The "Transformation" Mistake

Mackubin T. Owens

November 1, 2006

In response to rising sectarian violence, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top U.S. commander in Iraq, will likely have to request an increase in the overall U.S. presence in Iraq. In the short term, the easiest way to do this is to once again delay some units’ return home. But such practices can carry a harsh long-term cost.

As I noted in a July 2005 piece for The Post (“Will This War Break the Army?”), the U.S. military, especially its ground forces, is being stretched to near the breaking point. Its long-term health may be at risk; it took over a decade to repair the damage that Vietnam inflicted on the military personnel system.

The debate over alleged Bush administration errors in Iraq—failing to send enough troops to Iraq in the first place, inadequate planning for stability operations after the fall of Baghdad, etc.—largely misses the point: America’s ground forces are too small for what our foreign policy demands of them.

As a number of defense experts have observed, the problem—an Army that is too small—is systemic, transcending individuals and administrations. Its cause can be traced to the denigration of land power after the Gulf War of 1991.

In his classic study of the Korean Conflict, “This Kind of War,” T.R. Fehrenbach expressed the conventional wisdom on land power’s importance:

You can fly over a land forever; you may bomb it and wipe it clean of life… but if you desire to defend it; protect it; and keep it for civilization, you must do this on the ground, the way the Roman legions did… by putting your young men into the mud.

But that view came into question in 1991, after the U.S.-led coalition crushed Saddam Hussein’s forces in Desert Storm with what seemed a combination of air power and information technology. Influential observers argued that this proved that a “revolution in military affairs” was underway, with information technology diminishing the importance of land power. Some went so far as to suggest that traditional ground combat had become a thing of the past, that future U.S. military power would be based on precision strikes delivered by air or space assets, perhaps coordinated and directed by a handful of special operations soldiers.

There was no question that the Army needed to undergo a substantial transformation to remain strategically relevant. Then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki pushed hard to replace difficult-to-deploy heavy forces with medium-weight, wheel-mobile combat brigades supported by an advanced gun system.

As Donald Rumsfeld became secretary of defense in 2001, the Pentagon embraced a more radical understanding of this “transformation,” aiming at an “information-age military force” that “will be less platform-centric and more network-centric.” Unfortunately, as military historian Fred Kagan has observed, Rumsfeld’s understanding of transformation is vague and confused. It is based on false premises and lies at the heart of our problems in Iraq.
Rumsfeld’s attitude toward land power illustrates this. Early on, the Secretary actually sought to go far beyond the Army’s plan and reduce the Army’s force structure from a mix of 10 heavy and light active-duty divisions to eight or fewer light divisions. He wanted to move all the Army’s heavy forces—armored and mechanized infantry—to the National Guard. As thinly stretched as our forces are today in Iraq and Afghanistan, imagine how things would be if the Army were 20 percent smaller and lacking in regular heavy forces.

Iraq has revealed several important things:

  • Land power remains as crucially important as it was in Fehrenbach’s time. Indeed, for the kinds of war we’re most likely to face in the future, we need a larger Army. A key assumption behind today’s Army force structure is that, when any conventional war ends, U.S. forces will execute an “exit strategy.” But Iraq and Afghanistan show otherwise: The United States requires a land force that can not only win conventional wars but also carry out stability operations afterward, engaging in complex, irregular warfare. Realistically, this requires the equivalent of at least two more combat divisions (plus support).
  • The “revolution in military affairs” wasn’t as revolutionary as once believed. As Stephen Biddle of the Army War College has argued, today’s battlefield is not qualitatively different from those of the last century but merely far more lethal. To achieve objectives, a military force must reduce its exposure to long-range lethal fire via the use of coordinated fires and maneuver, cover and concealment. This system, which the U.S. military has mastered, damps the effect of technological change and insulates soldiers from the full lethality of their opponents’ weapons. It depends more on leadership, training, morale, and unit cohesion than on technology per se.
  • The equation of “transformation” and “technology” in Rumsfeld’s Pentagon has harmed U.S. security. Military transformation has been shorn of its political and geostrategic context, reduced to nothing more than hitting the right military target independent of any political goal. This approach has some strengths; the U.S. military can identify crucial targets and destroy them with unprecedented accuracy and phenomenally low levels of collateral damage. But it has obscured the real challenge: to design military operations to achieve particular political objectives. After all, wars are not fought for their own purposes but to achieve a desired political outcomes. This blindness to the political objectives of war largely explains the amazing failure to take obvious postwar dangers and problems into account in the development of the Afghan and Iraq military campaigns.

Today’s astrategic understanding of transformation reflects a “business” approach to military affairs. It stresses an economic concept of efficiency at the expense of military and political effectiveness. But war is far more than a mere targeting drill. As Iraq has demonstrated, military success in destroying the “target set” does not translate automatically into achieving the political goals for which the war was fought in the first place.
America needs to repair the strategy-force mismatch that now afflicts the military. For better or worse, our nation now underwrites the security of much of the world. Accordingly, our strategy requires ground forces oriented not only toward winning wars but also to carrying out “constabulary” missions. Yet the Pentagon’s emphasis on buying high-tech weapons often underfunds the ground forces needed for such missions. Of course, some elements of military transformation will permit ground forces to do more with less, but the kind of war we’re fighting in Iraq today requires larger rather than smaller ground forces. If we’re unwilling to fight these kinds of war, our strategy will fail. But if we fight them without the necessary forces—especially land forces—it will fail as well.

Mackubin T. Owens is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center and a professor of national security affairs at the
Naval War College.