Johns Hopkins Magazine - June 1994 Issue

Defensively Off Target

By Dale Keiger

The nation's blueprint for future defense is predicated on a kind of warfare that may never occur again, say four defense experts from Hopkins. The plan is unimaginative, unaffordableÄand already in effect.

In March 1993, the Department of Defense initiated what has come to be known as the Bottom-Up Review, or the BUR. The BUR was so named because it purported to examine U.S. defense policy from the bottom up now that the Cold War was over and the Soviet Union was not even a country, much less a threat. The 109-page final document, produced in less than eight months, constituted the blueprint for $1.3 trillion in defense spending by the Clinton administration over the next five years.

Four defense experts associated with Hopkins's Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) believe that the BUR, and thus American defense policy, is aiming at the wrong target. For when the BUR's authors gazed into the tea leaves, they foresaw a world made more dangerous by the proliferation of nuclear weapons, but otherwise filled with familiar threats, like Iraq. They decided that the United States needed the capability to fight and win two nearly simultaneous wars of the sort it fought in the Persian Gulf in 1991. The U.S. military, under the BUR's mandate, is now pursuing that capability.

The four SAIS expertsÄEliot A. Cohen, Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr., Jeffrey S. McKitrick, and Michael Vickers have gazed into the future, too, and they fear that the BUR ignores both more likely and more serious threats to American national security. The world they envision over the next 10 to 20 years is one big bad neighborhood. They expect constant low-grade warfare (low- grade on a historical scale, not to the combatants or the innocents caught in the crossfire) of the sort now occurring in Bosnia, Rwanda, the Republic of Georgia, Liberia, and Sudan. They foresee more aggression by what they call "non-state actors": Islamic extremists like Hamas, various insurgent movements, and warlord armies like those in Somalia. They anticipate regional belligerents like North Korea, Iran, and Iraq getting the capability to inflict mass destruction, principally through nuclear weapons.

In this world, the United States is unlikely, in their estimate, to once again fight a relatively straightforward war for control of territory like it fought in the Persian Gulf, much less two such wars at the same time, as the BUR envisions. They say that if the United States goes into battle againÄand there's little in history to give faith that it won'tÄit should not assume it will confront another massed, ineptly led conventional army. Instead, it will more likely face wily streetfighters like the ones who recently kicked U.S. troops out of Somalia, and terrorist armies capable of striking anywhere in the world, and techno-saboteurs bent on disrupting the world's electronic infrastructure.

Of greater concern, the SAIS experts agree that the United States cannot complacently assume it will remain the world's sole superpower. For no period of history, they point out, has one nation-state reigned supreme for long without a challenge from an emergent rival. They are particularly concerned about China and the need to forestall a major military confrontation in Asia. They don't see evidence in the BUR of the government planning for such an eventuality.

If the United States is to defend itself and its interests, they say, its strategists must stop thinking in terms of refighting the last war (albeit with better results), and figure out how best to fight the next one. They believe that the BUR fails to take sufficient account of the fundamental rethinking of all aspects of warÄtactics, operation, and strategyÄthat an unfolding technological revolution will necessitate. Those who fail to keep up with this revolution will be in peril, and the United States, they warn, is keeping up in technology but in danger of falling behind in strategic thinking.

In 1940, both France and Germany had modern armies, tanks, and airplanes. But the Germans had figured out how to combine them into the blitzkrieg, while the French were prepared only to use them to refight the First World War. In six weeks, German troops marched through Paris.

Cohen, Krepinevich, et al. do not want the United States of 2014 to be the France of 1940.

A professor of strategic studies at SAIS, Eliot Cohen also lectures at the National War College at Ft. McNair, Washington, D.C.; writes frequently for mainstream journals such as The New Republic, Foreign Affairs, National Review, and Commentary; and directed the Air Force's official analysis of the use of air power in the Persian Gulf War. He's the author of several books, most recently Military Misfortunes: The Anatomy of Failure in War (Vintage Books, 1991). His friend Andrew Krepinevich lectures at SAIS and is director of the non-profit, non- partisan Defense Budget Project, which studies national security policies and how defense dollars are and should be spent. Krepinevich is a graduate of Harvard and West Point, and the author of The Army and Vietnam (Johns Hopkins Press, 1986) and The Bottom-Up Review: An Assessment (Defense Budget Project, 1994).

Both men are strenuous critics of the intellectual quality of the BUR. Cohen calls it "a remarkably conservative and intellectually timid document." Krepinevich believes it was done too fast, with not enough time to consider alternatives to the sort of conventional military thinking that may have worked well in Kuwait in 1991, but may not work at all somewhere else in 1999.

They focus much of their criticism on the two-war scenario, citing history as justification. Never, says Krepinevich, starting with the American Revolution, has an enemy taken advantage of U.S. engagement in one conflict to start a second one. Why, he argues, should we plan for it to happen in the future? If the Defense Department is concerned about two simultaneous wars without historical precedent, why not three? Why not four? "The Pentagon is buying very expensive insurance against a very unlikely situation," he claims.

He and Cohen further argue that the BUR promises more than it can deliver. The United States, Cohen says, does not have the airlift and sealift capability to move troops to two simultaneous conflicts. He offers as evidence the Persian Gulf War, which required most of the U.S. air refueling capability, used virtually every F-117 Stealth fighter in the Air Force arsenal, needed help from commercial airlines to transport troops, and required the call-up of thousands of reservists.

Krepinevich has analyzed the BUR's numbers and does not see how the military can accomplish the mandated force levels and stay within the defense budget over the long term; to do so even in the short term, he says, would require sacrifices in training and modernization. The BUR states the number and types of armed forces needed for a two-war capability: a standing force of 1.5 million troops divided among 10 active Army divisions, 11 Navy carrier battlegroups (with a 12th carrier in reserve), five active Marine brigades, and 13 active Air Force wings. President Bill Clinton wants this defense structure to cost no more than $1.3 trillion during the next five years, a target $104 billion below the level projected by the last Bush administration plan.

Krepinevich says he can't be certain of the size of the budget discrepancy. But he has reviewed the BUR, media reports, the estimates of other analysts from the Defense Budget Project, and Congressional Budget Office reports, and he predicts that to pay for these forces the Defense Department could need anywhere from $11 billion to $50 billion more than the budget allows over the first five years. For the "out years," the years past the initial five-year budgeting period, he predicts a shortfall of $20 billion per year, and says that's the optimistic estimate. The services, presumably, are supposed to trim all those billions from their projected costs and still achieve the BUR's force goals, but Krepinevich asks, "How many billions can they cut before this whole structure begins to collapse?"

Cohen and Krepinevich argue that the BUR promotes preparation for the threat that is most familiarÄan opponent like IraqÄbecause that is the threat most recent. "They've been successful," Krepinevich says, speaking of the military's experience in the Persian Gulf, "so they're preparing to do again what they've done well in the past." The problem with this reasoning, Cohen points out, is that it seems to assume our enemies were not paying attention to the fate of Saddam Hussein's troops in Kuwait.

"Analysts and generals like to refight the last battle," he says. "Unfortunately, our opponents don't." Why, he asks, after the debacle in Kuwait, would another country (or Iraq, for that matter) try to fight us in the same way? "America's opponents 10 years hence will surely have found other, less comfortable ways of securing success than by imitating Saddam Hussein," Cohen wrote in a recent issue of The New Republic. "Indeed, as General Mohamed Farah Aideed has demonstrated in Somalia, they already have."

What the United States needs, Cohen and Krepinevich argue, are plans for combatting the more likely threat of unconventional enemies who won't repeat Iraq's mistakes. Krepin- evich envisions our next regional military confrontation as one in which we face what he calls a "streetfighter" state. This enemy, whoever it may be, doesn't invade its neighbor and then try to stand off the United States with massed armored battalions, like the Iraqis did. Nor does it allow full use of American strengths like technology and logistics. Instead, it conducts a series of aggressions against another state sufficiently low in intensity to make the American government and its allies unwilling to launch a Desert Storm-type response. It keeps its attacks small and sporadic. It engages in destabilization and terrorism. It works to subvert from within.

If it miscalculates and does provoke the United States into military action, it mingles its forces and strategic targets with civilian populations to make it hard for the United States to attack without killing innocent non-combatants. It threatens use of a mass- destruction weapon (a single nuclear weapon, or the credible possibility of having one, will do) to frighten away other countries from joining with the United States in a military coalition, or in trade sanctions or a blockade. It threatens environmental sabotage to any neighbor that allows the United States to base troops there. Once combat with U.S. forces begins, it does all it can to drag out the fighting, playing on the American public's historical impatience with protracted conflict and its reluctance to sustain casualties. It could ally itself with other states antagonistic to the United States, or with terrorist organizations.

Cohen points out that some of these streetfighter tactics worked in Mogadishu. "Basically, Somalia was a war we lost," he says. The BUR, he adds, does not address such situations.

Just as serious as these problems, say Cohen and Krepinevich, is the BUR's failure to address the revolutionary change in military technology that the public only glimpsed during the Gulf War. Michael Vickers is a 10-year veteran of the U.S. Army Special Forces and a PhD candidate under Cohen's tutelage. In his dissertation, he is attempting to develop a general theory of how revolutions in military capability take place. Vickers says that in the last 500 years, there have been eight of these revolutionary shifts, and he lists examples. In the 1500s, artillery provided the means to breach formerly impregnable castles. A century later, sailing ships with on-board artillery supplanted oar-driven galleys. In the mid-1800s, telegraph, railroads, and the development of accurate rifles forever changed infantry fighting, as demonstrated in the American Civil War. The Second World War saw the first effective use of mechanized armored warfare and naval aviation. A mushroom cloud over Hiroshima announced the advent of the nuclear military revolution. In each of these instances, war changed dramatically. SAIS's strategic thinkers believe another such revolution is under way.

Jeffrey McKitrick, SAIS '81, is directing a five-year study of this revolution at Science Applications International Corporation, under contract to the Pentagon's Office of Net Assessment. "People tend to think tomorrow will be like today, only a little more so," he says. But he believes that on the battlefield, at least, tomorrow will be much unlike today.

The revolution now underway, according to McKitrick, is high tech, information driven, and very deadly. He foresees weaponryÄsome in development but much of it already hereÄof incredible range, accuracy, and lethality. He says, "The Gulf War was only the precursor of the kind of things we'll be able to do. Lethality is going to increase by orders of magnitude. What it took 500,000 men to do in the Persian Gulf will be done by 50,000. Everything is becoming smaller, faster, and deadlier." Though not cheaper.

For centuries and up to the Gulf War, warfare has amounted to this: the necessity of figuring out where the enemy is, then getting close enough to kill him before he kills you, with all of this taking place under the horrific and chaotic conditions described by the eerily benign phrase "the fog of war." War is still about killing the enemy before he can kill you, but everything else is changing rapidly. Start with that metaphoric "fog of war," for example. It has always been hard, sometimes impossible, to know where you are on a battlefield and where the enemy is. Now, American troops go into battle with hand-held Global Positioning Systems, the size of paperback novels, that use satellite signals to pinpoint precisely where they are standing, in just a few seconds.

Satellites help soldiers figure out where the enemy is standing, as well. Highly defined satellite imagery, manned and unmanned reconnaissance aircraft, and advanced radar can pinpoint the location of enemy units right down to individual vehicles. Night-vision technology removes the cloak of darkness that used to hide troop movements. If the enemy tries to use radio communications or its own radar, high-tech guided weaponry locks on to those signals and follows them to their sources, destroying them. During the Gulf War, the Iraqis often did not turn on their air- defense radar because they feared that American radar- seeking missiles would wipe them out if they did.

The fog is not all gone. Cohen says Gulf War commanders sometimes had too much information; the overload created a new sort of fog, leading to misinterpretation of data, as well as hasty decisions made because ever-changing information left little time for calm ratiocination. A wily opponent can still hide a lot; American troops never did find Mohamed Farah Aideed in Mogadishu, and the official Gulf War Air Power Survey, directed by Cohen, states there's no evidence that American planes ever succeeded in knocking out a single one of Iraq's mobile SCUD missile launchers.

Still, troops on a battlefield and military installations anywhere in the theater of combat have become vulnerable to American military technology as never before. "We can see targets at great distances, and they can't see us," Krepinevich says. Says McKitrick, "Data moves so fast that information can alter everything on the battlefield not in days, not in minutes, but in nanoseconds."

There's a new strategic mantra, simplistic and not entirely accurate but indicative all the same: "If it's there, we can find it. If we can find it, we can hit it. And if we can hit it, we can kill it." Once U.S. forces find the enemy, they can hit it from greater distances than ever before. Those memorable video images on CNN during the Gulf War vividly portrayed the accuracy of precision guided weaponry, the so-called "smart bombs." Smart bombs aren't always as accurate as the Pentagon public relations apparatus would like the public (who pays for them) to believe, but when the bombs do work, their destructive capabilities are remarkable. A U.S. warship can launch a Tomahawk cruise missile and hit a specific building hundreds of miles away. Apache attack helicopters can hover in the dead of night and destroy enemy tanks whose doomed occupants didn't even know a helicopter was in the vicinity.

As the weapons have become more accurate, they've also become more deadly. A strike on a command bunker, bridge, or enemy tank doesn't merely inflict damage, as it might have 20 years ago. Now the strike often destroys. In From Gettysburg to the Gulf and Beyond, Colonel Richard J. Dunn III notes that during the Vietnam War, American fighter-bombers needed more than 700 sorties to destroy one bridge near Hanoi; during the Persian Gulf War, single F-117 Stealth fighters took out Iraqi bridges on the first try. The trend is toward even greater lethality. McKitrick says weapons researchers are approaching the capability to inflict a magnitude of damage a hundred times greater than that of any high explosive now in the arsenal. One method, McKitrick says, could be to tremendously compress a substance like mercury, under extreme temperature and pressure, then shatter it, releasing enormous energy.

Hand in hand with the development of advanced weaponry has come its proliferation. Says Krepinevich, "History would indicate that once the genie is out of the bottle regarding advanced military technology, sooner or laterÄusually soonerÄcountries that want it and can afford it acquire it." Much of this stuff is on the open market; countries can simply go shopping at the international arms bazaar. Krepinevich says Iran, besides investing in components for its own nuclear weapons program, is buying or shopping for cruise missiles and diesel-powered submarines from the Russians. From the Chinese it seeks ballistic missiles, Silkworm anti-ship missiles, and sophisticated underwater mines.

A country can easily obtain much of what might be called collateral high technologyÄnon-weaponry that has military applicationÄbecause such technology is in commercial use. During the Gulf War, says McKitrick, 70 percent of American UHF communication took place over commercial networks. Well-heeled backpackers can buy Global Positioning Systems through advertisements in Outside magazine. Several countries, including France, Russia and the United States, sell detailed satellite imagery. One person with a personal computer can locate and track targeted individual vehicles throughout the world; Federal Express does it every business day. Commercial encryption software has become so sophisticated that even the code-breakers at the National Security Agency are no longer confident of their ability to decrypt intercepted communications.

Among lesser powers, the most worrisome proliferating items are nuclear weapons. Cohen says, "It's 50-year-old technology, and anybody who really wants it can get it. What's particularly frightening is that anybody can get it without our knowing. You can hide an amazing amount. We're not omniscient at all." In directing the Gulf War Air Power Survey, Cohen was impressed by how far Iraq had gotten with its nuclear program despite the West's sophisticated surveillance. He is particularly concerned about the whereabouts of all the nuclear weapons scattered about what used to be the Soviet Union. "My personal hunch would be that some of those nukes have gone astray," he says. "If everything else has gone astray, why wouldn't people be able to buy nuclear weapons?"

Vickers thinks that within 30 years instead of a dozen or fewer nuclear powers, as now (the United States; Russia and the former Soviet republics of Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus; Britain; France; China; Israel; India; probably Pakistan; possibly South Africa), the world may have 20 or more. Cohen thinks the expanded roster could include among others Iran, Algeria, North Korea, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Poland, Germany, and Japan.

All this diffusion of technology creates one overriding headache for American strategic planners: the greatly enhanced capacity for mischief by developing nations. Cohen and Krepinevich offer several examples of how a country that couldn't directly threaten the territory of the United States could still pose a serious threat to American global interests. Imagine for a moment that Saddam Hussein had had a credible nuclear threat when he invaded Kuwait. Would Saudi Arabia have allowed the American-led coalition to use its territory for staging Desert Storm? If North Korea develops missiles with nuclear warheads, will Japan feel compelled to get its own nuclear capability? How will China respond to that? If Algeria gets nukes and points them at Europe or Israel, what does the United States do on behalf of its allies? What does the United States do if Iran develops biological weapons? What happens if a hacker in India, which has lots of computer programmers, decides American foreign policy has tilted too far toward Pakistan and manages to hack into and crash the U.S. computerized banking transfer system?

The advent of new weaponry and military technology is only the first part of military revolutions, McKitrick says. The second part is a revolution in strategy, tactics, and organization. High-tech weapons proliferate, but not everyone will use them the same way. Some nations, as did the aforementioned France in 1940, will try to use them in the same way as older weapons. Others, recalling Nazi Germany, will figure out new strategic doctrines and organizational schemes that make overpowering use of new technology.

New weapons used in old ways can lead to disaster against opponents who use new weapons in new ways (or even old weapons in new ways). In the future, agree Cohen, Krepinevich, McKitrick, and Vickers, the enemy with a deadly, innovative strategy may not be a lesser power like North Korea or Iran. Somewhere down the road, they say, a new superpower will emerge, and it will be a serious problem for the United States if it's that rival that first develops the next strategic equivalent of blitzkrieg.

Their candidate for the next superpower rival to the United States is China. The Chinese have a booming economy, vast resources, and an enormous population that 30 years from now, according to Vickers, will consist mostly of people ages 20 to 65, the most productive years. They will be at the center of the world's next great economic center, northeastern Asia. And they feel entitled to a place among the world's great powers.

If the United States wants to forestall another confrontation of the sort it endured for four decades with the Soviet Union, says Krepinevich, it should be working now to develop new strategic doctrines that could foster cooperation and integration in a peaceful world order. He advocates more experimentation in the Defense Department and armed services, to develop organizational schemes better able to cope with the likely contingencies of the near future, such as peacekeeping missions or combat with a streetfighter enemy. He points out that the current organization of the defense budget remains based on a primary mission formulated 30 years ago.

Greater emphasis on forward thinking need not cost much, says McKitrick: "You don't need a lot of money to think." Krepinevich points out that between World War I and World War II, Admiral William Sowden Simms worked out naval aviation doctrines and Marine General John Archer Lejeune developed methods of amphibious island assault on shoestring research budgets.

What they did have, however, was incentive and encouragementÄinstitutional support, says Cohen. For people in the defense establishment to think through the long-term implications and innovative applications of revolutionary technology, someone must provide them with the time, resources, and motivation. The present system, as epitomized in the BUR, Cohen says, tends to encourage a short-term view. Presidents, defense secretaries, service secretaries, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff usually serve short terms, sometimes less than four years. Their first concern is that nothing go wrong on their watch. They are insufficiently interested (and, says Cohen, provided with insufficient reason to be interested) in working on plans that may not pay off for 10 or 20 years. People lower in the ranks could do it, but the promotion system tends to discourage creative thinking, says Krepinevich; the way for a captain or major to make top rank is to master the tried and true.

"I don't have a master solution to all this," Cohen says. But he believes a solution starts with a president who is aware of the need to plan for the changes under way in warfare; who will devote time and energy to defense issues; and who wants his defense secretary to take charge of the Pentagon instead of merely preventing the military from giving him grief. "An enormous amount hinges on the president," Cohen says. "You have to have a president who thinks foreign policy and military affairs are important. And that's not the president we have."

When asked if he thinks the United States can sustain its present strategic advantage over the next few decades, McKitrick says, "Unknown, and fraught with unknown unknowns. There's no way to tell if we're doing enough." Krepinevich likes to quote the saying: "Predicting is difficult, especially about the future." He defends his conclusions versus those of the BUR's authors in this way: "Their work is an extrapolation out of the Cold War. My work is an extrapolation out of centuries of history. It's the history of revolutionary change that you have to look at."

Eliot Cohen does feel confident about one thing, though: "The only thing I'm sure of is that defense analysts are not going to go out of business."

Dale Keiger is the magazine's senior writer.

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