question, to put it on the table again: Is this the right sort of transformation? It worked in Iraq and Afghanistan as long as the mission was to plow into opposing armies and topple a regime. However, the current mission is what the military calls “security and stabilization operations.” And the doctrine of transformation seems to have no bearing on this phase of conflict whatsoever.

The point of transformation is to fight mobile, high-tech wars with fewer troops. Yet, as everyone has by now recognized, occupying, securing, and stabilizing conquered territory is a fairly static, decidedly low-tech enterprise that requires almost nothing but troops—the more, the better.

There’s a false nomenclature, used by officials and critics alike, about the war in Iraq. It is misleading to say that we’re in danger of “winning the war but losing the peace.” We are not embroiled in some “postwar” operation. We’re still embroiled in a war—the same war that started in March 2003. One of the saddest stories about this war was told in a Knight-Ridder piece this past weekend. Shortly before the invasion of Iraq got underway last year, a group of military and intelligence officers met at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina to watch a slide show that laid out the details of the finished war plan. The final slide was the shocker. Labeled “Phase 4-C” (meaning the phase for security and stabilization), the slide read: “To be provided.”

It’s not that Rumsfeld had no plan to win the peace. He had no plan to win the war.

This is not to put the onus entirely on Rumsfeld. The U.S. Army used to have large units specializing in civil affairs and military police. They dwindled in size and importance during the Cold War, when the strategy of war-fighting became subordinate to the business of weapons procurement. It has also been a very long time since any branch of the armed forces published a field manual on post-combat operations. At the end of an Army war game played in 2002, retired Gen. Huba Wass de Czege—one of the game’s managers—wrote a memo complaining that the players finished the game before it was really over. They confused triumph on the battlefield with the accomplishment of strategic objectives. It’s a common mistake in these war games, Gen. Wass de Czege wrote, which “tend to devote more attention to successful campaign-beginnings than to successful conclusions.” A few months later, the real commanders would make the same mistake in the real war.

And so, Rumsfeld or whoever replaces him needs to think about a different sort of transformation, one that emphasizes better planning, training, mobilizing, and equipping for the kinds of wars we’re really fighting now.