Special Report

Modernize the Military Now

Secretary Gates is right about the future, but wrong about the defense budget cuts.

By 6.24.09

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Advocates of military modernization have been largely silent even as the Obama administration pushes through the most significant weapon systems cuts since the Carter administration. This is in part because Defense Secretary Robert Gates has done a masterful job of public relations. He has wisely depicted himself as a "reformer" who is squaring off against allegedly greedy, Cold War-era defense contractors.

The media, moreover, have accepted this narrative hook, line and sinker and made it the analytical framework through which virtually all defense budget stories have been written.

In reality, the so-called military-industrial complex is timid, inarticulate, and politically and culturally clueless. The media-academic complex, by contrast, is bold, highly articulate, and politically and culturally savvy. Thus in possession of superior firepower, the media-academic complex has won this engagement without firing a shot.

That's a shame because advocates of military modernization have the better argument if only they were able to make it. That would require, however, that they do their homework, jettison old ways of thinking, and embrace new military and strategic realities.

Doing their homework means listening to U.S. military leaders and understanding U.S. military requirements in the 21st century. Jettisoning old ways of thinking means acknowledging that the Cold War is over, and that a full-scale conventional conflict involving set-piece battles is extremely unlikely. And embracing new military and strategic realities means recognizing that we are in an era of persistent military engagement which will span the full spectrum of conflict -- from counterinsurgency missions and nation building to traditional warfare and stability operations.

Yet too many advocates of military modernization have allowed themselves to be depicted as narrow-minded defenders of parochial interests. They have defended particular military systems that give jobs to their constituents; but they have failed to develop a coherent and persuasive narrative that links these systems into a more comprehensive and overarching 21st Century defense strategy.

Secretary Gates is absolutely right when he says that the military must reorient itself to fight and win 21st century conflicts. He also is absolutely right when he says that military engagements of the future will be defined by hybrid threats (which involve the full spectrum of conflict) and irregular tactics.

"The threat of the early 21st Century will not be the son of Desert Storm; it will be the stepchild of Chechnya," predicted then Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Charles C. Krulak in 1998 Congressional testimony.

"Our opponents," he presciently observed, "will not be doctrinaire or predictable. They will not try to match us tank for tank and plane for plane in an attempt to fight the kind of Industrial Age war to which we are accustomed.

"Instead, they will seek to fight us where we are least able to bring our strength to bear." And, Krulak added, "one thing is certain: this 21st Century threat will be far more difficult to manage."

The U.S. military absolutely requires new capabilities and new weapon systems to address new 21st century threats At the same time, however, the U.S. military must retain its ability to fight and win conventional wars precisely so that it can prevent such wars from ever happening. Military weakness, after all, is itself a provocation and an invitation to war.

This means that the U.S. military requires more money to modernize and more modern defense systems. Yet, for the most part, the Obama administration is subtracting, not adding, to America's military arsenal. And the Army, which is bearing the brunt of the burden in this long war, is being especially hard hit.

Indeed, the Army's Fiscal Year 2010 budget request is two percent less than what the service had requested in 2009. Army procurement accounts (which include modernization) are being cut even more dramatically, by some 14 percent or $3.5 billion.

More ominously, Gates canceled the Army's Future Combat Systems' vehicular modernization program. But as the Commander of the Joint Forces Command, Marine Corps General James N. Mattis has observed, future conflicts will almost certainly require an American ground presence.

"The idea that we are going to be able to fight future wars without having soldiers on the ground, or just having a few special forces -- I think that's a pipedream," Mattis said in a June 1 speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "High-performing small [ground combat] units are now a national imperative," he declared.

Yet American ground combat vehicles were designed decades ago for a different era and a different war: the 20th century Cold War. Thus, a truly reformed defense budget would have accelerated, not canceled, the Army's FCS vehicular modernization program. A truly reformed defense budget would have increased, not cut, the Army's modernization budget.

"A soldier fighting from a vehicle of any sort increases his chance of survival by about an order of magnitude," writes retired Army General Maj. Robert H. Scales, Jr., the former commandant of the Army War College. "Unfortunately," Scales notes, "Cold War armored materiel is optimized for wars on a European, not an irregular battlefield."

In short, Gates' defense budget fails its own test. However, it is not clear that either the Secretary of Defense or his (few and mostly ineffectual) critics understand this.

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About the Author
  John R. Guardiano blogs at www.ResCon1.com, and you can follow him on Twitter: @ResCon1.