March 1, 2007  

Transformation reality check

With the Iraq operation failing, his battle plan for that conflict widely discredited and even Afghanistan looking like a partial success at best, Donald Rumsfeld’s vision for transforming the military is in serious trouble.

The nature of the war he left behind, the length of his tenure, his corporate background and even his haircut will forever invite unflattering comparisons to Robert McNamara. But like McNamara, Rumsfeld also leaves behind a rather impressive record of second-order accomplishments. While unable to outweigh his failings in war-fighting, these accomplishments will likely make him a complex and intriguing secretary of defense for military analysts to study for decades. And they also leave a foundation for Defense Secretary Robert Gates that, if he can find a way to see beyond Iraq, contains much good to work with.

It is quite likely that Rumsfeld himself would capture the essence of this other, more positive legacy with the single word “transformation.” Defined in different ways by different people, it nonetheless can be understood as accelerating the process of innovation within the Defense Department — not only in battle plans, but also in technology, force structure, doctrine, global basing, alliance interrelationships and conceptual flexibility for anticipating future challenges and conflict scenarios.

Transformation by this definition is clearly an ambitious concept. But it is also a slightly less breathless and less grandiose concept than the phraseology that preceded it and that defined much of the 1990s defense debate in the U.S.: “revolution in military affairs.”

The newer term of transformation, with its restraint in language and in ambition, is appropriate. The U.S. military has been innovating quickly for a good century, so terms that imply a radical shift in pace and scope of late are likely to be misleading. One can recall the conceptualization of carrier war and amphibious assault at places such as the Naval War College in the interwar years, the realization of those concepts as well as the advent of air power and development of nuclear weapons during World War II, the arrival of helicopters and jets shortly thereafter, the advent of satellites and the space age, the subsequent invention of infrared technologies and laser rangefinders and cruise missiles and stealth and precision ordnance — all before we were supposedly embarking on our post-Cold War revolution in military affairs. Similarly, Rumsfeld’s transformation legacy will hold up better to scrutiny if we begin by recognizing, as he frequently failed to do, how much his innovations often built on the ideas of previous secretaries — and most of all, the military services. He was hardly a lonely visionary or the first to realize that America needed to accelerate its efforts to modernize the armed forces even as it dominated the world’s power rankings. Sometimes his role in innovation was less radical than he liked to suggest. But that is not necessarily a bad thing.

record of achievement

The short list of Rumsfeld’s most important changes would, in my judgment, include the following. He helped make the Army more easily deployable and sustainable with the creation of several Stryker brigades, with his promotion of the Future Combat Systems and with the implementation of a “modularity” concept for new Army combat brigades. He greatly increased the research-and-development budgets in the Pentagon in general — some for the Army; some for traditional service favorites such as the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, the F-22 Raptor fighter, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the Littoral Combat Ship; some for missile defense; some for black programs hard to evaluate from the outside. On his watch, the U.S. built large numbers of satellite-guided bombs and began the use of unmanned combat aerial vehicles. In one of his preferred policies, Rumsfeld redesigned much of America’s overseas base network in the form of his global posture review. Relatedly, he authorized the Navy to change the way it deploys ships, reducing its slavish fixation on the need to maintain a constant overseas carrier presence in certain theaters and instead moving to the more flexible “surge” concept (a word the Navy has recently lost control over because of the Iraq debate).

These are impressive accomplishments that amount to a rich résumé for the former secretary. Absent the Iraq war, they might well have earned him a place near the top of the list of American secretaries of defense. Tragically for Rumsfeld, and the nation, that will not be possible, and my prediction is that he will do well to avoid being ranked at the bottom of any such list. But his achievements are real just the same.

With each of these accomplishments, Rumsfeld had lots of help. He often built on his predecessors’ legacies; he frequently borrowed ideas from the services, whether he gave them credit or not. Ironically, he should have been able to avoid such a polarizing relationship with Gen. Eric Shinseki, as the two shared many views on Army transformation, just as Rumsfeld later did with Gen. Peter Schoomaker. Furthermore, Rumsfeld will depend on future secretaries to see most of his own ideas to completion. But in each case, as the person on whose desk the buck stopped, Rumsfeld also deserves a share of the credit.

Indeed, even with his most notable failure — the Iraq war plan — there was some measure of operational creativity in the initial invasion. This can be exaggerated; most of our success was because of the mastery of traditional air-land battle by the American military, something the services and previous secretaries had at least as much to do with as did Rumsfeld. But he surely deserves some of the credit. There was even more to the innovative war plan that drove the Taliban out of power in Afghanistan, even if George Tenet and his operatives at the CIA had more to do with the plan’s development than did the secretary of defense. And my impression, admittedly from just-declassified sources, is that Rumsfeld working with the combatant commands also improved the quality of our war plans for Korea, Taiwan and other theaters.

Consider some of the other main achievements. Today’s Army will soon have half a dozen medium-weight brigades built around the 20-ton Stryker vehicle, which, by most reports, has done reasonably well in Iraq; when Rumsfeld arrived at the Pentagon, it had zero. It is often forgotten that Shinseki ushered in this concept after the Army’s debacle with the Apache helicopter deployment to Albania in the 1999 Kosovo war, and that Rumsfeld must therefore share credit with a general — and a previous administration — that he is not generally keen to share credit with. But to his credit, he still supported an Army chief of staff who had a good plan and who brought it to successful fruition in record time.

In terms of Pentagon technology spending, the research, development, testing and evaluation budget skyrocketed during Rumsfeld’s tenure, from levels typically in the $45 billion-a-year range under President Clinton to annual totals of more than $70 billion. Proportionately, this budget increased more than did procurement spending during the Bush presidency. Some funds went to legacy programs that many transformation proponents criticize, such as new fighter aircraft. But virtually everyone can find something important to like in these efforts. If one is not a fan of Raptors, there is the F-35; if one does not consider the Osprey the answer for future operational mobility, there is the FCS; if you do not like the Los Angeles-class submarines, there is the Littoral Combat Ship.

Building on the past

In the strategic domain, Rumsfeld increased missile defense budgets, deployed the nation’s first real national missile defense system, and merged Space Command and Strategic Command. But ironically, his legacy here is not radical. The missile defense programs he supported were primarily inherited from previous administrations; the national system he deployed was primarily the Clinton administration’s proposed architecture; and, thankfully, he did not see the need to move aggressively to develop new nuclear warheads or anti-satellite weapons. We shall see now, in the wake of China’s early 2007 anti-satellite test, whether that legacy holds up for long. But sometimes it is right not to change things too much or too fast, so give Rumsfeld some credit here, as well. To be sure, under Rumsfeld’s direction, the U.S. military became much better at real-time reconnaissance-strike operations than it had ever been. Its ability to use multiple platforms to find targets and then to get information on their locations to the proper shooters has radically progressed. So has its ability to destroy those targets with the deployment of thousands of Global Positioning System-guided all-weather bombs. This is all to the good. Those who would quickly nominate Rumsfeld for a place on Mount Rushmore as a result should recall, however, that, in most ways, Rumsfeld was the secretary not of transformation but of continuity on this. He built on equally impressive rates of change that had occurred in the first Bush and the Clinton eras. If anything, many of the harder steps and bigger conceptual changes were made then, in earlier years, not this decade. But for those of us who believe in transformation with a small t, and believe that the most effective secretaries of defense are those who listen to the good ideas of their predecessors and of reformers within the military services, this should be viewed as praise, not criticism.

Finally, Rumsfeld’s overall changes in the U.S. military base structure, and in the way we operate forces such as aircraft carrier battle groups in overseas theaters, are impressive. To be sure, his diplomacy in negotiating and implementing those changes often left much to be desired, particularly in “old Europe” and South Korea. But the changes seem to respond well to the new strategic environment. They feature, among other things, a one-third reduction in American forces in South Korea, a shift in the locations of American military commands in Asia, enhancements of the Defense Department’s capabilities on Guam, the development of military bases in Central Asia to support the war in Afghanistan, further reductions in America’s Army capabilities in Germany, and the creation of new “lily pad” bases on the territories of several new members of NATO in Eastern Europe.

This complex and generally positive transformation legacy underscores for me the tragedy of Rumsfeld’s tenure, in the Shakespearean sense of being brought down in the end by the very characteristics that allowed him to accomplish so much. Unwilling to accept conventional wisdom, he rethought many aspects of America’s defense policy and posture. In the Title 10 sense of planning and building our forces, he was generally successful, even if his war-fighting record may go down as one of the worst in U.S. history. If his arrogance and disdain for some in the military led to travesty in Iraq, his confidence, maverick qualities and willingness to rock the boat accomplished much in other ways.

If only we could benefit from the best features of our leaders while finding a way to protect against their greatest shortcomings.