Posted: June 15, 2007
A review of War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History: 1500 to Today, by Max Boot
and Finding the Target: The Transformation of American Military Policy, by Frederick W. Kagan
t is commonly argued that the practice of warfare has been dramatically transformed by a "revolution in military affairs," a revolution triggered by changes in precision weaponry and information technology. Such revolutions—"RMAs," the experts call them—have occurred in the past and have sometimes altered the international balance of power. The Bush Administration, for its part, has made military modernization and transformation a high priority in its defense policy. It is therefore of considerable practical interest whether the frequent claims of revolutionary changes in warfare stand up to close scrutiny and, specifically, whether the ongoing RMA will really give the United States a significant advantage against its current and potential enemies.
Max Boot and Frederick Kagan, two of America's leading defense analysts, tackle these questions in new books that share certain points in common—especially the rejection of deterministic interpretations of military innovation—though the central arguments of each volume are quite different.
In War Made New, Max Boot tells a fascinating story of the causes and consequences of four historic revolutions in military affairs: the "gunpowder revolution" (1588-1803), the "industrial revolution" (1866-1905), the "second industrial revolution" (1940-1945), and the "information revolution" (1991-2005). Boot is well aware that the designation of these four is controversial, but he shows that military innovations tend to cluster together at certain times and places and can be usefully studied in periods of ferment.
During the gunpowder revolution, several Western European armies began to employ muskets more effectively by developing new doctrines of drill and discipline. The creation of expensive, professional, standing armies encouraged the rise of centralized state bureaucracies. Contemporaneous advances in navigation, sailing rigs, heavy artillery, and naval tactics also combined to create a military revolution at sea. These technological and organizational transformations on land and water gave a significant, if temporary, edge to those countries that had pioneered them. They also gave military advantages to European armies and navies against non-Western forces, allowing the British, for example, to conquer India.
The RMA of the mid-19th century was possible because of technological developments like modern railways, the telegraph, and improvements in rifle design. Compared with muskets, rifles offered greater accuracy, greater range, and greater speed in reloading for the average infantryman. The telegraph allowed commanders to communicate over long distances as never before; and railroads, properly used, made possible the rapid concentration and movement of armies. It was the Prussians, and specifically Prussian General Helmuth von Moltke, who took advantage of these technological changes most effectively. By utilizing General Staff to coordinate, plan, and direct the combined motions of large, well-trained conscript armies, the Prussians won striking military victories over both Austria in 1866 and France in 1870. These victories laid the groundwork for the unification of Germany and changed the European balance of power.
The RMA of the early 20th century involved the development and effective use of new weapons such as tanks, planes, and aircraft carriers. Various nations acted as pioneers in each domain. During the 1930s, the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union, and Japan developed new doctrines in relation to amphibious landings, air defense, armored warfare, and naval aviation, respectively. But it was the Germans who initially put the new military technologies to their most spectacular use in the 1940 invasion of France. Despite having no great advantage in numbers or even weapons, the German army overwhelmed the French in a stunning display of so-called "blitzkrieg" or lightning warfare. It would take the Allies massive efforts and several years to roll back and defeat the German military machine.
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The current RMA is based upon the use of precision-guided munitions, together with advanced technology in communications, targeting, and surveillance. While the possibility of such a revolution was first recognized by Soviet authors in the 1960s and 1970s, it was America that pioneered it. The Air Force began using "smart bombs," to considerable effect, in the latter stages of the Vietnam War. The first Gulf War saw the increased use of stealth technology and precision weaponry in a display of high-tech military power that set many other armies scrambling to adapt. The overthrow of the Taliban in fall 2001 was accomplished through the creative use of U.S. Special Forces on the ground, guiding and directing air strikes (with the help of unmanned aerial vehicles) in support of Afghanistan's Northern Alliance. And of course the initial, conventional phase of the current war in Iraq—the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003—was accomplished with remarkable speed, in part due to the effective use of new American technologies.
War Made New tells the story of military innovations in part through the depiction of colorful personalities and battlefield conditions, but Boot's lively, accessible style does not hide the fact that he has digested an enormous amount of historical, analytical, and contemporary material on the subject of RMAs; and his book offers serious lessons for current policy. The first, most important lesson is that new technology does not lead to either military transformation or military advantage by itself. Skillful, realistic, and creative new tactics, doctrines, training, leadership, and organization are absolutely necessary to allow military innovation to occur. The second lesson is that whenever nations lead in military innovation, they gain broad geopolitical benefits, although others are usually quick in trying to close the gap. Finally, military transformation is often partial and gradual rather than sharply discontinuous. New weapons and tactics necessarily co-exist with old ones, and overly active imaginations pressing for revolutionary transformation can be just as much of a threat to military effectiveness as plodding or stagnant doctrines. All of these conclusions are well supported in the existing scholarly literature on military innovation, and Boot communicates them clearly and engagingly to the general reader.
Boot believes that the current RMA is real, conferring great advantages on the United States against its opponents; but he recognizes that it also has its limits. War continues to be a difficult, messy, and bloody business. Unconventional wars like the one in Iraq are particularly ill-suited to a primary emphasis on technology. Boot therefore takes something of a middle position on the question of the current revolution, arguing that it is neither irrelevant nor a cure-all. He advocates developing and maintaining military strength across the board, in high-tech weapons systems as well as counterinsurgent and postwar reconstruction capabilities, to be able to face whatever challenges come down the road.
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Frederick Kagan would certainly agree with Boot's emphasis on training, tactics, and doctrine, and his eschewal of a purely technological approach. But he goes much further than Boot in attempting to address difficult trade-offs in defense planning and to deflate enthusiasm for the current RMA. Indeed, Finding the Target amounts to a devastating critique of the recent penchant for U.S. military transformation.
Kagan begins by detailing the ways in which the U.S. armed forces responded to the challenges of the 1970s—Vietnam, demoralization, declining defense budgets—while facing continually growing Soviet military capabilities. Unable to rely on quantitative or budgetary expansion relative to Soviet armed forces, we were forced to look for qualitative advantages. The shift to an all-volunteer force allowed for a significant improvement in the motivation and professionalism of U.S. troops. Pilots experimented with ways to improve their ability to outmaneuver the enemy. The armed services began to utilize more realistic and demanding training programs. By the 1980s, through the doctrine of AirLand Battle, the Army together with the Air Force developed aggressive, creative plans for countering a potential Soviet invasion of Western Europe. A fresh emphasis on joint operations was both epitomized and encouraged by the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986, which streamlined the Joint Chiefs of Staff, created a system of regional field commanders, and gave each commander authority over all U.S. forces within his region. The result of these various reforms, together with new weapons systems and (by the 1980s) restored levels of defense spending, was a much improved, highly professional, motivated force with a fresh commitment to speed, mobility, tactical skill, and combined arms warfare.
Kagan has great respect for the improvements in the U.S. armed forces during the 1970s and 1980s. His point is that changes in technology were only part of this process and that any transformations that occurred were the result of clear thinking about concrete and immediate challenges rather than abstract speculation regarding vast technological changes and unknown opponents. In effect, he distinguishes these early reforms, which really created the high quality of today's U.S. armed forces, from the more recent and exclusive emphasis on the supposedly revolutionary impact of new information technologies and precision munitions.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the argument began to gain steam that precision air strikes could be used to attack a country's leadership, infrastructure, troops, communications, and equipment to paralyze and overwhelm it without the need for heavy, costly ground campaigns. In some circles, the first Gulf War was viewed as a vindication of this argument. The air campaign against Saddam in 1991 certainly achieved remarkable effects. It removed Iraq's air force from the equation; undermined and damaged Iraqi command and control, communications, and logistics; demoralized Iraq's rank and file soldiers; and dramatically reduced the Iraqi army's maneuverability. As Kagan explains, however, it was not airpower by itself that won the Gulf War: a major ground campaign, executed with skill and preparation by the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, was critical in forcing Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait. There is no reason to believe that this outcome could have been reached through airpower alone. Yet the images of precision weapons destroying Iraqi targets from great distances encouraged the impression that a new age had dawned in warfare, an age of smart bombs and real-time intelligence, in which the U.S. would be able to fight its conflicts at minimal cost or commitment on the ground, by relying on high-flying technological advantages.
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Such impressions were particularly well-suited to the bureaucratic interests and predilections of the U.S. Air Force, fighting as it was for a share of the pie in the uncertain world of post-Cold War defense planning. Even the Army, eager to prove its continued relevance after the collapse of the USSR, embraced the idea that it would have to become a much lighter, more mobile force, capable of targeting the enemy from great distances. As Kagan wryly notes, this very effort at adaptation undermined the traditional case for having an army at all, since it essentially accepted the premise that close combat on the ground was outmoded.
The misimpressions arising from the first Gulf War grew over the course of the 1990s. America's pin-prick wars against Slobodan Milosevic during that decade were not really fought in the absence of ground support. The United States relied upon Muslim and Croat proxies in 1995, and upon the Kosovo Liberation Army in 1999—together with the ultimate threat of some kind of U.S. ground intervention—to achieve significant effects against Serb forces. It is still not entirely clear why Milosevic conceded when he did in 1999; Russian diplomatic pressure seems to have played an important part. In any case, the widespread perception that the war over Kosovo was won entirely from the air—perhaps the first such victory in history—only strengthened the hand of airpower enthusiasts and advocates of transformation. War could now be seen as a kind of targeting drill, in which the United States would launch precision strikes from great distances against critical nodes in the enemy's command, logistical, and communications system, while minimizing risk to American forces. Here was the military equivalent of Dell Computers, delivering light, efficient, "just-in-time warfare" to mimic the wonders of information-age business models. It was a vision that had much appeal during the Clinton years for reasons financial, political, and bureaucratic. The practical international and military disadvantages of this vision—its inability to accomplish the political mission at hand or to deliver effective control over events unfolding on the ground—were not given equal consideration. Apparently nobody in high office asked the question: what if, after being pummeled by our high-tech precision weaponry, the enemy does not surrender?
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Far from disowning the concept of light, agile, long-distance warfare, George W. Bush campaigned in 2000 in favor of the military's accelerated transformation. He also campaigned against "nation-building" missions overseas. The appointment of Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense indicated his seriousness in both regards. Rumsfeld made military transformation his leading priority, downplayed the importance of operations other than war, and pressed his vision with keen bureaucratic skill and energy. After the terrorist attacks of September 2001, he saw no reason to question this emphasis on transformation. On the contrary, he saw the war against the Taliban, and then the invasion of Iraq, as opportunities to fight and win America's wars using transformational weapons and techniques, without the burden of heavy or protracted postwar stability operations. In practical terms, this meant conducting both wars with a relatively small number of troops on the ground, and with every intention of having those troops leave as quickly as they had arrived.
The war in Iraq has now lasted almost four years, degenerating first into a bloody counterinsurgency and then into multidirectional sectarian violence of increasing brutality. The war in Afghanistan, though less visible in the daily headlines, has also seen disappointments, as Taliban forces fight to recover their former influence. We are now entitled to ask whether or not the emphasis on military transformation—Rumsfeld's preferred method, and apparently President Bush's as well, for fighting these wars—has been vindicated by events.
Kagan's achievement in Finding the Target is to show that America's "postwar" frustrations were not simply unpredictable complications of war, but were massively, and unnecessarily, aggravated by the administration's emphasis on military transformation. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, the administration failed to match military means to political ends. The obvious and stated purpose of American intervention was not only to overthrow hostile regimes, but also to create a stable postwar environment in which support for terrorism could not flourish. The latter goal was at least as important as the former; without it, neither invasion would have made sense. Yet despite lip service to the contrary, the planning for both wars was conducted with an astonishing indifference to the entirely foreseeable need to create a secure political environment after conventional military operations had ceased.
In Afghanistan, this failure allowed for significant numbers of al-Qaeda terrorists, including bin Laden, to escape to the Pakistani border at the end of 2001, and for warlords to threaten the fragile new central government. In Iraq, it permitted a period of chaos which in turn encouraged the rise of a dangerous insurgency. To say that hindsight is 20/20 is simply not good enough: both contingencies were foreseen and warned of at the time by numerous defense, intelligence, and foreign policy experts and officials within the U.S. Yet the administration apparently chose to ignore them because of its commitment to a particular form of light, detached, high-tech warfare.
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What is to be done? the U.S. military has learned (or more properly, re-learned) hard lessons about the nature of counterinsurgency and stability operations since 2003 and has begun to move in the right direction. Kagan believes our military forces are over-extended and recommends immediately increasing the size of both the Army and Marine Corps. He also suggests creating some sort of institutional locus for the interagency planning of postwar stability operations (for example, by empowering regional U.S. military commanders to formulate such plans with the help of liaison staff from the State Department and CIA). A bias against "nation-building" is perfectly understandable in itself. But if the U.S. is going to intervene abroad to establish friendly new governments, it has no choice but to prepare itself for some form of nation-building. Troops must be properly trained not only to fight and win high-tech conventional wars against conventional opponents, but to prevail in postwar conditions against guerrilla tactics and terrorist insurgencies. A primary emphasis on technological transformation is positively unhelpful under such circumstances, because it creates the illusion that these relatively low-tech, messy, close-in, unconventional conflicts are simply temporary distractions from the larger and more important project of modernization. They are not. On the contrary, they are the only kind of wars the U.S. is actively fighting, and there is no more urgent priority than winning them.