Completing the Transformation of U.S. Military Forces

The updated military excelled in Afghanistan and Iraq, but further progress must be supported now to ensure long-term security.

On taking office in 2001, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announced his intention to transform the U.S. armed forces to meet today’s threats of rogue states and transnational terrorism. The effectiveness of U.S. fighting forces in Afghanistan and Iraq indicate that the transformation, which some have called a “revolution in military affairs,” is on the right path. But many technical challenges remain to be met, and today’s headlines make it clear that the end of combat between organized armed forces does not necessarily herald the end of a war. If the United States chooses to rest on its military laurels, the nation may in the long run lose the great benefits that have accrued from the armed forces’ efforts thus far.

The U.S. armed forces today are characterized in large measure by their unique ability to attack opposing military forces with enough precision and speed to prevail against heavy odds. This capability is, as much as any of the armed forces’ other features, indicative of their transformation over the past decade and a half from forces tailored for major land war in Western Europe to those far better suited for the new kinds of warfare that have come to face the nation since the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.

The transformation actually began very gradually but picked up speed after U.S. military leaders learned valuable lessons in the first Gulf War. There, the forces designed for Europe achieved their goal magnificently but were ponderous and hence slow to respond to changing battlefield conditions when agility was needed. The pace of change picked up again in the mid-1990s, when there was a need to limit civilian damage and casualties during military operations in the Balkans. After taking office in 2001, Rumsfeld institutionalized the notion of force transformation to meet the new world conditions. The success of the transformed military was evident in action in Afghanistan and in Iraq, where a U.S. force far smaller than the one that waged the first Gulf War defeated Iraq’s armies and overran the country in about a month.

Two major advances in technology helped make the transformation possible. First, the joining of Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation updates with coarse inertial guidance reduced the cost of precision-guided weapons that the military services had previously been reluctant to use in abundance because of their high unit costs. Second, vast improvements in information processing and communications enabled the forces to be embedded in a broad information and targeting network that, together with ensuing changes in command relationships that shifted battlefield responsibility and authority to lower levels of command, makes them far more agile and responsive to battlefield conditions than the Cold War era forces had been. Retired Vice Admiral Arthur Cebrowski, who now heads the Department of Defense’s (DOD’s) Office of Force Transformation, dubbed this new approach “Network-Centric Warfare,” and it was convincingly demonstrated in the seamless melding of air and land forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The force changes were accomplished through large substitutions of capital for labor, just as productivity has been increased in the civilian economy. The exchanges can be illustrated by comparing the armed forces’ size and budgets for 1970 and 2003. The 1970s forces had almost none of today’s precision engagement capability, whereas today’s forces are essentially built around that capability. The DOD budgets of the two years, in constant dollars, are within 5 percent of each other, but today’s forces are far smaller than the forces were in 1970 at the height of the Vietnam War. The Army has only one-third as many members in 2004 as it did in 1970, and the other services have shrunk as well. The equipment cost per person in the active forces has approximately doubled, and the budget-allocated personnel cost per person has increased by about two-thirds. These increases reflect the incorporation of more sophisticated weapons and the prevalence of more highly educated and better-trained members in the all-volunteer military. On average, the United States spends just short of $300,000 per person in the armed forces–twice as much as its closest allies and far more than any potential antagonists.

The returns on this huge investment are found to have been far larger than the investment when they can be measured in dollar terms. At the macro level, smaller forces and the reduced length of organized conflict from the first to the second Gulf Wars show enough money saved to pay for at least two years’ worth of the overall investment. At the micro level, the cost to destroy any military target from the air has been reduced to as little as a fifteenth of the cost under previous conditions.

Indicators of intangible benefit can be derived from comparisons of performance in conflicts that were similar, even though no two conflicts are exactly identical. Compare the length and number of military casualties in the Soviet and U.S. campaigns in Afghanistan or consider the number of civilian casualties in the bombing of Dresden in World War II compared with the more recent Belgrade and Baghdad bombing attacks, which were directed against similar targets.

The Soviet war in Afghanistan, using “old-fashioned” forces numbering about 100,000, took place over nine years and resulted in 15,000 soldiers killed in action. They eventually withdrew without succeeding in their mission of controlling the country. In comparison, U.S. forces, about 10,000 strong and working with Afghan allies, defeated the Taliban and Al Qaeda in less than three months and suffered about 100 soldiers killed in action. The carpet bombing of Dresden cost between 35,000 and 135,000 lives (estimates vary widely) and destroyed the city, whereas the 1999 Belgrade and 2003 Baghdad bombing campaigns cost on the order of a few hundred civilian lives with minimal incidental destruction.

Don’t stop now

Although the performance of today’s force has been impressive, further improvement is needed. Evidence of weakness includes mistaken attacks against civilian targets, fratricidal attacks against friendly force elements, and the difficulty of finding and disposing of opposition leadership. Moreover, the U.S. military’s new force structure and posture are vulnerable in many ways. As is often the case, the vulnerabilities are inherent in the fundamentals of military organization and modes of combat. To name just a few of the more critical ones:

  • The targeting network and the guidance systems of the forces’ most lethal weapons can be foiled by the use of cover, concealment, and deception (for example, tanks hidden in haystacks in Kosovo) and by interference with satellite navigation signals.
  • The communication networks, some of them commercial, on which the military depends to deliver targeting and other data to processing centers and to the forces in the field, and to manage those forces’ highly dispersed operations, can be disrupted by many kinds of electronic and physical attack.
  • U.S. forces have had the luxury of air supremacy in recent conflicts. However, the Soviet Union, before its collapse, had been fielding long-range, high-altitude, antiaircraft missile systems capable of denying this air supremacy or at least putting it at serious risk. For example, the Russian S-300 SAM system can reach out about 120 miles to attack aircraft in level flight and was claimed by the Soviets to have counter-stealth characteristics. This system could attack the essential U.S. surveillance and command and control aircraft orbiting several tens of miles from a battlefield, as well as the combat aircraft delivering weapons from what has thus far been the sanctuary above an altitude of 15,000 to 20,000 feet. A new version of this system, the S-400 Triumph, with even longer range, is said to be under development specifically for the export market. These systems are now for sale to any willing buyer, including those with whom U.S. forces may become engaged in the future; China has them, and North Korea is said to be in negotiations with Russia to acquire them.
  • The sea lines of supply that U.S. forces need for logistic support are vulnerable to attack by quiet non-nuclear submarines such as the Russian Kilo-class submarines and newer Swedish and German designs that are being purchased around the world. Iran, Pakistan, China, and North Korea have such submarines, and China has several nuclear-powered submarines; China and North Korea are still building and modernizing their submarine fleets. Also, ballistic missiles, such as the Soviet-era SCUD, and maritime mines are widely available weapons that can be used against ports that U.S. ships must use.
  • U.S. forces are now designed to achieve quick victories against organized armies, navies, and air forces. But although an opponent’s regular forces might quickly collapse under an onslaught like the one that took Baghdad in less than a month, the conflict could be continued at length by irregular forces. Thus, an opponent could deny the fruits of a quick victory and raise the stresses of a long war despite the strength of U.S. forces, as the United States is learning in Iraq even as this is written.

All of these vulnerabilities except the last one can be mitigated or overcome by technical means. The United States must therefore make progress on two fronts: (1) completion of the transformation to deal with other regular armed forces and (2) the addition of necessary capabilities, many of them not ordinarily considered military functions, to meet the irregular or so-called “asymmetric” threats.

With regard to the first, the U.S. military is currently in a position to move so far ahead of any potential opposition by regular armed forces that it might forestall the effectiveness of technical countermeasures against U.S. forces for a long time into the future. Of course, this requires early increases in defense spending in anticipation of later savings. Many policymakers concerned about the growth of the defense budget favor leaving the forces essentially unchanged and meeting any newly appearing countermeasure with a counter-countermeasure. The more aggressive approach will mean completing the acquisition of the many major systems currently in development and a few that have yet to be started.

These include systems such as the Navy’s new DD(X) destroyer and Virginia-class attack submarine, the Air Force’s F-22 fighter, the Marines’ V-22 tilt-rotor vertical-takeoff airlifter, the multiservice F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and several others. In addition, there will also have to be a costly new type of logistic ship, in keeping with the Navy’s newly developing philosophy of basing logistic support largely at sea instead of on politically and physically vulnerable land bases. It will require the cargo capacity of today’s maritime prepositioning ships, but it will also have to incorporate a flight deck and the ability to move cargo containers about on the ship and break them down into pallet-sized loads for transportation to shore. The major system developments will also have to include ship- and land-based antiballistic missile systems to meet the theater ballistic missile threat that many potentially hostile nations are building. That threat can be expected to include guided antiship ballistic missile warheads that would, by targeting both U.S. warships and logistic ships, jeopardize the essential U.S. command of the seas.

To these systems must be added extensive augmentations, improvements, and joint service integration of the networked surveillance, targeting, and communications systems to deal with the flaws in the current combat information network and to continue perfecting the new approaches to precision engagement under the Network-Centric Warfare paradigm. These improvements to the warfare information network will also entail investment in some expensive combat or quasi-combat systems, such as the Predator and Global Hawk high-altitude, long-endurance, unpiloted surveillance aircraft that are in use today; unmanned combat air vehicles designed to perform hazardous missions such as attacking and destroying the most effective long-range ground-based air defenses; piloted radar and electronic surveillance aircraft that also function as elaborate airborne command centers; and many kinds of spacecraft, such as a space-based radar and a more jamming-resistant successor to the current GPS.

Why not wait?

Although there have been no arguments about the need to enhance the combat information network and systems, including their intelligence components, there have been extensive arguments about the need for any or all of the new and advanced aircraft, ships, and ground combat vehicles. The primary objections to the new systems are that they cost too much and are unnecessary now that the United States has no enemies with the military sophistication that the Soviets possessed. But these arguments fail to account for certain realities.

It would in the long run be cheaper to stay ahead of the advancing military opposition than to try to catch up later.

First, potential opponents may field formidable armed forces to meet those of the United States. For example, North Korea remains an enigmatic but powerful threat to U.S. interests in the Pacific region. Another example in that area might be a China that, although friendly in a guarded sort of way now, could easily become a military opponent over the issue of Taiwan. That situation can blow up at any time from misunderstanding of the positions of any of the three principals–China, Taiwan, or the United States. Without U.S. fielding of forces obviously able to meet the North Koreans or the Chinese militarily, the growing capabilities of those countries could cause Japan to wonder about the military reliability of the United States as an ally. Although Japan’s constitution puts a limit on the growth of the country’s offensive military capability, the government could remove that limit if it felt threatened, and Japan has the technological capability to develop advanced weapons, possibly including nuclear weapons.

North Korea and China are but two examples of sudden military conflict that might arise in the arc of instability that reaches from North Africa through the Middle East, south and central Asia, all the way to the Korean peninsula. A third example of such a potential opponent arising without much strategic warning could be Pakistan if its government were to fall to the country’s Islamist fundamentalist factions.

This is not the place to discuss the likelihood of such threats arising, but we must take note of the potential developments that could evolve into military threats. As has been highlighted above, several of these possible opponents are actively acquiring some of the advanced Soviet-era and more recent systems that can exploit the vulnerabilities of today’s U.S. forces. And we must certainly expect that China, with its fast-growing, technology-based economy, will soon be able to field its own versions of such systems.

The problem for the United States, then, is to track and maintain superiority over the growing capability of potential military opponents. Current U.S. military systems are able to match those of such opposition now, but if the United States stands down on advancing its capability, that increasingly precarious balance could change. Worse, it might not realize that the balance had changed until it was already engaged in battle.

The argument that if the United States remains alert, it can identify developing threats in time to respond fails to recognize how long it takes to respond. It takes on the order of 10 to 20 years to field major new military systems. It can take a decade just to field a significant improvement in an existing system, such as a new aircraft or ship radar system. Yet the strategic and military need for such systems could arise in a year or two, or even as a total surprise, as the country learned at Pearl Harbor and feared throughout the Cold War.

All of the attempts to evade this reality face difficulties the U.S. has experienced but doesn’t always want to recognize. It has been proposed, for example, that new system developments be limited to prototypes that can be put into production if necessary. But there is a long path from designing and building a prototype to putting a fully militarized system into production. The military aspects of the design must be finalized, and the production engineering and production machinery must be designed and built. The final product usually turns out to be quite different from the prototype in many respects. As an example, the F-35 is three years into this evolution and it is not completed yet.

Nor can the United States simply plan to produce but a few of the new systems to keep its hand in, as it were. Because the price of every system unit produced must include a share of the costs of the research, development, testing, and production tooling that brought the system into being, the smaller the production quantity of the system, the higher its unit cost will be. We have seen, with systems such as the B-2 bomber and the F-22 fighter, that the high unit cost itself becomes an economic and political issue that leads to increased calls for system cancellation.

All of the next-generation system acquisition can be viewed as a continuation of the substitution of capital equipment for labor in the evolution of the armed forces. For example, the new Navy destroyer is being designed to operate with a crew about a third the size of the crew on the current DDG-51­class destroyer. The incorporation of advanced stealth and electronic warfare technology in new systems will put them a generation ahead of the Russian-designed antiaircraft and antiship weapons currently being fielded by potential opponents. Because the United States would not have to reconstitute an atrophied military industrial base when a threat appears on the horizon, it would in the long run be cheaper to stay ahead of the advancing military opposition than to try to catch up should the country allow itself to fall behind it.

If the United States continues the advances in military hardware and the personnel training associated with it, the “existential deterrence” value of the forces (simply the knowledge of U.S. military strength and commitments) will be sustained. This will certainly help the United States and its allies retain confidence in their national security.

After the “regular” war

The second direction in continuing force transformation must be to prepare to meet and defeat the kinds of terrorist and guerrilla opposition that could drain rapid military victories of their political and strategic advantages. Guerrilla warfare is a way for weak forces to take on strong ones; to make their governing and security positions untenable. They do so by attacking at times and in places where the stronger forces’ guard is down or where they can be outnumbered locally, and by attacking the infrastructure on which the population they are supporting and protecting depends for its livelihood and welfare.

The term “terrorism” masks a different phenomenon that shares with guerrilla warfare the need to overcome much stronger opposition. Whereas guerrillas focus on the local infrastructure and armed forces, terrorists focus almost exclusively on people, and mainly on civilians at that. In addition to trying to disrupt and discourage the U.S. military’s local efforts directly, they play on the Western world’s high valuation of human life to create internal dissent that is even more powerful in meeting their purposes. They attack in situations where many local civilians will be killed, and they deliberately set up situations in which U.S. and allied forces will kill innocent civilians or insult local religious sensibilities. For example, they fire at U.S. troops from the middle of a crowd with intent to draw return fire, and they set up weapon positions in mosques or (as in Vietnam) in temples to draw fire on them.

Clearly, the U.S. armed forces’ ability to overcome opposing regular forces quickly doesn’t address these problems, which arise only after a victory or even where there is a non­conflict-related U.S. or Western military or civilian presence in the form of military bases, embassies, or simply large tourist attractions with many Western visitors. Protection against terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland is not the task of the U.S. military, unless the president orders it. However, U.S. military forces must be able to protect themselves from terrorist attack wherever they have a presence on the globe, and they must be able to prevent terrorists and guerrillas from turning a rapid military victory into a drawn-out and politically unpopular conflict. To achieve this, the local population and infrastructure must be protected; the guerrillas and terrorists must be found, attacked, and defeated; and the adverse conditions that may have led members of the local population to support them must be changed.

The precision engagement capability that enables the defeat of opposing regular forces aids the objective of reducing casualties in the local civilian population as much as possible. The approaches to protecting the population and attacking the guerrillas and terrorists are similar in a local area. Intelligence is of prime importance. Some of it will be fed to military forces from the outside, but they must also be able to gain and act on local intelligence themselves. This requires knowledge of the local area and languages, at least on the part of some of our military units. It also requires the ability to relate to the population and to any local forces with which the armed forces will work. That, in turn, means extensive training in the local culture and practices. It may mean not rising to the provocation of hostile fire from crowds or sacred places, even at the expense of giving the guerrillas and terrorists an apparent sanctuary.

It is in this last objective–that of changing the situation and outlook of the local population so that they will not support the irregulars–that the task for the U.S. military differs vis-à-vis the guerrillas and the terrorists. For if the terrorists are outsiders who have joined a local conflict because it offers them an opportunity to strike at U.S. interests and those of its allies, their reasons for doing so will not be affected by anything U.S. forces do with the local population. That is a national task that begins in Washington; it involves U.S. global foreign policy and its presence and participation in the global economy. However, in the cases of both local guerrillas and outside terrorists, U.S. military forces in place should try to gain intelligence from the local population that will, in turn, help protect both of them on the spot. To do this, they must earn a measure of that population’s confidence.

What might the local population want after a war has been fought, their army defeated, and their cities and countryside occupied by U.S. and allied forces as conquerors? Once they determine that those forces are not unremittingly hostile and repressive toward them, they will probably want to go about the business of daily living: doing useful work and getting paid for it; having their self-government restored; and having a reliable infrastructure of roads, bridges, communications, electricity, water, food, schools, and medical care. This means that the military forces also need the capability to establish and support local government and to communicate with the local population and its leaders. They will also have to perform construction tasks that are usually the province of civilian engineering firms.

It thus appears that to minimize or obviate the possibility of residual opposition that can turn a fast military victory into a long war of attrition, the active U.S. military forces will have to be expanded to include a capacity for establishing a mixture of local governance, police-oriented security, and rapid infrastructure engineering and construction.

All this comes under the controversial rubrics of peacekeeping and nation building. Why load it all on the military forces? To begin with, they are likely to be in place where they are needed. If they are not, or are not there in sufficient numbers, they can move quickly to be there. They are trained, they are disciplined, they can marshal resources rapidly, and they can fight if need be. No civilian organizations can meet all those conditions as effectively. Indeed, if we try to use the latter under conditions of guerrilla and terrorist combat, as we learned in Afghanistan and are learning in Iraq, the military must be assigned to protect them in any case, and the work does not get done as rapidly or as effectively as the military can do it. Also, by helping the local population adjust to its new situation quickly, the U.S. military can reduce local support for guerrillas–drying up the sea in which they swim, in Mao Tse Tung’s famous analogy. These circumstances might even induce many of the local guerrillas to decide to give up the fight. And if the local population decides that supporting transnational terrorists who have entered the fight is not in its interest, that decision could increase the flow of intelligence that will help defeat them.

On the assumption that in any conflict requiring such forces we will be involved with allies, the issue may arise as to whether we should rely on allies to perform the nation-building and peacekeeping tasks, in part because they may be better versed in the local culture and language and in part because they will represent a force augmentation that is cost-free for the United States. However, U.S. forces still need these capabilities for the times immediately after defeating regular military opposition when allies’ forces may not be readily available; for sectors U.S. forces will control exclusively; and for U.S. forces to be able to work effectively with allies who will also have different cultures, outlook, and training.

The bottom line

All of the needs and tasks sketched above for local post-conflict peacekeeping and reconstruction will add to the resources that the military needs. How much will it cost? An accurate estimate would require a careful review of capabilities already in the services to ascertain what must be added. For example, some of the needed capability is already embedded in the active military forces in the form of Special Operations Forces trained to work with local forces and populations and of combat engineers in all the services. Some augmentation of the engineers to deal with specialized tasks such as restoring damaged power grids might be needed, and active-duty civil affairs units including military government, police, and related functions would have to be added. If the equivalent of about one battalion per Army and Marine Division were to be required to cover all contingencies, the cost might come to between $2 billion and $3 billion per year. If only deployed forces were considered, the cost could be less.

The U.S. defense budget of nearly $400 billion increased by about 8 percent in real terms between fiscal year (FY) 2002 and FY 2004 and is projected by DOD to grow between 2 and 3 percent, or around $10 billion, per year for the next several years (not including as-yet-unspecified costs of the war in Iraq). In a defense budget of $400 billion, the amount required for the additional forces and their training might seem relatively small. But in the current tight budget climate, competition for federal funds will be intense, and there will be pressure to reduce the defense budget by canceling one or more of the major systems that are viewed as Cold War carryovers.

However, as we have seen, such a move could prove to be penny wise and pound foolish in the long run, because it would risk making U.S. forces relatively weaker in the face of potential military opposition. Moreover, the cancellation of a major system acquisition might not save the total projected system cost in the overall service or defense budget. The Army, for example, cancelled its Cheyenne combat helicopter after nearly 20 years of development and expense, saying that it doesn’t need the aircraft now that the conditions occasioned by the Soviet threat have disappeared. But one of the additional reasons given for the cancellation was that the Army wants to use the money for needed modernization of its existing helicopter fleet as well as to advance its Future Combat System.

Roughly half of the defense budget pays for personnel. Therefore, some savings might be inherent in the substitution of capital for labor as the future forces evolve, depending on how the personnel/equipment mix develops. Then, the overhead must be thoroughly scrubbed for unneeded bases and other Cold War legacies, which will be even more difficult politically than canceling major system acquisitions. Beyond that, the only practical way to make major changes in the defense resources required is to change the size of the forces. If the U.S. public wants to save additional money on defense, the United States would have to reduce forces proportionately, and as that is done, elements of risk in national security and national military strategy will increase accordingly.

Thus, the construction of America’s armed forces to meet future threats to U.S. security on all fronts will in many ways be more difficult than it was during the Cold War. U.S. forces can be kept demonstrably superior to the organized armed forces of any potential national opponents who might appear, but only if they remain in a cycle of continual renewal in anticipation of that opposition. To this capability must be added the functions, costly in people, that are needed to meet the asymmetric threat in theaters of war. Moreover, U.S. forces will have to work with allies who face similar problems but are not devoting nearly as much of their resources per individual to the armed forces and are not likely to do so. As we look to the future operations of U.S. armed forces, it appears that the United States is entering a period analogous to the Cold War, but in a new and more difficult strategic context.

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Cite this Article

Deitchman, S. J. “Completing the Transformation of U.S. Military Forces.” Issues in Science and Technology 20, no. 4 (Summer 2004).

Vol. XX, No. 4, Summer 2004