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U.S.: Defense Chief Eyes Revolution In Military Affairs

  • Jeffrey Donovan

As the war rages on in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has been quietly pitching Americans his vision of why the United States military must be totally overhauled. RFE/RL correspondent Jeffrey Donovan reports that the September attacks on the U.S. have bolstered Rumsfeld's case for a far-reaching "Revolution in Military Affairs."

Washington, 9 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Last week, as he prepared to travel to Moscow amid an intensifying military campaign in Afghanistan, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld somehow found time to pen a lengthy opinion piece published in "The New York Times."

His topic? Not the month-old air strikes, or the diplomatic balancing act needed to maintain their international support. No, Rumsfeld's concern -- and his article's title -- was the battle "Beyond This War on Terrorism."

Following the 11 September terrorist attacks on the U.S., Rumsfeld wrote that after winning in Afghanistan, the country's next greatest challenge will be to completely overhaul its military "to prepare for the next war -- a war that may be vastly different not only from those of the past century but also from the new war on terrorism that we are fighting today."

Although a Pentagon chief rarely turns to punditry, the article was largely ignored by the U.S. media -- perhaps because it was not immediately connected with the pressing events of the day.

But Rumsfeld's topic, the so-called "Revolution in Military Affairs" -- or "RMA," as it's known in military circles -- arguably has been his most pressing concern since taking office this year.

Now, in the wake of 11 September, Rumsfeld and U.S. President George W. Bush both say the need is more pressing than ever for the U.S. to overhaul its military to prepare for future wars unlike any seen before. In this, they include the need for a nuclear missile-defense shield -- an RMA pet project.

Referring to 11 September and the anthrax-laced letters that have killed four people in the U.S. in the past month, Bush made this observation at a White House news conference on 7 November with British Prime Minister Tony Blair: "We fight a new kind of war. Never would we dream that someone would use our own airplanes to attack us and/or the mail to attack us."

Indeed, far from waiting for future battles, analysts say the Afghanistan war is already engaging basic RMA tools -- particularly the use of computers and satellites to gather intelligence as well as U.S.-based bombers that "kill distance" by flying to the other side of the world to attack "asymmetrical" or relatively low-tech, militarily non-traditional targets.

RMA, in fact, has been underway for 30 years -- but not at the rapid pace its advocates would like. Charles Herzfeld is a former senior research and development scientist at the Department of Defense. Since the 1960s, Herzfeld has worked on precision-guided weaponry and missile defense -- both key parts of RMA thinking. Herzfeld made this observation: "I'm sure there is a revolution. Warfare is very different. And we've contributed some things to it, others have contributed other things to it. We are seeing a perfect example of asymmetric warfare right now."

In the last quarter-century, the debate over RMA's costs and benefits has been fierce in U.S. political and military circles. It reportedly came to a head last spring when Rumsfeld met resistance among some Pentagon officials after ordering a review of the entire military that culminated in a blueprint for RMA he submitted to Congress in late September.

What is RMA, really? Put simply, it is the idea that technological innovation -- in particular, computers and information systems -- is now so advanced that, if emphasized, it could utterly transform warfare.

That idea, of course, is as old as war itself. RMA proponents point to past military breakthroughs -- individual innovations like the nuclear bomb, or changes in how new technologies are used, such as the Nazi "blitzkrieg" doctrine -- as events that forever changed war.

Starting the 1960s, RMA proponents at the Pentagon -- in response to perceived numerical advantages in the Soviet Army -- sought to transform the military with high-tech innovations such as laser-guided weapons and satellites.

Led by the legendary Andrew Marshall at the Office of Net Assessment -- the department that scientifically measures military capabilities -- scientists like Herzfeld spent much of the 1970s and 1980s improving those technologies.

By the time Persian Gulf War was won in 1991, RMA was being hailed as having come of age. Its proponents argued for larger slices of the military budget to be devoted to research and development to quickly revolutionize capabilities.

Jeffrey Ranney is vice president of the Virginia-based defense consultancy Federal Resources. Ranney says RMA is a total transformation of the military, but does not preclude traditional warfare. He says RMA's thrust is now on integrating computer and information systems in all phases of battle, including the bombers being used over Afghanistan: "[Research and development] programs under way right now will provide even faster updates and faster precision and greater precision in providing information to that bomber force. It will also be expanded to include other airplanes -- like the F-22, like the [newly commissioned] F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. You also have the same benefit being applied to the Tomahawk cruise missiles, or the cruise missiles, whereby you can launch a missile from the surface ship or a submarine and give it continuous updates throughout the time that missile is in flight."

Yet some politicians balk at the idea of spending the billions of dollars that "real" RMA would require. And some in the military reject the idea that war can ever be much more than "a test of will and faith" -- as the German military theorist Karl von Clausewitz put it in his seminal 1833 treatise, "On War."

After all, RMA skeptics might point to the war Afghanistan and ask: Despite all its precision-guided weaponry and computers, can the U.S. win without old-fashioned ground troops fighting "bayonet to bayonet?"

For his part, scientist Herzfeld had this to say: "The use of advanced technology is certainly an indication of will, and that is something our opponents don't always understand."

Other critics say some of those RMA technologies -- especially missile defense, which the Bush administration is keen to develop with or without cooperation from Russia, which sees the plan as a violation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty -- won't actually ever work. Again, Herzfeld: "The people who say this have never either built a missile defense or built the countermeasures. They talk a lot about them. I've built both, and it's certainly possible to build a defense against a less sophisticated enemy."

One of Rumsfeld's priorities is to shift the U.S. military's primary strategic posture from "threat-based" to "capabilities-based." This would involve a shift from thinking in terms of clearly defined "theaters of war" to being prepared to tackle non-traditional enemies and combat anywhere they appear -- hence the much-heard RMA catchphrase "death of distance."

Herzfeld, however, says there are still hurdles to jump for RMA to be embraced: "The hang-ups now, I think, are twofold. One is that the military is just coming around to this idea and buying enough precision munitions and organizing themselves to use them. And the other is to think a lot about how you can hurt the enemy -- what he values highly and how you can hurt that."

But defense consultant Ranney believes the attacks that leveled the World Trade Center in New York and part of the Pentagon have truly altered the RMA debate: "What 11 September does is it gives a push for those that were on the fence to move toward the need for change, versus to stay on the fence or still not be on the fence at all."

Ranney added that the main problem now is affordability. He says that while the terrorist attacks have made Rumsfeld's case for RMA stronger, the money being spent on the war, coupled with the economic downturn, means there will be less cash for such a far-reaching overhaul: "The bottom line, in a sense, is that we must transform. The debate, at least from where I'm sitting, is simply how fast we will be able to do that."

In talking about future wars, some RMA proponents have painted a picture where soldiers will virtually fight from behind computer screens rather than on the battlefield.

Ranney says that is a false image of RMA. But he admits that it is diffuse and that many in the army are slow to embrace change. Asked if he thought that rather than doing limited special operations, as they are now, the army would prefer to put an entire troop division in Afghanistan, Ranney said: "Right -- or several [divisions]."

But he insisted that, even if the current campaign comes down to a drawn-out ground battle, that won't mean the defeat of RMA.

In the RMA world, Ranney said, it's all right if the troops get their hands dirty -- just as long as they're also getting real-time video and intelligence information beamed by satellite to their foxhole.