OWENS: Rumsfeld back in the Pentagon saddle

Obama’s new military to resemble Bush-era force

Is Donald Rumsfeld secretly advising the Obama Pentagon on force-planning issues? If the president’s recently proposed force structure is any indication, the answer is yes. The Pentagon’s plan, announced by Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, will substantially reduce conventional military forces, especially ground forces, while placing more emphasis on special operations forces and armed unmanned aerial vehicles.

The Army will eliminate at least eight brigade combat teams while reducing the number of active-duty soldiers from 570,000 to 490,000. Most of these cuts will likely fall on armored and heavy infantry units, while sparing more strategically mobile formations such as the Army’s two airborne divisions. The force structure proposal will also cut the smaller Marine Corps by some 20,000 troops.

Given the lightning rod that Mr. Rumsfeld became as George W. Bush’s secretary of defense, the irony here is that the new force structure mirrors many of the initiatives he pursued during his time in office. The controversies arising from the execution of the war in Iraq have obscured Mr. Rumsfeld’s commitment to “transforming” the U.S. military at the beginning of the Bush administration. This transformation was designed to leverage a putative information-age “revolution in military affairs” in order to reshape a heavily Cold War-era U.S. military lacking strategic mobility into an agile force capable of defeating more elusive adversaries anywhere around the globe.

To achieve transformation, Mr. Rumsfeld envisioned a substantial reduction in conventional ground forces, primarily within the U.S. Army, offset by an increase in the use of special operations forces. The early part of the war in Afghanistan, which saw small numbers of special operations personnel deployed with anti-Taliban forces, seemed to validate Mr. Rumsfeld’s vision of transformation. The image of U.S. special operations soldiers mounted on horseback, using laptops to coordinate air support for the Northern Alliance, was iconic for Mr. Rumsfeld.

As is the case today, the costs of Mr. Rumsfeld’s initiatives fell primarily on the U.S. Army. As a matter of fact, some used to joke that “transformation” was a code phrase for “cut the Army.” There is no question that the Army faced major problems in the post-Cold War security environment that required the service to undergo a substantial transformation if it was to remain strategically relevant. Then-Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Eric Shinseki was pushing hard to transform his service into a more adaptable, more easily deployable force capable of a greater range of missions than the Army he had inherited. Gen. Shinseki’s plan reduced the Army from 12 active-duty divisions to 10 and called for replacing difficult-to-deploy heavy forces with medium-weight, wheel-mobile combat brigades supported by an advanced gun system.

But Mr. Rumsfeld was not satisfied with Gen. Shinseki’s effort. According to news reports at the time, Mr. Rumsfeld wanted to go far beyond the Army’s transformation plan, reducing the Army’s force structure from Gen. Shinseki’s mix of 10 heavy and light active-duty divisions to eight or fewer light divisions. Mr. Rumsfeld reportedly wanted to transfer the Army’s heavy forces - armor and mechanized infantry - to the National Guard and Reserves. He also targeted Army programs such as the Crusader artillery system. These force structure and program decisions would spill over to create problems between the secretary and the Army during the Iraq War. No doubt he was retrospectively happy that his radical restructuring did not bear fruit when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan required substantial numbers of ground troops.

While there was merit to some of Mr. Rumsfeld’s decisions - just as there is to those of the Obama Pentagon - our experiences after Sept. 11 should provide a cautionary note. Then, as now, there was a heroic assumption at work: that the U.S. edge in emerging technologies, especially information technologies, would permit the United States to conduct short, decisive and relatively bloodless campaigns along the lines of the first Gulf War. The result was an approach that went under the name of “rapid decisive operations.” A corollary held that traditional ground combat was a thing of the past and that future U.S. power would be based on precision strikes delivered by air (today it is unmanned aerial vehicles) in conjunction with special operations teams.

Such strategic and operational happy talk - the idea that emerging weapons and information technology offered the promise of certainty and precision in warfare, and that since future wars would be short, strategic speed had become critical - was refuted by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, in which our adversaries responded in unexpected ways, adopting asymmetric and cost-incurring tactics. This is the danger we face today.

History seems to teach us that any force structure that is based on our purported ability to control events based on technological superiority is likely to fail at some point. The potential threats are too numerous and the very act of preparing for some reduces the likelihood that those are the ones we will face.

The Rumsfeld transformation case should be a warning to be very skeptical of attempts to eliminate or substantially reduce certain capabilities, e.g., land power, because we will only fight the kinds of wars that will permit us to leverage advanced technologies. Balanced forces have provided a hedge against uncertainty in the past and, as such, have served the interest of the United States well. As Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrated, sometimes we have to fight wars other than the ones we want to fight. And when we do, it is a good thing to have a robust ground combat capability.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College and editor of Orbis, the journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

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