On Sept. 10, 2001, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was the man the MICE — the Military-Industrial-Congressional Empire — loved to hate. Today, after nine months as everybody’s favorite “secretary of war,” the MICE are chewing on him again. The reason, then and now: “transformation,” or Rumsfeld’s attempt to drag America’s defense establishment, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century.
The most recent well-publicized example is Rumsfeld’s decision to cancel the Army’s Crusader artillery system, and the frenetic counter-offensive to save it. Congress, miffed that it wasn’t “consulted” prior to the announcement, now appears disposed to cancel the Crusader in a manner designed to save the least possible amount of money.
Proponents of the system, organized as the Crusader Industrial Alliance, dismiss the Crusader’s critics as misinformed, call the cancellation a “madcap affair,” and — a sure sign of reaching the bottom of the list of talking points — invoke our “men and women on the ground,” implying that anyone opposed to the Crusader is prepared to throw away countless lives to save a measly few billion dollars.
Meanwhile, critics dismiss the Crusader as a “Cold War legacy system,” meant to duke it out in central Europe but too heavy and hard to transport for future combat. (Actually, the Crusader is a Desert Storm legacy, going into development in 1994.) More often than not, these critics brandish lists of other legacy systems, especially the F-22 and the Joint Strike Fighter, also destined for assisted suicide.
So who’s right? In the long run, neither. Technologically, transformation is about far more than trashing legacy systems. Military history is filled with examples of weapons that performed astonishingly well in roles and wars other than those intended.
The submarine, for example, was originally conceived as a coastal defense vessel, not a high seas marauder or a missile platform. And who ever imagined that B-1 bombers might someday be used to take out terrorists in Afghan caves?
Nor is transformation merely about continuing some inexorable march toward ever more precise weaponry and ever lighter, and more easily deployed, forces. Long-term, transformation is about finding the right mix of quantum leaps and retro-tech, making them effective against present and future threats, and then reorganizing the defense establishment to maximize the power of both.
The quantum leaps are coming. For 30 years, the “revolution in military affairs” has been almost synonymous with the microprocessor revolution. Computer advances in guidance and targeting, communications and intelligence have enabled us to do basically what we’ve always done, only orders of magnitude better. This will continue.
But the real quantum leaps will come in robotics and bio-mimetics (designing machines to move like organisms), directed-energy weapons (lasers and particle beams), nano-technologies (micro-miniaturization), and exotic non-lethal weaponry. It will also happen in space, a process illustrated most recently by the Pentagon’s plan to combine the Strategic Command (nukes) and the Space Command, hitherto mainly a bunch of satellite drivers. We’re moving, for good and ill, into realms unimaginable even in the past century’s most lurid sci-fi.
But all this gee-whiz gadgetry needs a complement: retro-tech, or the rediscovery and upgrading of old, sometimes even ancient systems. Taken together, this “high-low mix” can be wondrously effective. The image of American commandos participating in Afghan cavalry charges while working their hand-held Global Positioning System receivers provides but one example.
Meanwhile, older weapons may receive new life via technological advances. “Metal Storm,” a family of weapons under development, offers, among other things, a 36-barrel Gatling-type gun capable of firing a million rounds a minute, a system that harks back to a French mitrailleuse of the 1860s.
Perhaps future generations of artillery should emphasize improved smaller-caliber weapons: not the 155mm Crusader, but the venerable 105 mm howitzer of World War II/Vietnam usage, or even the 75 mm pack howitzer so useful in mountainous terrain.
There’s also chatter about developing a new generation of “micro-nukes,” capable of destroying hardened underground nuclear, chemical and biological facilities … and vaporizing their contents.
All of which is to conclude: In the near term, the battle for transformation will be fought over a few high-visibility systems, with Rummy acting like Rummy and the MICE scurrying around like, well, mice, to safeguard their perks and their porks. But over the next decade or two, the American way of war is likely to develop into something simultaneously hyper-tech, primitive and — by the standards of conventional combat — bizarre.
Philip Gold is senior fellow in national security affairs at the Discovery Institute and author of “Against All Terrors: This People’s Next Defense.”