They Call It Transformation

Feb. 1, 1998

For the past two years, the armed forces and the Department of Defense have slogged through one study after another, trying to scope out the future. It began with Joint Vision 2010 in 1996. Then came the Deep Attack Weapons Mix Study, the Joint Strategy Review, and the Quadrennial Defense Review.

The most recent explication was by the National Defense Panel, created by Congress to check the work of the QDR. The title of its report, published Dec. 1, was “Transforming Defense: National Security in the 21st Century,” signifying the panel’s belief that minor adjustments will not be sufficient to do the job.

For the most part, though, the NDP analysis confirmed what the previous studies said. Information and long-range precision strike technologies have changed the nature of war, taking us beyond the inevitability of massive, force-on-force engagements. The NDP produced a template of critical capabilities–mobility, stealth, speed, increased range, precision strike, and a “small logistics footprint”–that will rise in importance between 2010 and 2020.

“The cornerstone of America’s continued military preeminence is our ability to project combat power rapidly and virtually unimpeded to widespread areas of the globe,” the report said, adding that “there is a high premium on forces that can deploy rapidly, seize the initiative, and achieve our objectives with minimal risk of heavy casualties.” The report recommended “air forces with greater emphasis on operating at extended ranges with tactical air and long-range aircraft and unmanned aerial systems.” It also recognized the growing potential to detect, identify, and track large numbers of targets over a large area.

From this, it might have been supposed that airpower and spacepower would be central to the plans for transformation. They are a remarkable fit with the template. When it got down to cases, unfortunately, the report trailed off in equivocal and less certain directions.

Last spring, for example, the Quadrennial Defense Review recognized the prime operational requirement to halt an enemy force rapidly, short of its objective, perhaps avoiding thereby the need for a costly ground campaign to evict the enemy from captured territory. The “halt” phase was conspicuous by its absence in the NDP report. The exclusion was the work of a faction opposed to giving airpower (obviously pivotal to the halt phase) too prominent a role.

The NDP could be specific when it wanted to be. It said that the Navy should accelerate transition to the CVX class of carriers, and that the Army should develop a 21st century tank in the 30­35 ton range.

By contrast, enthusiasm for long-range airpower was in the abstract only. NDP spokesmen were at pains to say they did not endorse the B-2 bomber, which exemplifies that capability, or a follow-on to it, such as a B-3.

For whatever reason, the panel decided not to pursue or recommend “alternative force structures,” although it had been asked to do so by Congress in the charter for the study.

It is standard procedure to deny that this review or any of the others was budget driven. However, if the only issues were military threats and requirements, we probably would have accepted Joint Vision 2010 as the best judgment of the military professionals and gotten on with it. In reality, much of what keeps these study groups churning–and what creates animosities in the conduct of them–is the question of resources and budgets. Note that the most persistent criticism of the NDP has been that it did not propose deep cuts to programs and force structure.

The NDP called for a shift in emphasis and funding to “initiatives in intelligence, space, urban warfare, joint experimentation, and information operations.” Additional funding of $5 billion to $10 billion a year will be needed for this, the report said. As the panel surely knew, the defense program has been chronically underfunded since 1993.

The most frequently mentioned bill payers for the “transformation” initiatives are further military base realignments and closures–which would be a very tough peanut to roll up Capitol Hill–and airpower.

The NDP grouped three aircraft programs-the Air Force F-22, the Joint Strike Fighter, and the Navy F/A-18EF–into one undifferentiated lump, noted their cost, and questioned the number and mix the services intend to purchase. The point seems to be that the nation could and should divest itself of Cold War “legacy” systems, especially expensive airplanes, and use the money for something else.

The NDP was generically in favor of innovation, experimentation, and change, but its disapproval of the present defense program was stronger and much better defined than its concept of the future. We may be headed for a transformation, but this wasn’t it.

For better or worse, the NDP report wasn’t the last word in the matter, any more than Joint Vision 2010 or the Quadrennial Defense Review were. Still more studies seeking to scope out the future are already in the works. The next one will be conducted by a “21st Century National Security Strategy Study Group,” established by the Defense Appropriations Act in September.

Stand by.