July 1, 2006  

‘New’ ideas that look old

Ah, the “revolution in military affairs” — the “RMA.” A term that is a blast from the past, a piece of pre-9/11 prehistory. But bold predictions about the future of war have a way of coming back to haunt the authors, often sooner than later.

A decade ago, there was a lively exchange in professional journals about the existence and relevance of RMAs. Some authors pedantically oriented on definitions and historical classifications, while others pitched two millennia of military history into the dustbin and embraced the new wave of Information Superiority and its presumed dominance for American arms.

Advocates of radical change argued that the services were retarding a necessary and long overdue revamping of the Pentagon. Some RMA proponents argued to sharply increase spending in a “system of systems” that would increase our capacity to employ information technology and precision weapons. These advocates explicitly used cuts in ground forces, chopping at least two U.S. Army divisions and one Marine division, as offsets for more computers, satellites and networked sensors. One wonders today where we would be if these arguments had been more persuasive. Where would we be today with a 300,000-man Army and a Marine Corps of only 135,000?

Tim Benbow and David Lonsdale hark back to the golden days of yesteryear, to the RMA debate, in their books “The Magic Bullet?” and “The Nature of War in the Information Age,” where they provide invaluable insights into that debate, albeit somewhat belatedly. Benbow holds a position as senior lecturer in strategic studies at the Britannia Royal Naval College in Dartmouth, England. A product of St Antony’s College at Oxford, Harvard University and King’s College London, his area of expertise is naval history and strategic affairs; he offers a way of thinking about the RMA. The book is a derivative of a study he conducted on the phenomenon for the British Ministry of Defence. Benbow offers a typology, not of types of RMAs in history but the RMA of the early post-Cold War years and its various proponents and critics. These include visionaries, radicals, moderates, skeptics and pessimists.

Benbow is clearly among the skeptics. He finds many of today’s developments, including the impact of information technology and the cherished “systems of systems,” hugely significant. However, he doesn’t consider them to be some sort of strategic Holy Grail. “What contemporary developments will not and cannot do, any more than previous RMAs,” he observes, “is to provide a guaranteed low-cost, high success military solution to every complex political and strategic problem that might arise.”

Benbow concludes that the anticipated effects from the RMA will be considerably less than advertised for three reasons. First, the proponents overlook “the ever present companions of all commanders throughout history” — fog, friction, chance and error. Second, they overlook the existence of a thinking opponent who actively resists our plans and seeks to achieve his own objectives, not merely acquiesce to our designs. Finally, and most obvious today and in light of our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, is the fact that this revolution has been optimized for force-on-force conflicts with conventional military opponents, and not well adapted to today’s more ambiguous, asymmetric conflicts.

Lonsdale offers a more strategic perspective that is relevant to RMAs and to current efforts to transform the American military. Lonsdale is proud to be among what Benbow would call the pessimists, and as his subtitle — “Clausewitzian Future” — suggests, the future of war in the information age, or in any age, can best be understood looking through the framework created by the famous-but-obtuse Prussian philosopher of war. He reinforces Benbow’s book with an argument that is rooted in the sort of critical historical inquiry and logic employed by Carl von Clausewitz, often dismissed but never finally washed up.

Lonsdale’s critique of the RMA remains grounded in the Clausewitzian framework regarding the basic nature of war. The fundamental or objective nature of warfare is found to be immutable, while it varies from age to age in its subjective characteristics. It is clear from the introductory chapters that Lonsdale is a devoted disciple of Clausewitzian realism and is less than optimistic about claims that friction and uncertainty are no longer relevant problems for commanders. He stresses the ever-changing “shape” of war and the need to look at intelligence and information as one of several key dimensions of strategic or operational performance. Marine readers will note frequent and positive references to “FMFM 1, Warfighting,” which is also well-informed by Clausewitz’s teachings.

Ultimately, Lonsdale concludes that Clausewitz remains the best at defining the nature of war but that he can be supplemented with modern theorists, including Colin Gray, whose Modern Strategy remains an underappreciated jewel. More relevant to today’s challenges, he also acknowledges that the Israeli historian Martin van Creveld and American authors John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt bring insights into irregular conflict. Benbow would be an excellent supplement for command and staff colleges or required reading for top-level schools; Lonsdale’s book and occasionally dense prose will appeal — or more properly, be more familiar — to the more strategically inclined.

All in all, the arguments of both Benbow and Lonsdale are relevant to the RMA’s reincarnation in the Pentagon as “transformation.” Transformation was initially embraced by the Bush administration when it came into office but with a bent toward precision technology against conventional state-based threats. The Pentagon focused predominantly on the technological dimension of warfare, despite historical studies that show RMAs and step changes in military effectiveness are more often the product of appropriate combinations of novel technologies, innovative concepts and appropriate organizational frameworks. The highly regarded historical assessments of Williamson Murray also underscore the correlation between innovation and the accurate identification of a specific operational challenge. But the Pentagon misidentified the true threat and the emerging asymmetric challenges represented by the likes of Osama bin Laden. Transformation, as originally defined, overlooked what was occurring in the real world. Many commentators, including Lawrence Freedman, John Keegan, Michael Howard and retired Marine Lt. Gen. Paul K. Van Riper, suggested that a technologically oriented transformation was irrelevant to the rather seismic social and political shifts generated in the post-Cold War era and accelerated by the interconnectivity of globalization. These same arguments were also put forward by van Creveld, Bill Lind, G.I. Wilson, T. X. Hammes and others who properly identified the truly transformational shifts that would characterize human conflict in this era. It took Sept. 11, 2001, to puncture the Pentagon’s early illusions and misguided priorities. It is now recognized that America can no longer afford to myopically focus on fighting opponents of our own choosing and assume that they will fight the way we want them to. Events in Afghanistan and Iraq have fortunately reinforced the turn away from a technocentric approach and redefined and accelerated the Pentagon’s transformation program.

What is unclear is whether the bias in favor of technology is simply in temporary eclipse or a more permanent decline; the earlier course of the RMA might be said to fit the more standard American way of war. It will be incumbent on the skeptics and pessimists to keep the Pentagon on this track after Iraq winds down. Future conflicts will not be resolved with bytes or precision strikes. Technology will not be irrelevant, but there will be neither magic bullets nor quarter given in these so-called “irregular wars.” Despite the claims of the technically optimistic, Clausewitz will still be an indispensable, albeit incomplete, guide to the logic of such conflicts.

Bruce Berkowitz, meanwhile, offers a sharp contrast to the stark reality of our ongoing operations in Iraq In his book, “The New Face of War”. Blending much of the more innovative conceptual thinking of RMA advocates such as John R. Boyd and the late Arthur Cebrowski, the original “transformation czar,” Berkowitz attempts to explain how war has been revolutionized by information technology; in so doing, he paints an overly optimistic and technocentric picture of future conflict, explaining that “information technology has become so important in defining military power that it overwhelms almost everything else.”

A professor at George Mason University in Virginia, Berkowitz is a widely respected analyst on intelligence. While his books on reshaping American intelligence agencies are prescient and highly reasoned, “The New Face of War” fails at its primary purpose — defining how wars will be fought in this century and explaining how we must prepare for them. A distinctly optimistic disciple of the Chinese philosopher of war Sun Tzu when it comes to the value of intelligence, the author opens with a number of assertions that would make Clausewitz spin in his grave but that seem to appeal to many transformationalists. For example: “The Information Revolution has fundamentally changed the nature of combat. To win wars today, you must first win the information war.” Or, “Every [American] military failure has occurred mainly because we failed to secure that [information] advantage.” Or, “Victory goes to the side that understands how to use information technology more effectively.” And finally, “Today the ability to collect, communicate, process and protect information is the most important factor defining military power.”

Perhaps Berkowitz would argue that insurgents in Iraq have an information advantage, but that isn’t his purpose in the book. Indeed, such comments do not square with most assessments of Vietnam, Somalia or Kosovo, let alone Iraq. American operations in those cases were founded on deficiencies in strategic thinking, cultural intelligence or flawed human decision-making. Only by extending the meaning of information to include an acute appreciation of foreign cultures, religion and language do Berkowitz’s claims have any connection to the brutal reality of Iraq.

In fact, while it is extremely hard to get past the opening chapter of “The New Face of War,” the reader should push past these sweeping historical statements and delve deeper. The rest of the book is more balanced and highly stimulating. Based on an analysis of Marine experiences of Operation Enduring Freedom and Task Force 58, the author accurately predicts the emergence of new tactical concepts: “Forget the images of John Wayne leading waves of amphibious craft in beach landings in ‘The Sands of Iwo Jima,’” he writes. “Today, the Marines are more likely to fight as a quickly deployed network of semiautonomous units in a landlocked country hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean.”

But even these insights are undone by other parts of Berkowitz’s argument. While seemingly grasping the need for decentralized operations to exploit the value of information, “The New Face of War” abruptly shifts and encourages an increased degree of centralization at the strategic level. Berkowitz conflates the various components of “strategic” information warfare — the battlefield of ideas and ideology — with information operations and strategic communications, arguing inaccurately that one lesson from Kosovo is that a single individual in the White House needs to be responsible for tying together all the components of an information campaign, coordinating public diplomacy, propaganda and plans to attack enemy information systems at the strategic and tactical level. This approach already has proponents in Washington, who only need to scrutinize the abysmal performance of information operations in Operation Iraqi Freedom to realize how faulty the logical scaffolding is for further centralization.

Generating a more flexible and adaptive military force capable of winning a global war against Islamic radicals is now — formally, at least — a key pillar of the Pentagon’s revamped transformation strategy. This includes resources for ground forces capable of conducting stability operations and other forms of small wars that require well-trained forces with the cultural awareness and discriminate judgment needed.

“The New Face of War” acknowledges the harsh realities of modern combat. Despite Berkowitz’s embrace of information technology, he realizes future wars will be brutish and bloody conflicts that will place a greater premium on the human dimension of war. We live in another era of small wars, or what Max Boot appropriately titled “The Savage Wars of Peace.” Victory in such conflicts will go to the side that identifies its opponent’s vulnerabilities best, is the most creative, formulates and executes plans quicker, and adapts faster. There is no doubt that information technology is a critical component and contributes to our ability to conduct operations across the conflict spectrum.

Above all, the “savage wars of peace” still place a premium on human factors and the ability to make and execute decisions in the most uncertain and violent circumstances. In this regard, there is no new face to modern war. Frank Hoffman is a research fellow with the Marine Corps Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities at Quantico, Va.