- The Washington Times - Friday, May 22, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

Is Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates forcing the military to build the modern-day equivalent of the Maginot Line when farsighted military leaders recommend instead more mobile and dynamic defense systems? This, unfortunately, seems to be the case now that Mr. Gates has canceled development of Future Combat Systems (FCS) vehicles.

The Maginot Line was a series of heavily protected, fixed-base fortifications that France built along its border with Germany between 1930 and 1940. Static defensive combat in World War I had convinced the French that impenetrable fortifications were the key to military success.

However, the Germans rendered the Maginot Line useless when they harnessed rapidly developing new technologies - aircraft and motorized transport - to develop a new style of maneuver warfare, the Blitzkrieg. This enabled the Germans to bypass the Maginot Line and quickly conquer France.

The more progressive elements of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps are, likewise, trying to harness modern-day information technologies to develop a new style of maneuver warfare for the 21st century. Unfortunately, they are encountering stiff resistance from politicians and military leaders such as Mr. Gates who seem wedded to more traditional and static elements of military power.



Heavy armor certainly has been integral to troop survivability in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the proliferation of technology and the ubiquity of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) have demonstrated that our enemies can and will design ever more powerful explosive charges to overcome even the heaviest and strongest armor. That’s why 70-ton Abrams tanks have been upended and destroyed in Iraq.

Moreover, survivability on the battlefield involves a lot more than armor protection. That’s because armor is operationally constraining; its weight, mass and bulk limit soldier and unit mobility and freedom of action. But speed and maneuverability can and do increase survivability on the battlefield.

Indeed, as Marine Corps Lt. Gen. George J. Flynn told Congress March 12: “The focus on armor as the principal means of protecting our force is making us too heavy. … We have to view force protection as more than armor.” (Gen. Flynn is the Marine Corps deputy commandant for combat development and integration.)

Or, as Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli told Congress March 11: “Certainly, we could outfit a soldier with every piece of body armor and equipment available, essentially encasing him or her in a ‘cocoon’ of protective technologies. However, doing so would greatly diminish his or her effectiveness, his or her ability to maneuver on the battlefield, and, as a result, actually put him or her at even greater risk.”

The operational constraints of heavy armor are why the Marines are pushing to field a lighter Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle in Afghanistan. The conventional MRAP used in Iraq is too heavy and bulky to effectively traverse the rugged mountainous Afghan terrain.

Yet Mr. Gates cited the Army’s failure to include MRAP in Future Combat Systems as a justification for his cancellation of the FCS vehicles. MRAP is not a combat vehicle; it is a troop-transport vehicle, and it protects against only one threat - IEDs. FCS, by contrast, involves combat vehicles, which protect against a comprehensive array of new threats - including rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), medium-caliber munitions, and anti-tank guided missiles.

Moreover, MRAP is a purely armored solution to threats that cannot be defeated by armor alone. That’s why the FCS vehicles include an “active protection system” that destroys RPGs and other projectiles before they can hit our vehicles.

FCS also makes much greater use of modern-day information technologies - intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets, and an advanced electronic network - to identify enemy combatants and explosive devices before they can threaten U.S. forces.

Again, as Gen. Flynn told Congress, “We achieve [battlefield] awareness through integration of persistent and responsive intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance delivered by our reconnaissance forces; by unmanned aerial sensors; and through other sensor and electronic technologies. These systems do not eliminate risk, but they do provide an additional layer of protection through battle-space awareness.”

Yet Mr. Gates canceled the FCS vehicles because, as he said, “Lower weight, higher fuel efficiency and greater information awareness are expected to compensate for less armor.” Such an approach, he added, does “not adequately reflect the lessons of counterinsurgency and close-quarters combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

That’s not what Army and Marine Corps leaders seem to think. “Being able to maneuver and fight and chase down a fleeing enemy - that’s actually where your protection is [versus] armoring up and being more static,” Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Tim Hanifen told the Associated Press on March 10. (Gen. Hanifen is the deputy commanding general of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command.)

Why should Mr. Gates, who is not a military professional, substitute his judgment for the judgment of battle-tested Army and Marine Corps leaders?

Of course, as defense secretary, Mr. Gates has the legal authority to overrule the military. But is doing so wise in this instance? Does it make sense for Mr. Gates to overrule the military’s ground-combat leaders on a matter fundamental to how we should fight and win land wars in the 21st century?

John R. Guardiano is a writer in Arlington.

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