The end of an era at Defense


NEW YORK — In the end, "the revolution devoured its own children."

Not the French one, although it happened there, too, as that quote from the German playright Georg Buchner famously noted.

The revolution I'm talking about is of a more recent vintage: the "Revolution in Military Affairs" — also known as the transformation — born in the 1990s as a Great Leap Forward for the American military after the Cold War, embraced by Donald Rumsfeld in 2001 as a way to "skip a generation of technology" and create a unilateral (read: American-dominated) world.

Last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates launched something of a counter-revolution in military affairs. Gates, the Bush administration holdover whom President Obama wisely chose to retain, said aloud what most observers of the U.S. military have thought for years now: America cannot afford to spend the majority of its defense procurement dollars on futuristic weapons which might, someday, turn out to be useful against a so far unknown rival. Especially while American soldiers are fighting, dying, and "not winning" infantry-based wars in southwest Asia.

Gates did not so much cut the defense budget as rearrange its priorities.

  • He pledged to continue to grow the U.S. Army and Marines, adding expensive personnel costs that the transformation crowd ached to limit, because to do otherwise stretched troops too thin.
  • He proposed an end to multibillion-dollar programs dear to the heart of various military services: the F-22 fighter, the Navy's CGX cruiser program, the Transformational Satellite program, the Army's "Future Combat System" concept.
  • Missile defense programs, having notorious trouble hitting targets during field tests, took a direct hit of their own in the form of canceled programs, too.

But the real culture shift was the idea that defense spending should be, as he put it, "tied to the actual and prospective capabilities of known future adversaries — not by what might be technologically feasible for a potential adversary given unlimited time and resources."


Transform or Die

In many ways, Gates' budget, and the fight which immediately erupted in Congress as lobbyists began raising alarms, is the final act of a drama which started when the Berlin Wall fell 20 years ago. Twin fears gripped Pentagon planners.

The first fear was of irrelevance. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and talk of a "peace dividend" by then-newly elected President Bill Clinton, large segments of the American military faced an almost existential crisis. Nuclear tipped ICBMs? Ballistic missile submarines? Huge armored divisions based in (gulp) a united Germany? Round-the-clock alerts for strategic bombers? The rationale for the weapons and tactics underpinning all these activities suddenly disappeared.

The second fear was less paranoid: mobility. The Cold War had led the military to expect that any serious war would take place on the plains of central Europe featuring U.S.-led NATO force slugging it out with the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact. The U.S. developed weapons systems, structured its forces, trained its soldiers, and deployed its units accordingly.

But in late 1990, when the military was ordered to lead a multinational strike against Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, it took nearly six months before enough of the military's gigantic, heavy divisions could mass in the Persian Gulf to counterattack.

Most people remember the "Powell doctrine" — the idea of fighting only when you can deploy overwhelming force and have a clear exit strategy — as the main takeaway from that war.

But some, including many who became senior aides to Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Gen. Colin Powell himself, drew precisely the opposite conclusion. The names will be familiar to those who followed events of the past several years: defense undersecretaries Douglas Feith, Stephen Cambone, and deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz. Don’t overwhelm them with troop numbers, they argued. Send fewer troops, but make then lighter, faster and more lethal.

For the Navy and Air Force, of course, lighter and faster translated, broadly, into business as usual. Both had been freshly re-armed by 1989, the end of the Reagan buildup, and had no intention of moth-balling high performance fighters, warships, or canceling orders.

For the Army and Marines, though, transformation translated into layoffs as the military sought to cut payroll to pay for new weapons. Much of this made sense, given that the wars then envisioned were smaller — on the scale of Bosnia, the Gulf War, or perhaps North Korea.

Yet as the Army dropped from a 780,000-strong force to 480,000 during the decade, the "enemy" had been transformed, too.


The 9/11 Opportunity

Transformation advocates saw their chance after 9/11 to prove their doctrine. In Afghanistan, American ground involvement was kept minimal in the first years. Instead, the U.S. relied on the proxy forces of the Northern Alliance to topple the Taliban and on multinational forces thereafter. The early victories were never cemented, and the Taliban is now back in strength.

In Iraq, a far larger country, the doctrine was applied again, to even worse results.

Several senior officers and policymakers who challenged the plan to keep barely 100,000 troops in the country after the "combat phase" ended found their careers cut short. Chief among them was Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki, who warned in 2003 it would take "several hundred thousand soldiers" to keep order in post-war Iraq. He was forced out early for that heresy, and only recently rejoined the government, this time as secretary of veterans affairs.

Blood and reality finally forced retreat on the "light and lethal" strategy. But while that battle played out, and troops were stop-lossed and sent back on multiple battle tours, the China-phobes in the other services pressed on with weapons systems of little use in either war. Some of them, particularly in the missile defense realm, had what Gates politely termed "significant affordability and technology problem.

"It's no longer acceptable to spend money on weapons designed to “run up the score in a capability where the United States is already dominant," Gates declared.

Now that truly is a transformation.

Michael Moran is executive editor of, the website of the Council on Foreign Relations.