Transforming Transformation: Defense-Planning Lessons from Iraq

Mackubin T. Owens

April 1, 2003

By any standard, the performance of U.S. arms during the Iraq war has been nothing short of breathtaking. In just three weeks, Coalition ground forces slashed through southern Iraq with minimal losses to capture not only Baghdad, but also every other major city in the country. Coalition air forces owned the skies from the moment the war began. Not a single Iraqi aircraft attempted to take on allied air assets and only a handful of Coalition aircraft were lost, fewer yet to Iraqi antiaircraft fire. Considerable constabulary requirements remain, but the campaign to reach the end point was unprecedented.

Despite the accomplishments of Coalition forces in the war, critics have slammed aspects of the conflict’s planning and execution. They have charged that the war plan was based on unrealistically optimistic assumptions; that planners prepared for the war they wanted to fight — a toe-to-toe slugfest with Iraqi conventional forces — rather than the one they actually encountered — a guerilla war designed to interdict the Coalition’s dangerously extended supply lines and to exploit its desire to minimize civilian casualties; that the air campaign did not accomplish "shock and awe"; and that the ground force was too small for the task it was assigned.

These criticisms are really part and parcel of a debate over what the United States military will look like in the future. The sniping at the war plan represented an attempt by each party with a dog in the fight to vindicate its respective position. For instance, it is almost a sure bet that the claim that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld constantly overruled planners who wanted a larger ground component for the war originated with Army officers who are convinced that he wants to radically reduce the size of the Army because he believes air power and "information warfare" to be the keys to a "transformed" military. They go on to claim that the danger of relying on these supposed alternatives to ground forces was illustrated by the failure of the Iraqi regime to crack after the campaign of "shock and awe." Air-power advocates on the other hand argued that the political goals of avoiding civilian casualties and protecting civilian infrastructure had diluted the effectiveness of the originally envisioned "shock and awe" air campaign.

For the military services, the political stakes of this debate are high because the outcome will go far toward determining the future allocation of resources for defense. It may be a little early for a definitive assessment of the force-planning implications of the war, but it seems possible to make at least some preliminary judgments about the lessons of this conflict, which will surely inform future defense budget debates.

Military transformation is not an "all-or-nothing" proposition. The dominant buzzword in the Pentagon for the last few years has been "transformation," which has been defined by military analysts as innovation on a grand scale, undertaken by a military institution that believes the character of conflict has changed in significant ways. Transformation is an organizational response to the possibility that revolutionary, discontinuous changes in warfare are occurring.

Promoters of transformation believe that in order to overcome the sort of "operational challenges" likely to prevail in the future, U.S. forces must possess certain characteristics. These forces must be highly mobile, stealthy, dispersed, and electronically networked. They must be able to execute compressed operational cycles, to launch extended range precision strikes, and to insert widely distributed forces rapidly into a theater.

Some have argued that the uniformed military has been undermining transformation by seeking to maintain an unnecessarily large force structure that retains incrementally improved "legacy" systems such as tanks, bombers, and aircraft carriers. Instead, say such critics, the military should be reducing force structure and "skipping a generation" of weapons in order to invest in "leap ahead" technologies that will supposedly eliminate "friction" and the "fog of war," providing the commander and his subordinates with nearly perfect "situational awareness."

In response to such claims, the military contends that tossing out proven systems in favor of technologies that, in many cases, are still on the drawing board (and are likely to remain there for some considerable time to come) is imprudent. They also argue that the push to cut force structure doesn’t make sense when worldwide demands on U.S. forces are increasing.

The war in Iraq illustrates the fact that real military transformation is not an "all-or-nothing" proposition — it is not necessary to replace the entire existing force with entirely new systems and force structures. Transformation in practice has meant combining legacy weapons and emerging systems to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of U.S. forces. One example of this is the marriage of "legacy" airframes to a high-tech bomb-guidance kit to make the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), which permits astoundingly accurate high-level bombing. Another is the "networking" of existing forces, which vastly increases the speed of command, thereby compressing operational-cycle rates.

Training is the key to success. The performance of the U.S. and U.K. militaries in the current Iraq war vindicates the finding of Stephen Biddle in the fall 1996 issue of International Security: Technology alone is not a substitute for a highly trained, highly competent military force. Biddle argued that the main cause of the one-sided coalition triumph in the Gulf War of 1991 was not, as some claimed, technology per se but the skill differential between the coalition forces and those of Iraq.

The allies’ technological edge served primarily to punish Iraqi operational and tactical errors, thereby magnifying the skill differential between the two sides. In the case of two more evenly matched adversaries, technology would have less impact than in the first Gulf War. Vietnam comes to mind.

Biddle’s study and the performance of Coalition troops in Iraq this time hold important force-planning implications for the United States. Without question, the U.S. military should seek to leverage technology in order to enhance its capabilities, but an over reliance on technology at the expense of those factors that enhance soldierly excellence — such as high recruiting standards, quality training, and operational readiness — can ultimately reduce future U.S. military capability relative to our adversaries.

Usable air power will always be politically constrained. No one denies that air power is the sine qua non of U.S. military power, but since the first Gulf War in 1991, some true believers have gone farther, arguing that air power can be independently decisive. This perspective lay at the heart of the claim that improvements in technology, especially stealth and precision-guided munitions, would make it possible to achieve a rapid and relatively bloodless victory in Iraq by means of an overwhelming air campaign supplemented by a very small ground force.

Even before the war began, air-power advocates were claiming that political considerations were constraining the air plan, that for political reasons, planners were placing too many targets off limit for air power to really have the promised impact. "In the weeks leading up to the campaign," William Arkin wrote recently in the Los Angeles Times, "Air Force planners say [that] hundreds of targets were rejected for fear of civilian casualties." The outcome was "a strategy likely to fail."

Air power has emerged as the necessary, if not the sufficient, cause of success in war. Not even the most vociferous advocate of "boots on the ground" would deny that air power provides tremendous leverage in warfare. No one I know would prefer to fight a war without the air supremacy the U.S. possesses. In addition, the improved accuracy of weapons enabled the Coalition to launch an air assault unprecedented in scope and magnitude, while avoiding not only civilian casualties but also damage to the infrastructure upon which civilians depend.

The problem with the argument that "air power can do it all" is that it assumes that war is independent of politics. But, since war is not an end in itself but a means to achieve political goals, political considerations will always limit military courses of action. Accordingly, it is unlikely that air power can ever be used in such a way as to satisfy its most vociferous advocates.

Conventional land forces are not obsolete. Until recently, conventional wisdom held that the heavy formations of the Army would be sacrificed to pay the bill for transformation. Those who took this position argued that standoff and precision-strike weapons delivered from the air or from space would reduce the importance of land power in combat operations. They contended that the future of land forces was the "Afghan model," the use of special forces to call in long-range fires. But in Iraq, conventional ground forces have demonstrated a remarkable flexibility, engaging Iraqi forces across the entire spectrum of conflict, from armored units to guerillas.

As long as air power remains a true instrument of policy — that is, used not for its own sake but to achieve strategic objectives that lead to a favorable political outcome — ground forces will be necessary. Indeed, the relationship between land power and air power is akin to the blades of a pair of scissors: both are necessary if the scissors are to cut. There is no question that land forces must be rendered more easily deployable, but the war in Iraq indicates that it would be a mistake to radically reduce the size of the Army and to change its structure before proven new systems are available.

Sea power is the necessary condition for U.S. global power. Before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, many advocates of transformation had set their sights on naval power in general and the aircraft carrier in particular. The latter they characterized as the quintessential legacy system, ripe for elimination. But since 9/11, the carrier has proven to be an effective and flexible platform for launching manned aircraft, especially when only a limited number of land bases are available in a region, the situation that prevailed in both Afghanistan and Iraq. For instance, naval aviation filled the gap created by Turkey’s decision to prohibit the use of Incirlik for combat missions. Naval forces also launched cruise-missile strikes. Finally, although they provided land forces for one of the major axes of advance against Baghdad, the Marines remain a naval service — one that comes from the sea and returns to the sea.

But the true utility of naval power extends far beyond amphibious operations and precision strikes against land targets. The United States is unique among the states of the world in being able to project a full array of overwhelming and sustainable military power over vast distances. It can do this because the Navy dominates the world’s great "commons," the sea. By doing so, American sea power can threaten the sanctuary of America’s enemies. As the contemporary British strategist Colin Gray has remarked, if the United States is to be a land power anywhere other than in North America, it must first be a sea power.

The fact is that most of America’s military power in distant theaters comes from the sea. To deliver the equipment and supplies not only for Marines, but also for the Army and theater land-based air power, requires command of the seas. Control of the sea commons makes the U.S. Navy the great "enabler" of sustained power projection.

Special-operations forces have come into their own. This point seems to be uncontroversial. The performance of SOF in Afghanistan and Iraq vindicates the judgment of Congress in the 1980s to establish a separate special-operations command with its own budget. Because of the nature of special-operations work, most Americans are not aware of their many accomplishments in the war. Suffice it to say they have been magnificent.

As noted above, some have suggested that SOF is the wave of the future for land forces. But SOF is already stretched thin as they attempt to meet today’s requirements. To do more would mean that SOF-force structure would have to be expanded. That would be counterproductive-special-operations forces must remain small to remain special.

Transformation is a valid goal, but it has its limits. The war in Iraq seems to contradict the view of the more extreme apostles of transformation, the ones who argued, for instance, that emerging technologies made conventional force structure and legacy systems obsolete. There is no question that the effectiveness and efficiency of U.S. forces have been enhanced by precision-strike weapons and networking, but the idea that technology can banish friction, chance, and uncertainty from war has been shown to be overly optimistic.

A transformed military is a valid objective, but the war in Iraq illustrates the limits of transformation. Before the war, many advocates of transformation, like the "military reformers" of the 1980s, were using the concept as a rationale for cutting the size of the military below what is necessary to carry out its current functions. Others were using it as a way to reduce defense spending — the "cheap hawk" syndrome. Still others were using the systems called for by transformation to kill existing programs, just as some members of Congress tried to use the promise of the B-2 to kill the B-1.

The fact is that military transformation for the real world will not be cheap. It will require more spending on procurement of weapons, not less. The reason for this flows from America’s geopolitical position: To secure its interests, the United States requires a balanced force that can be employed across the spectrum of conflict and prevail under diverse circumstances against adversaries employing a variety of strategies, including asymmetric strategies. These forces must be able not only to prevail in war, but also to reassure friends and allies, and generally to influence important actors in those parts of the world, especially Eurasia.

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 the future.

If the United States is to remain a global power, if it 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.

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.