He Wants to Go Back: Mark Helprins "What We Did Wrong" Assessment
Mackubin T. Owens
May 1, 2003
Mark Helprin always makes me examine my assumptions, even when I am pretty sure I don’t completely agree with him. His article "Analyze This" in the May 5 National Review is a case in point. I agree with his criticism of the abandonment by the Pentagon of the "two major-theater war" (2MTW) metric for force planners and with his concern that certain parties will use bogus "lessons" of Iraq and Afghanistan to push their agendas. But much of the rest of the piece left me wondering. As I read him, I can only conclude that he doesn’t really believe that 1) wars should be subject to political judgments, a conclusion that would surprise Carl von Clausewitz; and 2) war has changed since 1945.
Let me address our
areas of agreement first. As I argued
in January on NRO, there was a case for abandoning the 2MTW standard
because it "had evolved into a bureaucratic tool for maintaining
service and combatant commanders’ claims to the defense budget and for
protecting favored programs. It had therefore become, as a number of defense
intellectuals claimed, a substitute for strategic thinking… [But
force planners still must answer] the question, ’How much is enough?’"
I continued: "The
problem that we face today is not the result of the emphasis on transformation,
which is necessary if the United States is to be prepared for the likely
emergence of a competitor in the future, but the attempt to achieve transformation
’on the cheap.’ Two administrations essentially bet the farm based on
the assumption, or hope, that the sort of situation we now face in Iraq
and North Korea would not occur."
The Clinton administration
paid lip service to readiness and transformation while under-funding both.
Unfortunately, the under-funding continued under the Bush administration.
Until 9/11, OMB refused to provide money to fund both current readiness
and transformation, forcing Pentagon planners to choose between them.
Most of the increase in defense spending since 9/11 has gone to the war
on terrorism and to pay for personnel costs. It has not for the most part
gone to increase U.S. capabilities, especially the so-called high demand,
low density (HD/LD) assets such as aerial refueling aircraft, strategic
lift — both air- and sea-lift assets — surveillance aircraft
(AWACS and Joint STARS), and unmanned aerial vehicles such as Predator
and Global Hawk.
That being said,
Helprin seems to want something akin to the Cold War idea of a "minimum
risk" force. This force was determined by having every combatant
commander list the forces for his theater that would assure victory —
where one additional unit would not increase the likelihood of success.
In this exercise, planners assumed that war would occur simultaneously
in multiple theaters.
The resulting force
structure was, of course, unaffordable. The assumptions were then relaxed
by assuming a certain amount of risk — that an adversary would not
attack simultaneously in every possible theater. That still resulted,
at least for planning purposes, in a force presumably capable of fighting
"two and a half wars." The point is that even during the high-threat
years of the Cold War, military force planners realized they couldn’t
afford the force Helprin wants now.
Helprin and I also
agree that future military-force structure should not be based on bogus
"lessons" pushed on decision makers by those who have an agenda.
Indeed, during the many years I have taught force planning and written
about strategy as a guide to planning future military forces, I have taken
aim at two groups who push perspectives I consider especially dangerous.
The first perspective is advanced by "technophiles," who argue
that technology is a panacea for all defense problems and who would accept
substantial force-structure cuts and dump what they call "legacy"
weapons systems — tanks, personnel carriers, manned aircraft, and
many surface ships — in order to invest in advanced information technology.
They would, it seems,
replace the classical Clausewitzian "trinity" — "primordial
violence, hatred, and enmity" (the realm of the people); "chance
and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam"
(the realm of the commander and his army); and the "element of subordination,
as an instrument of policy, which makes [war] subordinate to reason alone"
(the realm of the government) — with a new technological trinity:
intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) technologies; advanced
command, control, communications, and computer (C4) systems; and precision-strike
The second group
advances a perspective that might be called "strategic monism,"
which is based on the idea that all of our security problems can be solved
by a single approach to war or a single system. Advocates of "airpower
can do it all" are a good example of strategic monism.
The problem with
the technophiles’ perspective is that it can lead to a dangerous de-emphasis
on other factors critical to success in war. One manifestation of this
outcome is the belief that investment in emerging technologies can be
achieved at the expense of force structure, readiness, and training. Another
is the idea that information technologies will, in and of themselves,
improve decision making on future battlefields.
The problem with
the strategic monists is that the United States might invest in an approach
that is not able to address the entire spectrum of conflict. Eisenhower’s
"New Look" defense posture, which emphasized long-range nuclear-armed
bombers, is a case in point. Adversaries were able to develop asymmetric
strategies which the United States could not counter. With the election
in 1960 of John Kennedy, the New Look was superseded by "Flexible
Response," which remained more or less the defense posture for the
remainder of the Cold War.
But because Helprin
seems to argue that war hasn’t changed since 1945, he makes an equal,
though opposite, error from those of the technophiles and the strategic
monists. While these groups essentially argue that war has changed so
much that we no longer have to worry about the effects of "friction"
and the "fog of uncertainty," Helprin does not take into account
changes that make the U.S. military a far more capable force now than
it was only a decade ago when it first routed Iraq in the one-sided Gulf
War of 1991.
Today’s forces are
on the road to becoming highly mobile, stealthy, dispersed, and electronically
networked. They are able to execute compressed operational cycles, to
launch extended-range precision strikes, and to insert widely distributed
forces rapidly into a theater. The networking of forces enables military
units from all services to share a common operational picture. This means
that missions can be planned and executed in a fraction of the time that
it took during Desert Storm and even the more recent action in Kosovo.
The accuracy of American weapons has improved by many orders of magnitude.
Thus a smaller force can achieve a favorable outcome.
This brings me to
his critique of the civilian leadership in the Bush administration. As
I read him, Helprin contends first, that the president and his advisers
waited too long after 9/11 to attack Iraq and second, that when they finally
did decide to go after Saddam, they ended up deploying a force that was
far too small. In Helprin’s view, the man Victor Davis Hanson calls a
"radical for our time" (Donald Rumsfeld) didn’t really know
what he was doing (nor did the president, or, apparently, anyone else
in the administration).
According to Helprin,
Rumsfeld is responsible for overruling the combatant commander concerning
the size of the invasion force. Citing the numerous published leaks that
flowed from the various agenda-pushers, Helprin claims that the uniformed
military wanted a much larger force than the one that actually conducted
Soldiers always want
to hedge, and for obvious reason. They want to reduce risk and uncertainty.
But they are not always right. (Take the case of George McClellan in 1862.)
Leaks leading up to the war indicated that the military was only lukewarm
about attacking Iraq. There are many recent cases in which the uniformed
military has provided high estimates for what it would take to do a particular
job in an effort to dissuade civilian authorities from undertaking it.
Colin Powell did it in 1990-91. There is some indication that the uniformed
military was doing the same thing this time.
On the other hand,
some civilian technophiles wanted a much smaller force, some going so
far as to tout the "Afghanistan model" of special forces and
long-range air strikes. And, of course, air-power advocates argued that
a "shock and awe" air campaign would make ground forces unnecessary.
The resulting plan
was indeed a compromise, and that’s not a bad thing. It was a bold plan;
it was also a flexible one. It is too bad that Helprin associates himself
with the arguments of the second-guessing pundits and reporters who were
quick to claim that the plan was flawed and that the force assembled for
the war not large enough. This claim is essentially meaningless without
considering "risk," which is measured in terms of the possible
costs (time and casualties) of a given course of action.
But, based on circumstances
existing on March 19, 2003, President Bush and his military advisers decided
that the combination of air, naval, land, and special-operations forces
in theater were adequate to implement the campaign plan within an acceptable
level of risk. That is the responsibility of civilian policy-makers.
further that "the [coalition’s] timing was off because the resistance
was underestimated." Well, this is what Clausewitz called friction.
War plans seek to take friction and the "fog of uncertainty"
into account. I hope NRO readers will forgive me for citing one more time
Helmuth von Moltke’s observation regarding a plan of war. "The commander,"
must keep his objective
in mind, undisturbed by the vicissitudes of events. But the path on
which he hopes to reach it can never be firmly established in advance.
Throughout the campaign he must make a series of decisions on the basis
of situations that cannot be foreseen. The successive acts of war are
thus not premeditated designs, but, on the contrary, are spontaneous
acts guided by military measures. Everything depends on penetrating
the uncertainty of veiled situations to evaluate the facts, to clarify
the unknown, to make decisions rapidly, and then to carry them out with
strength and constancy.
I conclude with a
point that seems to escape Helprin. The same people he criticizes for
getting the plan wrong — for insisting it could be done with a small
force — are the very people who pushed for invading Iraq early on
— Secretary Rumsfeld, Undersecretary Wolfowitz, and various others.
The military, which insisted on a larger force, seems to have preferred
deterrence to launching the war. So which is it? Did the civilians in
the Pentagon know what they were doing or not? He can’t have it both ways.
I have written many
analytical pieces for NRO on defense issues in general and the war in
particular. I don’t know if Mark Helprin ever reads them (heck, I don’t
know if anyone reads them!), but I believe I have said some useful
things, most of which are opposed to Helprin’s observations in his recent
piece. In my last article, "Transforming
Transformation", I suggest a moderate response to the lessons
of the war. Here are the concluding paragraphs:
The U.S. military
must be capable of operating jointly in all operational environments:
land, sea, air, space, and across the electromagnetic spectrum, both
now and in the future. Accordingly, while remaining of sufficient size
and composition both to fight and win major theater wars and carry out
constabulary operations in the present, this force structure must also
be flexible enough to exploit new technologies, doctrine, organization,
and operational concepts in order to maintain military preeminence in
If the United States
is to remain a global power, if it is to be able to deter or defeat
enemies while reassuring friends and allies, it cannot afford to reduce
force structure or gut land and naval forces. The use of ’transformation’
as an excuse for failing to match military investment to the goals of
U.S. foreign policy is a recipe for disaster.
I agree with Mark
Helprin that we can’t cut our force structure, but I don’t believe that
we need to return to a World War II military structure.
Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI, and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the War College, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.