Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The soldier I most admire is Huba Wass de Czega, who was born in Hungary, graduated from West Point and retired as a brigadier general. In the early 1990s, he postulated a revolutionary new method for fighting post-Cold War battles. He realized then that soldiers who fought on foot stood a 10 times greater probability of dying than those who fought from inside vehicles.

He also knew that Cold War armored vehicles were so large and ungainly that they could only drive, not fly, to the battlefield. The general’s theory, aero-mechanized maneuver, sought to solve this age-old problem by combining the protection afforded by armored vehicles with the speed of air transport.

Gen. Huba’s answer was to build fighting vehicles light enough to be flown into battle inside aircraft heavy enough to get them there. In the mid-1990s, as director or the Army After Next Project, I put together a team of visionaries to test the general’s theories using a series of futuristic war games. How would the nature of war change if we could fly fighting vehicles into battle? The answer was extraordinary. We discovered that the time it took to win wars decreased from months or even years to days when we delivered a ground force directly into the midst of the enemy capable of disintegrating his fighting power and collapsing his will.

Oneparticularly prophetic series of games exercised plans that took down a “particular” nation’s nuclear-weapons capability without a traditional land invasion. In these games, aero-mechanized brigades established a series of temporary enclaves surrounding enemy WMD sites and held the enemy at bay until all of his weapons were systematically (and bloodlessly) located and completely destroyed by ground forces. We knew then that aero-mechanized maneuver would work. It would change the entire course of modern war. All we needed was a defense establishment that believed as passionately as we did in the concept.

We were pretty much ignored. Since the first Bush administration the consistent message was that future wars would be won with “shock and awe.” Kill enough of them from the air and the war would be cheaply won, at least for our side.

Budgets reflected this love affair with aerial killing. Since Gen. Huba’s first exposition in the early 1990s, 70 percent of defense investments, more than $1.3 trillion, have gone into shock and awe, delivered by Air Force and Navy aircraft and missiles.

The Army got 16 percent. Thus, we come today to an amazingly perverse strategic circumstance. We have more first-line fighter aircraft costing $50 million to $400 million per copy than we have Army and Marine infantry squads, costing less than $100,000 each.

Since Gen. Huba’s experiments began, we have achieved a “kill ratio” in aerial combat of 257 to one over enemy air forces. In the second battle of Fallujah that ratio for Marine and Army soldiers was, at best, six or seven to one. Why? Because in large measure our soldiers and Marines had to assault those buildings in Fallujah on foot, virtually unprotected, just as their grandfathers did in World War II.

So here we are trying to find a way to rid Iran of its nuclear weapons and the only warfighting tool in the tool box is shock and awe. Simply put, there is no ground option. We have too few soldiers to fight the wars we have, much less take on another enemy. Even if we had the ground forces, without an aerial maneuver option we could never hope to reach Iran’s nuclear facilities by a ground invasion. So we’ll blow them all up with bombs. Right.

I’m quite sure that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad prays daily for a dose of shock and awe. It would be a badge of honor to have survived a fruitless aerial killing campaign only to resume serious work on building a bomb with the full support of the morally aggrieved Iranian people.

In time, of course, we could add an aerial maneuver tool to the toolbox, a capability that would give the president at least one option for the future other than aerial assault. But the plan now is to reduce, not increase, the size of the Army and Marine Corps. Instead of buying more air transports capable of delivering ground fighting vehicles to the battlefield, the Defense Department is going to stop buying the ones we have with no serious plan to build new ones suitable for the mission.

At least the Army is trying to build an aerial maneuver capability true conceptually to Huba’s vision. But the system is constantly threatened by the budget axe because too many in the administration and in Congress still view ground warfare as the cheap alternative.

One bright spot is that the lack of real options for defeating Iran’s attempt to build nuclear weapons might be a wake-up call to change our defense priorities. I hope so. Too many have already been sacrificed to the gods of shock and awe.

Retired Maj. Gen Robert H. Scales is a former commander of the Army War College.

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