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Military Transformation

DLC | Blueprint Magazine | January 1, 2000
Buying Smart
By Keith B. Bickel

Table of Contents

Ten years after the Cold War's end, the United States military has settled on what could be called Cold War Lite. We have a fighting machine that, while somewhat slimmed down, is still trained, equipped, and structured to fight a peer enemy (Russia) in a bipolar world under wide-open geographic conditions, like the plains of central Europe or the deserts of the Middle East.

Yet these are the least likely war scenarios we face today. We are not likely to find another enemy as obliging as Iraq was to fight us using Soviet military doctrine and technology under the ideal conditions of the Persian Gulf deserts. After all, Desert Storm was the son of all Cold War battles - the Fulda Gap moved to the Euphrates delta. Instead, the world today is in the midst of dramatic changes that will lead us not just to more small-scale humanitarian interventions, but to "high-end" warfare characterized by lighter, faster, stealthier weaponry.

In 1940, a similar dramatic shift occurred. France thought it had the right defense for the right time and place in its Maginot Line. Perfectly positioned for static trench warfare, France was taken by surprise when Hitler introduced what the military calls an asymmetric counter, or unexpected response: the Blitzkrieg. Fast-moving German Panzers and Stuka dive-bombers transformed warfare and vanquished France in six weeks. The cost of being unprepared for an unforeseen use of new technology was devastating.

At century's end, the United States likewise faces a dramatically shifting threat paradigm which raises major questions in military planning: Will we continue to write budgets that tinker at the margins of old ones, or will we fundamentally rethink how we spend today's money for tomorrow's warfare? If we don't make the latter choice, we could see ourselves falling behind the curve of modern warfare and - worst case - even losing our superpower status with its global reach and credibility.

Two forces in the military planning community and in Congress are currently in conflict over which choice to make. One force is driven by the traditionalists who continue to invest in what is essentially an upgraded, modernized version of a Cold War military. This static approach is partially a product of service rivalries - each general and admiral wants an arsenal as good and big as his peers'. The debate is also mired in classic political maneuvering: Members of Congress defend the existing interests, and the defense contracts, of their constituents. The political inertia reinforces the military inertia.

Against this way of thinking, a second force consists of the defense modernizers who favor "leap-ahead" technologies and see a different kind of warfare in America's future. This school of military thought no longer considers massed forces and overwhelming firepower as the key indices of future military superiority. It recognizes that proliferation of missile technology and advances in commercial surveillance and communications will soon allow our adversaries, even the poorer ones, to level ' the playing field against us. The Pentagon's Defense Science Board has concluded that even nations with austere, Third-World budgets can create a formidable missile force. With off-the-shelf satellite imagery available for commercial downloading, they will be able to see what we see and strike from long distances with precision weaponry - without investing in the heavy armored forces, air fleets or carrier navies that only great powers can afford. These future competitors need not own expensive platforms and the associated infrastructure to frustrate U.S. war aims and deny us the ability to aid allies. They just need to invest in technologies that exploit our weaknesses. Think Milosevic with missiles.

This raises profound questions about weapons procurement and how we shape our defense budgets for the coming century. The answers are not obvious even to the modernizers, since it is not simply a matter of tilting the funding away from heavy armor toward high tech. Indeed, the answer lies not in selecting this or that piece of hardware or even software. It lies not in one weapons platform or another - not even in one doctrine or another. It lies instead in accepting uncertainty.

The salient feature of the Cold War was certainty; we lived in a bipolar world with a clear set of threats: land warfare in Europe, nuclear attack by intercontinental missiles, a possible invasion of Korea or Taiwan. Today the type of warfare we face is already changed; Kosovo, East Timor, or Rwanda may preoccupy us more than Russia or China. Tomorrow it will change even more. But the fact is that we do not know exactly what it will look like; our potential adversaries can be countries (North Korea) or terrorists (Hamas) or an eccentric billionaire with a messianic mission (Osama bin Laden). In short, we live in uncertainty.

To hedge against uncertainty, we must invest in multiple research and development (R&D;) streams that ensure success on some fronts despite failures in others and that give us the flexibility to deal with constantly shifting military asymmetries. We must go down many research roads at once. And we must be willing to pay the price by reversing the continued decline in our R&D; budgets, which have slid below 12 percent of military spending. Instead, these budgets should be increased by 50 percent or more.

Beyond giving ourselves a range of choices at the end of a typical 10- to 20-year R&D; cycle, investing in a variety of military options will keep our adversaries off balance. They will be unable to foresee, as they so easily can today, the architecture of our strengths (e.g., stealthy aircraft, tank-on-tank warfare) and weaknesses (e.g., our inability to insert armored ground forces overseas rapidly). By keeping our planning trends open-ended across a broad front, we will force them likewise to make choices, not knowing where we will end up when it comes time to buy and deploy the fruits of our R&D.; This is the dynamic approach necessary to military superiority in the 21st century.

A key advantage of this dynamic of uncertainty is that it helps us avoid three R&D; pitfalls: lock-in, false starts, and "silver bullets."

  • Lock-in is the error of having tied one's future too tightly to a single technology or weapons system that suddenly becomes obsolete - unexpectedly overtaken by another breakthrough. All one's eggs are then in the wrong basket.
  • False starts are research paths that don't pan out. Thus the importance of simultaneously pursuing multiple options, with the necessary budget support, in the full understanding that some programs will hit dead ends.
  • The "silver bullet" approach is expecting too much from a single big idea - such as missile defenses. Today's revival of the national missile defense program runs the risk of seeming to congressional budget-makers like a silver bullet, or panacea, for the future. Worse, concentrating too big a share of the R&D; budget on missile defense could generate a fourth pitfall - allowing one segment to hog all the money, thus limiting the dynamism and variety of our research program.

Promoting dynamic uncertainty is an asymmetric counter to the weaker players' strategy of neutralizing our strength with their own novel strategies. Choosing the other path - continued procurement of weapons designed for an outdated strategic reality - deprives us of this dynamism and creates the risk that currently envisioned weapons will not survive in future battle environments. Rather than creating bigger and better successor weapons to our existing arsenal, we should be doing research "out of the box." The new weapons for a new threat will probably tend toward lean and swift rather than slow and mighty. Instead of another 70-ton M-1 Abrams tank that is unable to move through the narrow streets of Kosovo villages, planners should be looking at a 20-ton, high-speed, stealthy tank with long-range strike capabilities. Instead of a new, large, manned bomber, we should develop more small, unmanned bombers with sophisticated digital targeting systems.

Dynamic uncertainty requires a dramatic increase in the role of software, satellite communications, and real-time reconnaissance. This will mean that military R&D; will increasingly dovetail with commercial research for civilian applications. Already Microsoft, whose products are as ubiquitous as ballpoint pens in everyday life, is a major defense contractor.

Businesses understand the dynamic of innovation in the fluid environment of the marketplace. Changing opportunities and emerging threats force them to hedge their risks - known and unknown - by investing in new capabilities. Unlike the military, however, businesses can adapt in at least three ways. One is to boost internal R&D; spending to create new technologies or products, some of which will prove useful while others will remain on the shelf. The famed AT&T; and IBM laboratories are examples of this approach. Another way is to buy other companies that have conducted the R&D; already, so that the firm can focus on integrating the results into its own product lines. Major pharmaceutical companies engage in this behavior when they take over start-up bio-tech firms that successfully patent a new drug but don't have the resources to bring it to market. Finally, firms can buy new capabilities outright, which usually means buying other companies that have the new capabilities - product and marketing - fully developed. Microsoft did this when it bought the company that created Hotmail, the now-famous free Internet-based e-mail program.

The Defense Department can effectively mimic only the first of these options, in the hope that its R&D; will produce the right capabilities. But without hedging, that is a high-risk strategy. It tells potential challengers how not to shape their new forces and how not to operate them. So the hedge becomes boosting military R&D; accounts.Whatever the size of the defense pie, the R&D; slice needs to be bigger. This means reversing the decline of the budget from $37 billion in 1995 to $31 billion in 2005.

As we make decisions for the 21st century, we must not allow ourselves to drift into the same position of vulnerability as France in 1940, which failed to foresee and adapt to profound changes in the nature, style, and tools of warfare. Preparing for an uncertain world 10 or 20 years hence means beginning the research and development today.

Keith B. Bickel is a senior defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assesments.

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