2000National Reporting

Ground Zero

Thomas E. Ricks
Wall Street Journal Staff Writer
November 12, 1999;
Page A1
Part 7

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The Price of Power -- Ground Zero:
Military Must Change
For 21st Century --
The Question Is How

U.S. Choices: Terminator,
Peacekeeping Globocop
Or Combination of Roles
Lessons of the Maginot Line

[Last in a Series on Military Spending]

What kind of war will the U.S. fight in the future?

Some defense experts argue that the threat will most likely come in the form of an epic confrontation with a powerful, state-of-the-art military. Say, for instance, Iran in 2025 smites its neighbors with chemical weapons and seizes Saudi Arabia's oil fields.

Others predict there won't be any more big wars -- just a plethora of enemy "ankle-biters" menacing U.S. troops with nettlesome firefights, as the Americans feed starving refugees on one block while separating warring factions on the next.

But there is growing agreement on the bottom line: Despite spending about $275 billion annually, the U.S. military isn't preparing for the battles of tomorrow. It can't attract enough recruits to meet its needs, yet it uses labor inefficiently, as if people were a free, conscripted good. Promising innovations such as unmanned aircraft are stifled by a continued focus on big-ticket armaments designed to confront the Soviet Union, including a huge nuclear arsenal of submarines, missiles and bombers.

Defense research-and-development spending is declining, and fewer high-tech companies find it financially rewarding to help the military create weapons for the information age. Meanwhile, the Pentagon oversees a vast overcapacity of bases and other installations that consume billions of dollars, thanks to bureaucratic turf wars and congressional parochialism.

"Every year we probably are wasting money," says retired Gen. Edward Meyer, a former Army chief of staff, because today's spending "isn't going to the force we necessarily will need in the future."

Yet even among those who have concluded that the armed forces are due for a major overhaul, a fierce debate is raging over exactly how to do it. The basic question is simple: If we were starting from scratch, unburdened by the baggage of past wars and threats, what sort of military would we build for the 21st century?

The answer depends on what role America wants to play in the world. Should it continue to shoulder responsibility for problems around the globe, or retreat to a strict defense of its own borders? Flowing from there are many secondary issues: Should the services be reorganized, perhaps with a separate Space Force? How quickly should the familiar weapons of the Cold War be abandoned in favor of new, information-age gear? Should the defense budget be smaller, or bigger?

In Pentagon offices, war-college classrooms and think-tank outposts, three major options have emerged. Each foresees certain kinds of conflicts, offers distinct advantages and carries unavoidable risks. Whatever course is taken, the growing consensus is that a different approach is needed -- and that the terms of the current congressional debate, focused largely on incremental changes in the size of the defense budget, have become largely irrelevant.

The Terminator

With his thick eyeglasses, owlish appearance and analytical skills, Michael Vickers strikes many as the prototypical academic. But his looks belie his previous career, as an Army Special Forces soldier and operative for the Central Intelligence Agency.

Now employed at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, a small but influential defense think-tank that advocates gradually but radically transforming the Pentagon, Mr. Vickers is considered one of the leading thinkers about the U.S. military of the future. What worries him most is the possibility of another huge war. To meet that threat, he argues for creating a formidable military to deal with big potential adversaries by deterring them and, if not, by showing no mercy in taking them on.

"I like a knife fight as much as the next guy," says Mr. Vickers, who during his military career learned to parachute behind enemy lines with a small nuclear bomb in his backpack, performed counterterrorist operations in Central America and helped equip and train the Afghan resistance for the CIA. "But the world is going in the direction of space, long-range precision strikes and maybe information operations" -- that is, attacks on adversaries' computers.

Many top military thinkers agree that numerous powerful adversaries await the U.S. in the not-so-distant future. To assume that no new adversary will emerge is to bet against history, says Maj. Gen. Claude Bolton Jr., who runs the Air Force's fighter and bomber acquisition programs. The U.S. was involved in wars during most of the decades of the 20th century, with two in the 1990s. "Somewhere between 2010 and 2020, this country will be spending a hell of a lot of money fighting another major war," he says.

Most who worry about a big challenge look to the East. The greatest military surprises in U.S. history, they note, have come from Asia: Pearl Harbor, China's intervention in Korea and the Tet Offensive. The most obvious threat is China, but some are wary of Japan, too. Even India, now just a fledgling nuclear power, could emerge as a major strategic concern, with many experts now quietly saying that within two decades it will loom larger in U.S. calculations than Russia. Throw in the East's next wave of nuclear powers, such as North Korea, Iran and Syria, and there are plenty of potential enemies capable of picking a nasty fight with the U.S.

"The price of global domination is about to go up, sharply," predicts Paul Bracken, a political scientist at Yale whose new book, "Fire in the East," argues that 400 years of Western military domination of Asia are coming to an end.

From Mr. Vickers's perspective, all this argues for a cutting-edge force of intimidating power. He contends that today's weapons -- heavy tanks, manned bombers, aircraft carriers and the like -- are "sunset systems," destined to go the way of the horse cavalry and the battleship. "By 2020, the era of tank primacy and mass armies will be over," predicts Mr. Vickers, who has been running a series of futuristic war games for the Pentagon. "I think we are in a period of revolutionary change in warfare."

Therefore, he thinks the U.S. should spend the next 20 years striving for the sorts of technological gains achieved between the world wars, when the nation's small but ingenious military first experimented with aircraft carriers, amphibious landings and tank warfare.

The core of the Terminator force likely would be a small but fast-moving and highly lethal Army that would cut through enemy forces such as tanks through horse cavalry. He and others argue that sheer mass, an advantage in industrial-era warfare, will become a vulnerability because it simply presents the enemy with a larger target. Faced with advances in battlefield sensors and precision-guided weaponry, this new Army's front-line units would have to be able to scoot around in armored vehicles or even armored uniforms, never presenting a stationary target for long.

Rather than toting all their own firepower, with the tons of logistical supplies that entails, they would be able to call in missiles and rockets from the air, sea and perhaps even from space-based "battlestars" hovering in lunar orbit. For transport, they might use armored tilt-rotor aircraft that take off like helicopters but then fly like propeller planes. Robots could lead their most dangerous patrols. Overall, ground forces might look more like today's small, elite Special Forces units than current infantry and tank divisions that require more than 10,000 people apiece.

Mr. Vickers estimates that the Army of the future would require about one-third fewer troops than the 470,000 it has today. Overall, his military would total about one million troops, compared to 1.4 million now.

The Terminator force's Navy also would look very different. Some experts advocate "mobile offshore bases," huge slow-moving ships with mile-long runways that would more resemble oil rigs than aircraft carriers. But Mr. Vickers says global satellite coverage would make surface ships too vulnerable. Instead, he foresees a force of submarines and semisubmersible vessels. These would include missile-toting "arsenal ships" that would carry warheads capable of dispensing dozens of "brilliant" flying munitions that individually zero in on the sound of enemy tank engines.

Mr. Vickers also would give the Air Force a complete makeover, cutting its fundamental tie to piloted planes. The new Air Force would feature a mix of manned and unmanned aircraft, almost all of which would rely heavily on radar-evading "stealth" technologies. Dozens of small, unmanned bombers armed with tiny but potent 50-pound precision-guided, superexplosive bombs would hang under the wings of huge airborne aircraft carriers. And Mr. Vickers probably would recognize the growing military importance of outer space by creating a new "Space Force" that could launch attacks against spots on earth or protect satellites and other key positions in orbit.

Yet there are two major risks to Mr. Vickers's force.

First, such a leap simply might not work. A tough, precision-guided military might prove to be the 21st-century equivalent of the Maginot Line, the powerful border fortresses built by France in the 1930s. Having a strong military doesn't ensure victory. It may instead simply drive adversaries to find new, as yet unknown "asymmetrical responses" -- indirectly through terrorism, or directly by finding and exploiting cracks in the American arsenal, just as the blitzkrieg enabled the Germans to bypass the Maginot Line and shatter the French army in World War II.

Also, in the 21st century, militaries will have to operate in a world blanketed by satellites, and there is no guarantee that the U.S. will be the one to figure out the best way to turn that globally transparent environment to its advantage.

Perhaps even more worrisome is the huge expense of creating, equipping, training and maintaining a Terminator force. It would take about a decade of intensive research to develop the new weaponry, and another decade of even heavier spending to procure it all, an effort akin to the 1980s Reagan buildup. The budget would also have to accommodate big increases for training.

Mr. Vickers argues for trimming the current military to pay for the Terminator force. But today's military leaders insist they already are overwhelmed and actually need more troops. They say that creating the Terminator force would require many more troops to conduct realistic experiments. So the defense budget likely would have to be boosted by as much as 20%, or about $60 billion a year -- far beyond the public's appetite.

Moreover, though Prof. Bracken and those in his camp may worry about military threats from Asia, his colleague at Yale, historian Paul Kennedy, warns in "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers" that history has shown that allocating too much national wealth to the military can itself weaken a nation's power.


Retired Marine Gen. Charles Krulak thinks Mr. Vickers's line of reasoning misses the point. "The days of armed conflict between nation-states are ending," he told Congress this year before stepping down as commandant of the Marine Corps. Instead, he argues that the military must prepare itself to police democracy's empire, fighting small skirmishes or solving humanitarian crises wherever they pop up.

His vision is a natural extension of his experience as the Marine-general son of a Marine general. The Marines always like to focus more on people and on training than on their weapons. Like many Marine officers of his generation, Gen. Krulak was molded by combat in Vietnam. What the military went through in 1969 and 1970, he once said in an interview, shaped its determination to create a highly trained, well-led, well-motivated force prepared for its missions. "If you can get through that, you carry in your heart and soul: 'Never again. Never again,' " he says. It also taught him that a determined low-tech foe can counter the conventional military might of U.S. forces.

To be ready for the future, this view holds, the U.S. should prepare its troops to deal with chaos itself. In part, that means giving troops new weaponry, such as better gear to deal with operating in a more urbanized world. But mostly it means finding good people and training them far better than they are now. It is a view widely popular in the military, which tends to focus on the next decade, during which no one is predicting the rise of a major adversary.

Gen. Krulak, who now works for MBNA Corp., a Wilmington, Del., banking and consumer-lending firm, envisions more of a "small war" military in the futuresomething akin to his beloved Marine Corps. The general foresees "the threeblock war," as in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1992 and 1993, where U.S. forces on one block fed starving refugees, on the next separated warring factions, and on the third engaged in a firefight.

To move seamlessly from one of those tasks to the next, the military would be light and generally low-tech, with more emphasis on simple boots-on-the-ground infantry than on snazzy new weapons and remote-control battlefields. Rather than spending tens of billions of dollars on research or big new weapons systems, it would put its money into recruiting, training and paying the professional force it would need for these brushfire operations. The Navy would support the missions mainly with cruise missiles and ground-attack aircraft. The Air Force would play the role the Navy did in the days of late-19th-century "gunboat diplomacy," striking from afar with a handful of fighters and bombers to enforce the will of Washington.

The Army would move away from relying on 70-ton main battle tanks or long-range artillery pieces. Instead, it would focus on long-term, open-ended peacekeeping missions in places such as Bosnia and Kosovo. Strategic nuclear forces might be slashed to the bare minimum-probably just missiles aboard submarines, negating the need for existing land-based missiles and the nuclear bomber fleet.

If such a police force is all that is needed, the U.S. military could be cut drastically and supported by a defense budget about one-third smaller, some defense experts say.

Yet this military strategy carries two downsides.

The first is that it is easier to get into these "small war" missions than to get out of them. The most striking characteristic of America's post-Cold War military operations is that they seem interminable. U.S. forces now have been fighting Saddam Hussein for twice as long as they fought Hitler. The Army may end up spending a full decade in Bosnia -- ten times the initial estimate offered by President Clinton on national television. Eventually, predicts Boston University's Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and an expert on international relations, "Americans will awake to an unruly world in which the United States has assumed vast burdens not easily shed."

Even more worrisome, this sort of work erodes a military's ability to wage high-intensity war. If a big war did come along unexpectedly, the American armed forces probably would be dangerously unprepared. Recently, the U.S. Army declared that two of its 10 divisions are unready for combat because they are engaged in peacekeeping missions in Kosovo and Bosnia.

This was the shock that hit England in 1914 and still resonates there today. The British imperial force had been adept at fighting Queen Victoria's small wars in remote places such as Afghanistan and the Sudan, where just last year the U.S. showed its current might with cruise missiles. But when the British army suddenly had to wage a new sort of war on the European continent, it was devastated. Unimaginative and militarily uneducated officers proved unable to adapt to the vastly different circumstances of largescale industrialized warfare, and they led a generation of British youth to slaughter.

The less the U.S. looks able to fight a big war, the more likely it is that an adversary will try to take it on. So it is possible that pursuing a purely constabulary course today would condemn the U.S. to a big war a decade or two in the future.

The Insurance Force

Army Maj. Gen. James Dubik thinks the answer lies in a mix of Mr. Vickers's high-tech force and Gen. Krulak's low-tech boots on the ground. Gen. Dubik's vision attempts to hedge the security bet with a force that can reliably and efficiently execute police missions, but that also gets ready to confront powerful enemies in the 21st century.

Gen. Dubik has spent about half his military career as an infantryman and paratrooper, and the other half studying and teaching at military schools such as West Point and Fort Leavenworth School of Advanced Military Studies, and civilian universities including Harvard, Johns Hopkins and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

On his most recent overseas assignment, as a commander of the 1st Cavalry Division on the peacekeeping mission in Bosnia, he began writing an essay that considered what the U.S. military should look like after today's threats, such as North Korea and Iraq, have passed from the scene. As the Balkans winter settled in earlier this year, he spent his evenings at his Army-issue computer, tapping out his vision of the future of the U.S. military.

He prescribed a military with four main parts. First, it would have a big "prevention and war-fighting" component that would train for conventional high-intensity warfare -- and be used only for that. Second, it would have an "engagement force" for peacekeeping and other current overseas operations and for reinforcing the first force when needed for combat.

Third would be a small "experimental force" to keep the U.S. one step ahead in figuring out how to fight in the future. Finally, there would be a support force that would create the other three -- recruiting, training and managing everyone else. The existing services would remain in place, but their job now would be to supply people to each of the new functional forces.

"I wanted to start the debate," Gen. Dubik says of his essay.

He started one all right, and got himself promoted right into the middle of it. This week, Gen. Dubik took command of a new Army position as "commanding general for transformation" -- essentially, the first Army officer assigned to the 21st century. His mission at Fort Lewis, Wash., is to design the new "medium-weight" Army that is supposed to be as mobile as light infantry while packing the punch of a heavy tank unit.

The Pentagon bureaucracy is skeptical of Gen. Dubik's compromise force because it risks making the military a jack of all trades and master of none. By trying to do everything, the military could wind up doing nothing particularly well. Experimentation especially might suffer, because the Pentagon's tendency is to rob tomorrow to pay for today. So the concern here is that the U.S. could wind up with a force that is broken up for different missions yet isn't particularly adept at any of them. This isn't a small concern in an endeavor where the price of incompetence can be death.

Also, establishing the Dubik force would require a massive reorganization of the U.S. military, the biggest since 1947, when the bloody lessons of World War II and the first breezes of the Cold War forced change. Little such motivation exists today: Defense matters rank low in publicopinion polls, and no presidential candidate has made defense reform a key issue. Confronting entrenched interests would require large amounts of capital, both political and financial. And it likely would be difficult to garner popular support for what amounts to an unglamorous hedging of bets.


It's hardly clear which military will emerge from today's U.S. armed forces -- if any significant change occurs at all. Indeed, the U.S. may be able to muddle along for decades with a big but increasingly ineffective military. Or the nation might retreat into isolationism and decide that the core of its military should be a wall of missile defenses.

But the biggest worry among proponents of transformation is that it isn't easy for a successful military to remake itself. It was the defeated Germans, constrained by the Treaty of Versailles, who combined the tank, the machine gun and the radio to overwhelm the French and the British militaries in 1940. Army Maj. Donald Vandergriff and other military reformers argue that the U.S. military won't really change until it is forced to do so by some sort of disaster akin to Jimmy Carter's hostage-rescue debacle in the Iranian desert in April 1980, which presaged the Reagan buildup.

The first step toward genuine transformation, military reformers argue, will be to grasp just how profound the change must be, covering everything from how the U.S. armed services recruit new people to how those troops are trained, organized and equipped.

"The Cold War was a two-generation national emergency, and it has seeped into the marrow of our bones," says Chris Seiple, until recently a Marine Corps strategist. "We have all known nothing but the Cold War."