U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his senior staff rarely miss an opportunity to tout “transformation,” the idea that the U.S. military must move away from weapons platforms, organizational structures, and doctrines designed for the Cold War toward a more nimble, high-tech, and cost-effective future. This idea won early support from candidate George W. Bush, who signed on to the “next generation military” vision in a 1999 speech at The Citadel. This new CFR Backgrounder provides a detailed look at military force structures.
Since 9/11, however, the “new architecture of American defense” promised by Bush and Rumsfeld necessarily took a back seat to operational realities—first in Afghanistan, and then in Iraq. Rumsfeld insists—as he did just last month—that the wars actually complement transformation efforts. But critics, including many high-ranking officers involved in the Iraq planning and combat effort, say the secretary’s zeal to show what a “smaller, more lethal” force can do created the post-war collapse of authority in Iraq . The clash of this vision and Iraq’s reality is chronicled in depth by Michael R. Gordon and Gen. Bernard E. Trainor in their book, Cobra II.
Questions have also been raised about the need for expensive new classes of destroyers and cruisers for the Navy. The Government Accountability Office, the congressional watchdog, and others questioned the need for two separate, expensive high-performance fighter jets, the F/A-22 (PDF) and F-35 “Joint Strike Fighter” (PDF), when those in the current U.S. inventory are matched by no foreign foe. "Why is the Pentagon still throwing money (LAT) into high-tech gadgets of dubious utility while ignoring the glaring imperative for more boots on the ground?" asks Max Boot, CFR’s senior fellow on military affairs.
Today, critics say, “transformation” gets defined so broadly as to be almost meaningless. Walter Fairbanks, assistant director of Rumsfeld’s Office of Transformation, described it recently as an effort to “support the U.S. defense strategy, and sustain and enhance the Nation’s (sic) competitive advantage in warfare.” (Joint Forces Quarterly) (PDF).
The initiatives highlighted on the Pentagon’s “transformation” website include some striking departures from U.S.military doctrine. As Rumfeld argues, some, like the armed Predator drone, grew directly out of the needs of the Afghan war. So, too, did the Army’s Stryker wheeled-armored vehicle. Vigorously opposed by tank devotees, faster development might have saved hundreds of lives lost when the military was forced to press vulnerable Humvees into Iraq patrol duty.
Nonetheless, procurement money continues to flow to weapons no one would describe as transformed—for instance, the Navy’s latest amphibious transport, the San Antonio-class LPD. Transformation advocates tried hard a few years ago to push a larger version of the new “Stiletto” craft as a generational leap forward from the San Antonios. (U.S. forces came across such a craft operated by the Australian Navy in East Timor in 1998). But the slow-moving LPDs, in spite of the high-profile they present to enemy missiles, proved quite survivable in the American procurement system, built as they are in Mississippi, home to two powerful Republican senators, Trent Lott and Thad Cochran.
For deeper reading, CFR’s Boot tackled the nexus of transformation and the “wars of 9/11” in Foreign Affairs last year. For further background, the Congressional Research Service offers recent issue guides on the overhaul of Special Operations Forces (PDF), the Air Force (PDF) and its new fighters (PDF), and the Navy (PDF). The Congressional Budget Office examines the sustainability of the Navy’s building plans (PDF), and the Project for Defense Alternatives offers an updated site with scholarly papers on the so-called “Revolution in Military Affairs.” For deep background, Boot’s new book, War Made New, examines the impact new technologies have had on war throughout history.