Transforming the U.S. Armed Forces: Rhetoric or Reality?

By Mahnken, Thomas G. | Naval War College Review, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Transforming the U.S. Armed Forces: Rhetoric or Reality?


Mahnken, Thomas G., Naval War College Review


The leadership of the Defense Department has enthusiastically endorsed the proposition that the growth and diffusion of stealth, precision, and information technology will drastically alter the character and conduct of future wars, yielding a revolution in military affairs. President George W. Bush campaigned on a pledge to transform the U.S. armed forces by "skipping a generation" of technology. A month after assuming office, he promised in a speech at the Norfolk Naval Base to "move beyond marginal improvements to harness new technologies that will support a new strategy." He called for the development of ground forces that are lighter, more mobile, and more lethal, as well as manned and unmanned air forces capable of striking across the globe with precision.1

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stated during his confirmation hearings that his central challenge would be to "bring the American military successfully into the 21 st century."2 Soon after assuming office, Rumsfeld commissioned Andrew W. Marshall, the Pentagon's premier strategic thinker, to conduct a fundamental review of American strategy and force requirements. The review reportedly recommended that the Defense Department emphasize forces capable of fighting and winning wars in Asia, with its vast distances and sparse infrastructure, in the face of increasingly challenging threats.3

Speaking at the U.S. Naval Academy in May 2001, President Bush called for "a future force that is defined less by size and more by mobility and swiftness, one that is easier to deploy and sustain, one that relies more heavily on stealth, precision weaponry, and information technologies." He also committed himself "to fostering a military culture where intelligent risk-taking and forward thinking are rewarded, not dreaded," and to "ensuring that visionary leaders who take risks are recognized and promoted."4

The U.S. armed forces themselves have embraced-at least rhetorically-the need to transform so as to meet the demands of information-age warfare. They have fielded new capabilities, such as stealth and precision strike, and explored novel approaches to combat, such as network-centric warfare and effects-based operations. Nevertheless, significant organizational barriers to the adoption of new technology, doctrine, and organizations exist. The services have been particularly reluctant to take measures that are disruptive of service culture, such as shifting away from traditional platforms and toward new weapon systems, concepts, and organizations. The Army's attempts to field a medium-weight ground force, the Navy's development of network-centric warfare, and the Air Force's experience with unmanned air vehicles illustrate such difficulties. In each case, efforts at transformation have faced opposition from service traditionalists who perceive threats in new ways of war. For the Defense Department to succeed in transforming the U.S. armed forces, it must both reallocate resources and nurture new constituencies.

THE CHARACTER OF WAR IN THE INFORMATION AGE

Recent years have witnessed the rapid growth and diffusion of information technology. It is radically changing the structure of advanced economies, the nature of politics, and the shape of society. It is also shifting the ways in which wars are fought. What many refer to as the emerging revolution in military affairs (RMA) is merely the military manifestation of the information revolution. The shape, scope, and strategic impact of the revolution is uncertain. Still, the experience of recent conflicts, together with trends in the development of technology, suggests changes in the conduct of war on land, at sea, and in the air, as well as the growing use of space and the information spectrum for military operations.

One trend that is already apparent is the ability to achieve new levels of military effectiveness by networking together disparate sensors, weapons, and command-and-control systems.

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