Sunday, July 28, 2013

re-thinking the revolution in military affairs

Every now and then, I come across something that makes me stop and reconsider a long-held belief. As an academic, I welcome revisionist historians, even though I don't always agree with them.

This weekend, returning from a trip to rural Ireland, I came across an op-ed piece by a warrior-scholar I have long admired, Army Major General H.R. McMaster. His main points are received wisdom: war is political; war is human; and war is uncertain. I suspect one motivation is to remind us that we can't reduce our land-based fighting forces too far without incurring major risks in the future.

But McMaster's major point is that, in reaction to second thoughts about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and our understandable wish to avoid similar conflicts in the future, we are hearing false prophets of technological solutions to our military challenges.

I guess I was one of those misguided prophets in earlier years. Working for the Senate Armed Services Committee in the 1970s, I was a strong advocate of a vigorous R&D program across the board, especially basic research and DARPA-style efforts. When many of my colleagues pointed to unsuccessful programs and urged cuts, I agreed with the then-director at DARPA who told us, "To do our job right, we need the right to fail."

I later enjoyed teaching courses on Military Innovation for Future Wars, where I cited historical examples showing that successful innovation required advocates willing to risk their careers and sponsors willing to devote scarce resources to uncertain efforts and ultimately career rewards for those pioneers.

In the late 1990s I thought that the Revolution in Military Affairs, so popular that its acronym, RMA, was sufficient to draw hundreds to conferences and roundtables, was the answer for America's armed forces. I thought we could have jointness across services and technology that made the battle space transparent and targettable. The high tech "shock and awe" promised victory without large standing armies.

I still believe in R&D, and I know there are likely to be very valuable technologies waiting to be weaponized that can make America safer and stronger. But I also believe in robust ground forces for those times when technology falls short.

In the fall of 2002, when Congress was debating authorizing use of force against Iraq, a majority of students at the National War College, where I taught, wrote papers urging continued diplomatic measures to contain Saddam Hussein rather than going to war. Air Force officers seemed most confident about winning a war if it came. But some of my Army students strongly opposed invading Iraq. They warned, quite accurately as things turned out, "We can knock him out, but then we in the Army will be stuck there."

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