The Pentagon's battle to sell to Donald Rumsfeld

May 11, 2001|By Franklin Spinney

WASHINGTON -- A battle for the mind of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is forming in the Pentagon amid the multibillion-dollar debate over how the U.S. military should transform itself.

Mr. Rumsfeld wisely has been conducting a strategic review of military threats, opportunities and a variety of management problems. Given the political pressures to protect the status quo, his challenge is daunting.

On the management level, the Pentagon is broken. The modernization program cannot update existing forces, even if production plans unfold perfectly. The predicted savings of "acquisition reform" have not materialized; procurement costs are increasing.

Sharply rising operating costs preclude high readiness, even though we spend more dollars per unit of combat power than we did at the height of the Cold War (accounting for inflation).

The end of the Cold War and the rise of irregular warfare also raise basic questions about the nature of the threat, the purpose of the military and its structure.

The special interests -- the military-industrial-congressional complex -- that benefit from a continuation of the status quo are worried: Dollars, jobs and profits are at risk.

When unsettling change is accompanied by a dearth of simple answers, the strategy in the war for Mr. Rumsfeld's mind will be to wear him down by bombarding him with easy answers to tough questions -- or "silver bullets," to use the Pentagon term.

These will take the form of transformation "visions" portrayed in glitzy Power Point briefing slides. At their heart will be another "revolution in military affairs," or RMA, Pentagonese for a futuristic architecture of sensors, computerized decision centers and long-range guided weapons.

In this newest RMA, robotic sensors placed in satellites or on unmanned aircraft will detect and track targets. This data would be transmitted to computerized centers that will identify and classify the targets to determine which ones should be "killed." The computers will then transmit the detailed guidance and control information to long-range guided weapons, which are fired at the targets.

In this vision, commanders are never confused, fear does not affect rationality, mental clarity is the rule, the fog of war is an anachronism and weapons are fired from safe distances to strike with unerring accuracy.

But this substitution of techno-fantasy for tough decisions is hardly a revolution.

The RMA is a rehash of what the techno-gurus sold to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in the 1960s -- the so-called electronic line in Vietnam. It was a computerized see-decide-strike system that failed to halt North Vietnamese infiltration down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

The idea was to sow camouflaged robotic sensors in the jungle that were linked via airborne relays to a computer center in Thailand, which would direct air or artillery strikes on the targets.

The RMA is based on the same old world view in which the enemy is an unthinking system of targets, and strategy boils down to assigning weapons to those targets. Like the French techno-theorists who designed the Maginot Line, the New Age swamis see war as a predictable engineering problem to be solved by a mechanical marvel, not the unpredictable evolutionary stew of imagination, chance and necessity.

Indeed, we now have better sensors, faster computers and more accurate weapons. Like their predecessors in Vietnam, the gurus claim their technologies will transform the nature of war.

But this time they are talking about a vaguely defined war in the distant future against an unknown adversary. Nevertheless, to make their claim today, they must know exactly what the world will look like in 20 years because, like all social engineers, they are selling a precise design.

Lost in the arrogant certainty of their predictions is any humility stemming from their failure to foresee the end of the Cold War while it was ending.

Let's hope they don't win this war because the politically driven, dollar-laden elixir of techno-revolution has become wildly disconnected from the dirty reality of combat, which should be evident from our inability to hit tactical targets in Kosovo.

Franklin Spinney, an engineer, is a civilian with the Office of Program Analysis and Evaluation in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. The views expressed here are his own.

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