Doomed to Fail: America's Blind Faith in Military Technology

By Gentry, John A. | Parameters, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview
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Doomed to Fail: America's Blind Faith in Military Technology


Gentry, John A., Parameters


The US Department of Defense has pinned the military capacity of the nation on hopes that as yet unproven technology will generate significant operational advantages. In the glow of the apparent effectiveness of "precision" munitions during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the department adopted strategies that promise success through creation of massive technologically-oriented support structures that would make smaller field forces much more effective. The Joint Staff in 1996 promulgated Joint Vision 2010, which listed high-tech capabilities it hoped to acquire. (1) In 2000 the Joint Staff released a modified version called Joint Vision 2020 (JV 2020). (2) Neither document provides much insight about how such an end-state can be achieved. (3) Nevertheless, the department believes that a revolution in military affairs (RMA) will dramatically, if miraculously, improve its capabilities, primarily through achievement of information superiority, which it defines as "the capability to collect, process, and dissemi nate an uninterrupted flow of information while exploiting or denying an adversary's ability to do the same." (4)

Operational inadequacies, technical limitations, and fundamental institutional problems indicate that these dreams are doomed to fail, however. The United States may be creating what historians will one day call the Maginot Line of the 21st century. The 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review and the early conduct of the global war on terrorism do not indicate a change in this aspect of US defense policy.

The JV 2020 concept has four fundamental problems. Each is a potentially fatal flaw. Together, they virtually assure a financially inefficient force and disappointing field results. Against a competent enemy, the deficiencies may be catastrophic:

* Narrow applicability. Despite paying lip service to a spectrum of missions, JV 2020 addresses only a small portion of US military activities. Desert Storm-like operations are in the small part of the spectrum particularly amenable to the RMA--medium-intensity conventional conflict against weak opponents.

* Vulnerable infrastructure. JV2020 relies on information technology (IT) and other infrastructures that are incompatible and unreliable. The infrastructures regularly fail in peacetime for many reasons. They offer abundant opportunities for enemy attack.

* Easy countermeasures. Even where the US has technical advantages, effective countermeasures usually exist. In some cases these degrade US capabilities directly. In other instances, adversaries operate in politico-military arenas beyond the scope of US military capabilities, rendering the technology irrelevant.

* Institutional impediments. The US military cannot implement what it wants to do even if funds and technology were available. The most daunting reasons are internal and institutional--and highly resistant to change.

Promises, Promises

JV 2020 promises operational effectiveness derived from a complex set of hardware, software, and procedural systems. In the ideal world of JV 2020, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) systems like imagery satellites would gather data that troops need to "see" areas of operations. Computers would convert the data into visual displays of the battle space that provide a common operational picture. Because US forces would get more data more quickly than enemies, they would have information superiority. Possession of data would generate good command and field operator decisions, and decision superiority. Communications networks would instantly transmit information and orders to troops, who would promptly convert them into effective action. Precision munitions would rain on targets. Victory would be assured. The story has fairy-tale appeal.

In the vision, US forces will be tied to interactive, or collaborative, networks that work continuously.

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