War Stories

Is Rumsfeld Bored or Tired?

His latest, sad plan to transform the military.

In the fall of 2004, at the height of the Abu Ghraib torture scandals, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld resisted calls for his resignation mainly because, as the New York Times reported, he wanted to stay “until his main legacy—the transformation of the military—is well under way.” If that was the case, he might as well start packing now. Rumsfeld enters his sixth year in office with his legacy clouded, his concept of “transformation” upended, his whole cupboard of grand concepts laid bare.

Next month, the secretary is scheduled to release his 2005 Quadrennial Defense Review. His last such review, put together at the end of 2001, glistened with ideas for realigning the armed forces to fit a new era of tight budgets, loose alliances, and high technology. Judging from scattered press leaks, his new QDR is looking like a tired hodgepodge—a little from Option A, a little from Option B, none of it very consistent, all of it bloated beyond what the budget can contain.

It has already been noted that Rumsfeld plans to cut 34,000 troops from the Army’s ranks—despite the widespread recognition that there aren’t enough troops to fulfill the military’s missions—in order to protect weapons systems that contribute to his concept of transformation. Yet even here Rumsfeld is oddly inconsistent. Of all the weapons systems that could help achieve his beloved transformation, he proposes to kill one of the most useful: the C-17 cargo-transport aircraft.

Transformation,” an idea that started percolating in the Pentagon in the early 1990s and that Rumsfeld endorsed with great enthusiasm soon after he entered office in 2001, has essentially two elements. First is the idea that advanced technology, super-accurate munitions, and strategies that emphasize maneuver more than mass allow the military to fight and win wars with far fewer soldiers. Second is the idea that, in the post-Cold War era, the United States may need to project power on short notice, to far-flung regions of the world, including some where we lack allies or bases.

The war in Iraq has revealed some problems with this concept. It turned out that a small, light force can overthrow an old regime, but it can’t impose or stabilize a new one. High tech, smart bombs, and maneuver warfare are of little help in postwar occupations: They take old-fashioned boots on the ground and lots of them.

But the second element of the idea has some validity, and the C-17 is essential to that element. It is the only cargo plane that can carry heavy-combat equipment from the United States to just about anyplace in the world—and touch down on a short, grassy landing strip. If the United States needs to send an effective fighting force to some remote area, all alone, right away, the C-17 is the only thing we’ve got.

The Air Force has already budgeted for 180 C-17s (and built 141 of them), but the plan—which Rumsfeld has endorsed in the past—was to build 250. Is 180 enough? Not being privy to official war-mobilization plans, I don’t know. Some insiders say it is; others say it isn’t. But the point here is that it’s unclear where Rumsfeld is going. He’s cutting troops to save transformation, but he’s also compromising transformation.

Sources say the QDR will also call for closing down the program to maintain B-52 and B-1 bombers, as well as phasing out the F-117 stealth attack plane. Again, this is baffling. The B-52 and B-1 were built during the Cold War and designed to drop nuclear bombs on the Soviet Union, but they’ve come in very handy lately—in Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq—dropping huge loads of conventional weapons, including “smart bombs,” and they’re able to do so from bases as far as 10,000 miles away. (During the Kosovo war, there were stories of B-1 pilots taking off in the morning from the American Midwest, flying to Central Europe, dropping their bomb loads, and flying back home in time for dinner.) The F-117, with its radar-deflecting design features, has been the ideal plane for an air war’s first mission—flying in at night, undetected, and destroying enemy air-defense sites, to pave the way for the non-stealth fighters and bombers to follow.

The B-52 and B-1 are getting old, but since they tend to drop their smart bombs from 15,000 feet—out of range of most air-defense weapons—their age hasn’t rendered them obsolete. The F-117 is still a fairly new airplane, though. It’s ludicrous to start phasing it out.

These phase-outs can’t be blamed entirely on Rumsfeld. The main push is coming from the top tier of Air Force officers, who are so keen to get two new stealth combat planes on line—the F-22 and the F-35 (the latter of which is still in research and development)—that they’re willing to squeeze everything else in their arsenal.

This may seem odd. The F-22 and F-35 were designed as fighter aircraft—planes to shoot down other planes. Originally, they were to be loaded only with air-to-air missiles. As the Cold War ended, and the world seemed suddenly lacking in enemies with huge air forces, the planes were given the capability to drop bombs on the ground, as well. But these are small, lightweight planes, so, in addition to its air-to-air missiles, F-22s can carry just two smart bombs apiece. And because they have relatively small fuel tanks, they can’t fly very far. (Theoretically, they could be refueled in midair, over and over, but they’re not meant to be long-range aircraft.)

The fact is, the U.S. Air Force continues to be dominated by old-time fighter pilots, the crusty adventurers of Top Gun. They haven’t had a new fighter plane since the F-15 and F-16, which first entered the fleet in the mid-1970s (though both planes have been repeatedly—and extensively—modified ever since); and they’ve waited long enough for a new one. They’ve never been very interested in cargo-transport planes (which are used mainly to ship Army equipment overseas). And dropping bombs at 15,000 feet, from planes older than their pilots, doesn’t have much appeal.

Now to reveal what’s really going on here: This whole debate about weapons and missions, which is being staked out in advance of the QDR, is a piece of theater, a bit of a fraud. The C-17 really isn’t going to be killed, because it’s made by the Boeing plant in Long Beach, Calif. If the C-17 shuts down, so will the plant. The California delegation in Congress—assisted by mutual back-scratchers from other states—won’t allow that to happen. And Rumsfeld knows this. It’s like the old trick where the National Park Service is pushed to cut costs, and they propose shutting down the Washington Monument. They know it’s going to be added back in.

(Whether the B-1 and F-117 get rescued is less clear. As for the B-52, probably not; nobody’s making money off the old Stratofortress anymore.)

In other words, it’s all politics and gamesmanship—contracts, constituents, and institutional imperatives. So it has always been in military budgets, to some degree, and it may be naive to expect otherwise. Still, Rumsfeld came into the Pentagon five years ago revved up to instill new ideas (whether good, bad, or mixed is another matter), and in his most threatened hours, he has insisted on staying in power in order to push those ideas into reality. But if those ideas are as weak as they seem to be, it’s time to start asking what he’s still doing over there across the Potomac.