January 1, 2007  

Challenging the technocrats

How U.S. strategists lost sight of the purpose of war

For far too long, American military planners and civilian policymakers have imagined future military capabilities through rose-colored glasses. In the 1990s, the peace dividend was paramount and threats were allowed to fester under the illusion that they could not harm America. Later, the information technology boom fed another delusion — that the fog and friction of human conflict could be swept away. The resulting mania known as the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) produced an interesting but inconclusive debate. A spate of interesting theories about network-centric warfare (NCW), rapid dominant operations, shock and awe, and effects-based operations were put forth, many seeking to exploit a presumed technological advantage for American arms that could not be easily copied or negated. Paradoxically, the U.S. military was urged to adopt Toffleresque notions of war with great urgency before someone else did.

The specious claims of these concepts fed into the transformation agenda the Bush administration brought in to shape priorities at the Pentagon. Not all of these concepts were inappropriate or silly, but most overlooked the existence of an opponent, an adversary with a set of his own interests and aspirations. Too many failed to appreciate anything other than the conventional application of military power, almost solely without consideration of political factors or any pressing operational problem to be resolved. For quite some time, both the Prussian sage Carl von Clausewitz and his Chinese counterpart Sun Tzu were often cited but without comprehension in the hallowed halls of the Pentagon. Instead, theories and business models drawn from the exuberance surrounding the IT revolution displaced quite a bit of history and factual context.

In many respects, our prospects in Iraq are the culminating point for a decade of sloppy thinking about the nature of war in American policy circles. Fred Kagan’s “Finding the Target” covers this period and the strategic experience of the U.S. from the post-Vietnam era to the present. Authored by one of his generation’s best strategic thinkers, this book offers a trenchant critique of what has passed for transformational concepts within the U.S. defense establishment.

Kagan begins with an overview of a previous transformation in American arms in the aftermath of Vietnam. Faced with a particular challenge posed in Europe by the Soviet Union’s numerical advantage, the U.S. military made the shift to an all-volunteer force and conducted an impressive training and education revolution. This resulted in the now familiar Red Flag exercises for Air Force units and the creation of the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., for advanced land-power training. He also covers the intellectual influences of Generals William Dupuy, Paul Gorman and Don Starry in generating new doctrinal concepts. These initiatives were all in response to a clear geopolitical and military environment. Supporting technologies to support “AirLand Battle” emanated from the doctrine, not a priori from a technologically deterministic ideology.

This chapter stands in contrast to the past decade of military thinking. This American transformation focused on clear problems and threats, and avoided the risks of seeking leap-ahead technologies or futuristic fantasy. The military embraced both diversity and redundancy instead of efficiency. Finally, impelled by the failure of Vietnam, American policymakers pursued a holistic program that affected almost every aspect of military life. This example stands in stark comparison to today, where a different understanding of transformation took root. Kagan offers a strong warning: “Understanding the changing nature of war requires not merely exploring the trendlines of technology, but also comprehending war’s interactive nature. Revolutions in military affairs do not occur as the result of the actions of a single state, but as the result of the interactions between multiple states. Attempts to change warfare through an inwardly focused transformation, looking only at one’s own capabilities and program, are unlikely to succeed.”

The author’s superlative grasp of military theory and history is well displayed in a chapter on air-power theory. Here, Kagan deconstructs the theories of the late John Boyd and retired Air Force Col. John Warden. The author gives a bit too much credit to Boyd’s influence in air-power theory, as Boyd has been much more influential in Army and Marine circles. He also criticizes Boyd’s arguments about centers of gravity and system disruption. These critiques are limited, perhaps by Boyd’s tendency to frame his arguments in PowerPoint presentations rather than detailed arguments. Readers are encouraged to review Fran Osinga’s “Science, Strategy, and War: The Strategy Theory of John Boyd” for more definitive evaluations of Boyd’s ideas.

Kagan exposes the weaknesses of Warden’s air-power-centric concept of war and its influence in Operation Desert Storm.

Subsequent chapters review the stumbling of American policymakers and military thinkers in the early 1990s in the search for a new enemy and a new organizing framework in the absence of the Warsaw Pact. Kagan’s critique of the Clinton administration’s debacle in Somalia is far too brief. However, his critique of the dubious claims of air-power proponents after Operation Allied Freedom in Kosovo is sharp. More impressive is Kagan’s devastation of the underlying premises of the RMA debate of the 1990s. This was an era in which it seemed impossible to find essays that were “not studded with words like ‘dominant,’ ‘precise,’ ‘agile,’ ‘synergistic,’ or ‘systems of systems.’” Kagan is an equal opportunity commentator, accusing both senior Army officers and leading proponents of Information Age radicalism such as Adm. William Owens of sowing great confusion. The tissue-thin foundation of these ideas, reflected in concepts such as “dominant battle-space knowledge” and “shock and awe,” is laid bare. The lure of quick, decisive and bloodless war based on revolutionary concepts and new technology was simply too attractive for many. Kagan details how these concepts diffused into key Army concepts and Joint Vision 2010, and how they were introduced into major planning evolutions such as the first Quadrennial Defense Review in 1997 and the National Defense Panel issued a year later.

Another chapter is devoted to network-centric warfare and its embrace by the incoming Bush administration. They accepted the presumptions of the RMA school and took them to a higher level. Bush, speaking at the christening of the carrier Ronald Reagan, promised to revolutionize America’s ability to project power. He promised a future “where the revolution in technology will change the face of war itself. We’ll keep the peace by redefining the terms of war.” “Finding the Target” is not kind to this development and its infusion into the first Rumsfeld QDR. As Kagan puts it: “The U.S. strategy community in the 1990s was in general so caught up with the minutiae of technology that it lost sight of the larger purpose of war, and there missed the emergence of a challenge even more important than that of technology, the challenge of designing military operations to achieve particular political objectives.”

This challenge, thinking through the correlation between political objectives and military means, has been the principal failure of the U.S. government in both Afghanistan and Iraq. In fact, Kagan goes so far as to accuse the Pentagon of developing military plans that would impede rather than ensure the accomplishment of assigned political objectives. The failure to get Army or Marine forces in place to complete al-Qaida’s destruction in Afghanistan comes in for withering criticism. So, too, the prevailing impression that Opertion Enduring Freedom (OEF) was successful because of American precision airstrikes, directed by U.S. special operations assets. For Kagan, OEF was “in fact, a rather traditional military campaign.” As Kagan shows, the Rumsfeld team erroneously believed Operation Iraqi Freedom validated their transformation program. They never understood that their own approach to warfare was the cause of the post-conflict challenges America faced in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Kagan has no problem with investments in robust networks, excellent communications gear and precision-strike systems. Proceeding with the development of these capabilities is supported, just not at the risk of robust ground forces in a vain search for perfect situational awareness. In the end, NCW is flawed because, rather than focus on the political end state that operations were designed to create the conditions for, a myopic focus on precise destruction — simply finding the target — blinded military and civilian leaders.

Kagan can be wickedly provocative, but in this effort he remains analytical and historically grounded. He lays out an outstanding overview of the past decade and skewers the unwarranted assumptions and simplistic hopes foisted on the American public as polished and profound recommendations. “Finding the Target” concludes with clear-headed analysis of future scenarios that would seriously tax our current military force structure. Kagan contends that a large expansion of America’s armed forces is needed. It is clear that the ongoing conflicts strain the current military. Readers may argue with the scope of reform that he proposes, but there is little doubt that our ends and means are not in balance today.

This is a scholarly treatment of the critical national security issue facing the nation. It predicates American military policy and investment on a solid understanding of the nature of war and its purposes. “Finding the Target” is firmly founded on a Clausewitzian view of what war is ultimately all about, not a fascination with technology or an arrogant disregard for social, economic or political forces. Blending a historian’s grasp of the enduring realities of human conflict with the dispassionate analysis of a strategic studies expert, Kagan separates the wheat from the chaff with precision and without polemics. His insights will appeal to academics in the national security arena, as well as senior military officers and policymakers in the Pentagon.