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Naval Institute: Invasion of the Transformers

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    Invasion of the Transformers

    By Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired)
    Proceedings, October 2003

    The Transformers have landed. Disguised as mere mortals, they have infiltrated every nook and cranny of the military/industrial complex. But has anything really changed?

    "Transformation" is the latest and greatest buzzword in U.S. military affairs. It may already have displaced the loathsome "robust"—though you no doubt will hear plenty of talk in coming years about "robust transformation." We should seriously question whether all this transformation talk isn't just another Pentagon/Department of Defense parlor trick. Every few years, our military expends enormous effort and tax dollars to put a new shine on its apple. Transformation has had many predecessors, the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) being just one of them. Will it accomplish anything that RMA didn't, or have we, once again, simply changed "happy" to "glad"?

    New Thinking?

    U.S. Joint Forces Command (JFCom), tasked by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to put a "laser focus" on the transformation effort, states that shaping the force of the future will require us to "think differently" to evolve a "new" military that will, among other things:
  • Protect the U.S. homeland and our forces overseas
  • Project and maintain power in distant theaters
  • Deny our enemies sanctuary1

    Hold on. At what point in U.S. history—since the Spanish-American War, anyway—did we not seek to protect the homeland and our forces overseas, or to project and sustain power in distant theaters? And when, exactly, did we seek to provide our enemies sanctuary? This isn't bad thinking per se. But different? In line with the "different thinking" mandate, the individual services developed doctrines to describe how they plan to conform to the joint transformation vision. "Naval Transformation Roadmap: Power and Access ... From the Sea," the foundation of "Sea Power 21," is a 24-page document, but once you pump its bilge, it basically says:

  • With Sea Strike, our Navy and Marine Corps will project air and land power ashore.
  • With Sea Shield, our Navy and Marine Corps will ensure they have access to seas from which they can project power ashore.
  • With Sea Basing, our Navy and Marine Corps will project power ashore from seas they have access to.2

    These things have been stated core competencies and missions of U.S. naval forces for a long, long time. Good concepts, but "transformational" ones? Hardly.

    It is well and good to promulgate doctrine that defines the operating principles of a force or service. It also is well and good to stick with time-tested philosophies. But it is another thing altogether to dust off old ideas, rename them, and market them as new, revolutionary, or transformational. We are wise to be wary of "original" thinking that is no more original—or virtuous—than original sin.

    New Stuff?

    Our different thinking, JFCom states, will enable us to "develop the kinds of forces and capabilities that can adapt quickly to new challenges and circumstances."3 But just how different will our future forces be from the ones we developed to adapt to the challenges and circumstances of World War II?

    In World War II, we had armor, artillery, and infantry. We had aircraft carriers, surface combatants, and submarines. We had bombers, fighters, and reconnaissance aircraft. We had air and surface lift, air and amphibious assault, and special operations.

    What do we have now that is so different? Computers? They're just the electronic progeny of the abacus. Cruise and ballistic missiles? Unmanned aerial vehicles? They're fighters, bombers, and reconnaissance aircraft flown by silicone monkeys. Satellites? They're balloons that don't explode in a vacuum. Information and intelligence? Command and control, synergy, net-centric warfare? Basic forms of these concepts and technologies have been around since Sun Tzu was a sergeant. Coordinating force effects is coordinating force effects, whether you do it with computer networks or smoke signals. Sure, the stuff we have now runs faster, jumps higher, and stops on a smaller dime than the stuff we had in World War II. But all we really have done is trade our cheap-o P.F. Flyers for high-dollar Air Jordans.

    How different will the force of the future look from the one we have now? Will armor, artillery, infantry, carriers, subs, fighters, bombers and the rest of it disappear in the fog of transition? Don't bet a paycheck on it.

    New War?

    After 11 September, a horde of military "experts" invaded the print and electronic media, telling us the war on terrorism is a "new" kind of war. "New," they explained, because it involves diplomacy, intelligence, law enforcement, media, asymmetric threats, competing ideologies, and a whole menu of stuff Clausewitz and Sun Tzu would both tell you have been aspects of warfare since rocks were state-of-the-art standoff weapons.

    One of JFCom's banner "new war" concepts is rapid decisive operations (RDO). RDO promises military practices that "integrate knowledge, [command and control], and operations to achieve the desired political/military effect," culminating in an end state where "the adversary, suffering from a loss of coherence . . . chooses to cease actions that are against U.S. interests."4

    Does JFCom really believe (or want us to believe) it can rapidly and decisively achieve our desired political effects? The war on terrorism will not end any time soon. Your grandkids will complain about the hassles of passing through airport security. Some of them, no doubt, will serve with "peacekeeping" forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    Many like to call Operation Iraqi Freedom "Gulf War II." In truth, Gulf War I never ended. Desert Storm went on for more than a decade in the form of no-fly zones, maritime intercept operations, and other military actions. The major combat phase of Iraqi Freedom ended relatively quickly, but U.S. troops in that theater still are suffering "minor" combat casualties. As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman observed, "We just adopted a baby named Baghdad . . . raising that baby . . . is going to be a mammoth task."5

    We fought North Korea to a draw more than 50 years ago, and it still is giving us fits. Could we possibly do something now, or in the near future, that would bring more than a half-century of chain jerking from this country that can't even feed its own people to a rapid, decisive end?

    Will we, through "new" military doctrines, experiments, technologies, net-centricities, and other "transformations," make China quit its claim on Taiwan? Or turn the Balkans region all peace-love-and-understanding? Will Juan Valdez decide he can feed his family better by growing coffee and bananas than by growing coca plants? Again, keep a tight grip on that paycheck. No question, transformation and its associated concepts will continue to ensure our tactical superiority against any adversary, and that is a very good thing. We don't want to send our sons and daughters into combat with anything but the very best weapons and platforms we can give them. But tactical superiority does not ensure desired political end states. We were tactically superior in Vietnam, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, and a host of other wars, conflicts, operations, and actions. Fat lot of good it did us.

    Same Old Stuff

    In his February 2003 Proceedings article, "Understanding Transformation," General Richard B. Myers assured us that "transformation" will be more than just "20th-century forces being renamed with 21st-century titles." Moreover, he condemned the mind-set that could inspire "program managers to declare their programs 'transformational' and therefore safe in the budget process."6 The general's guidance and leadership in this area are laudable, but he's turning a blind eye to reality. "Transformation," from what we've seen of it so far, is exactly about giving new names to old stuff, and selling programs on the bases of their catchphrase sex appeal. This is such a deeply rooted, institutionalized practice in military/industrial circles that it will take far longer than the tenure of any one chairman or cabinet secretary to eradicate it.

    General Myers states, "Transformation is not just about technology." He's right in one sense—it shouldn't be. But one would be hard-pressed to find anything written on the subject that isn't about technology. Yes, at some point, "our people" get credit for being the true cornerstone of effective fighting forces (as they should), but at the end of the day, the real measure of our people seems to be their ability to maintain and operate our technology.

    A prime example of the folly of putting all our eggs in the technology basket is the V-22 Osprey. The U.S. Marine Corps based its whole maneuver concept on the belief that the Osprey project would develop and deliver as promised. It hasn't so far, and there's a very real chance it never will. What will the Marine Corps do then? Launch a "robust" effort to "transform" its doctrine? Even if the Osprey finally coughs up the goods, as some sources suggest it will, how should we characterize thinking that bets the farm on an unproven technology? "Dumber than dirt" comes to mind.

    New Dogs, Old Tricks

    JFCom's Millennium Challenge warfare experimentation project has produced the effects-based operations (EBO) process, to "obtain a desired strategic outcome or 'effect' on the enemy, through the synergistic, multiplicative, and cumulative application of the full range of military and nonmilitary capabilities at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels."7 Take a fire hose to all those modifiers and you get, "obtain a desired strategic outcome through military and nonmilitary capabilities." A wonderful idea, at its core, but not one conceived by the contemporary minds at JFCom.

    In a recent Proceedings piece, retired Marine Lieutenant Colonel Scott Lindsey accurately observed, "Many people . . . think (EBO) is a 'new way to fight.' Not true. Effects-based operations is a 21st-century paraphrase of an old way to fight, one first written about 2,502 years ago by Sun Tzu [who wrote] 'Shape [the enemy] with effects.'"8 So much for "new" thinking.

    In the end, controversy smothered JFCom's Millennium Challenge 2002 war game. The red force commander, retired Marine Lieutenant General Paul Van Riper, said it was "almost entirely scripted to ensure a Blue win" for the sake of validating the EBO and RDO concepts—a rubber stamp of the company line rather than an honest test of the worth of emerging concepts and weapon platforms. As Professor Mackubin Owens of the Naval War College wrote, "The danger of scripted war games that showcase rather than test emerging ideas is that they open the way to the imposition of orthodoxy or dogma." Professor Owens also points out that such practices on the part of French general staff led to France's defeat by the German blitzkrieg in 1940.9
    Buyer Beware
    None of this is to say that everything surrounding the transformation movement is bad. Today's force is profoundly more capable than the one we fielded in Gulf War I. We can reasonably expect that our future force will be exponentially more combat capable than the one we have now.

    Still, the promise of a transformed military that can, in conjunction with other sources of national power, achieve our strategic objectives at the snap of the fingers is in keeping with the finest traditions of other revolutions and transformations in warfare. World War I, "the war to end all wars," promised to make all warfare obsolete. Air power promised to make all other forms of military power obsolete. Atomic weapons promised to make conventional warfare obsolete. Promises, promises.

    Professor Owens has rightfully noted, "If the books are being 'cooked' on behalf of bureaucratically favored concepts or weapon systems, the butcher's bill will be paid on some future battlefield."10 Taking this caution one step further, if we're not careful, we'll wind up with a "new" world order that is nothing like the one we envisioned when the Berlin Wall came down, because we couldn't discriminate between "spit and polish" and "shinola." Because we bought something advertised as genuine magic that was merely sleight-of-hand.

    1. U.S. Joint Forces Command, "What Is Transformation?" http://www.jfcom.mil/about/transform.html[accessed 25 February 2003].
    2. Naval Transformation Roadmap: Power and Access . . . From the Sea, 1-8. Readers can find Admiral Vern Clark’s "Sea Power 21" article, originally published in the October 2002 Proceedings, at http://www.chinfo.navy.mil/navpalib/cno/proceedings.html [accessed 12 May 2003].
    3. U.S. Joint Forces Command, "What Is Transformation?"
    4. U.S Joint Forces Command, "Joint Forces Command Glossary," http://www.jfcom.mil/about/glossary.htm#RDO [accessed 25 February 2003].
    5. Thomas Friedman, "Our New Baby," The New York Times, 4 May 2003. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/top/opinion/editorialsandoped/oped/ columnists/thomaslfriedman/index.html [accessed 6 May 2003].
    6. Gen. Richard B. Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, "Understanding Transformation," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, February 2003, p. 40.
    7. U.S. Joint Forces Command, "Joint Forces Command Glossary."
    8. LCol. Scott Lindsey, USMC (Ret.), Comment & Discussion, U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, February 2003, p. 29.
    9. Mackubin Thomas Owens, Robert Burns, Vago Muradian, Sean Naylor, et al., "Smoke 'n’ Mirrors: DOD Business as Usual," http://www.geocities.com/equipmentshop/transformationlies.htm [accessed 25 February 2003]. This site contains a compilation of articles on the Millennium Challenge 2002 controversy.
    10. Owens et al., "Smoke 'n’ Mirrors."

    Commander Huber is a freelance writer and a regular Proceedings contributor. He recently coauthored a piece on command and control of U.S. naval forces for Jane’s Fighting Ships.

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