What Revolution in Military Affairs? 

April 23, 2001

Comment: #410

Discussion Thread - Comment #s -409 & 348 (and referenced comments), 252, 244, 216, and 199

The attached opinion piece, written by yours truly, appeared in today's Defense Week.  It  is a variation of the introduction to Comment #409.

At the heart of the debate over the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) is a deeply flawed  interpretation of the conflict decision cycle, otherwise known as the Observation - Orientation - Decision - Action (OODA) Loop.  The OODA loop is a theory about the how modes of cognition shape the moral, mental, and physical atmosphere of conflict.  It was developed by the late Col. John R. Boyd (USAF retired).  Be advised, Boyd was my mentor, so I am biased.

Unfortunately, Boyd's ideas have been misunderstood and sometimes even deliberately misused by promoters of the RMA, particularly those techno-freaks who see visions of the dollar-plum fairy in the hard-wired, all-electric battlefield.

Fortunately,  their misrepresentations may soon become harder to pull off.

Boyd's  life and ideas will be the subject of two forthcoming books: one by Professor Grant Hammond of the Air University (Smithsonian Press, May 2001) and the other by Robert Coram (Little Brown, Spring 2002).  My hope is that these books will serve as anecdotes to the flood of misconception and distortion.  My sense is that they will provide two complimentary, mutually-reinforcing perspectives. As I understand it, Hammond's book (which I have not seen) will be a discussion on Boyd's philosophy and ideas, written primarily for academics and professionals, whereas Coram's (which is still in preparation) will be a full-blown popular biography discussing the man, his life, and the evolution of his character and ideas.

Also, if you are interested, you can examine Boyd's ideas in his own words. A complete copy of Boyd's "Discourse on Winning and Losing" as well as background material on his work can be downloaded in Adobe PDF format from Boyd and the Military .  Of particular relevance to the techno-freaks should be—but isn't—Boyd's "Organic Design for Command and Control."

Finally, interested readers will find additional information on the proper application of his ideas at DNI's companion site: http://www.chetrichards.com.

The failings of the misconceived techno-mechanical OODA loop (the RMA vision) have been a recurring subject in earlier blasters.  Readers interested in examining the difference between the RMA conception and Boyd's theory can also review Comment #409 and follow its thread of referenced comments.  Other specific discussions of the OODA loop can be found in comments 252, 244, 216, and 199.

Without further ado, let us now segue into my view of the Pentagon's Post-Modern Neo-Kantian Anti Mind.

Defense Week
April 23, 2001
Pg. 2

What Revolution In Military Affairs?

By Franklin Spinney

There is a general agreement that the U.S. military establishment is in serious need of transformation. The multi-billion dollar questions is: What kind?

On the programmatic level, the Pentagon is clearly broken. The modernization program cannot modernize the existing force, even if it is executed perfectly, and consequently equipment will continue to get older and forces will continue to shrink. The rising cost of low readiness has made it impossible to attain high readiness even though we are spending more dollars per unit of combat power than we were at the height of the Cold War (taking out the effects of inflation). A dysfunctional accounting system makes it impossible to assemble the information needed to fix the modernization and readiness problems. More importantly, it makes a mockery of the checks and balances in the Constitution and undermines the ideals we purport to serve.

The V-22 Osprey debacle, the 53 percent cost overrun and one-year slippage of the first LPD-17 San Antonio-class landing ship and yet another stretch out of the F-22's Raptor test plan are but a few examples revealing that the free-lunch promises of acquisition reform are not materializing.

So the end of the Cold War and the rise of irregular warfare or unconventional threats raise fundamental questions about the purpose of the military and how it should be structured. Not surprisingly, the special interests associated with the Cold War technological status quo are scared-their dollars, jobs, and profits are at risk. When unsettling change is coupled to an absence of simple answers, history has shown repeatedly that some people turn to astrologers, swamis, and oracles for miracle solutions. They want easy answers to tough questions—or "silver bullets," to use the revealing phrase of that Versailles on the Potomac called the Pentagon.

In the 21st century Defense Department, the belief in miracles has been formally structured into "visions" produced on complex PowerPoint Slides, which create a substitute for reality. On the other hand, we should remember that the substitution of techno-fantasy for thinking about tough problems is an old bias in the Pentagon.

Old timers will remember glowing promises made about then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara's electronic line in Vietnam-a near-real-time see-decide- strike system that tried futilely to halt infiltration down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The idea was to sow robotic sensors in the jungle that were linked via airborne relays to a computer center in Thailand which in turn had authority to direct air strikes on the targets detected by the sensors (which were disguised to look like jungle growth).

Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the same glowing assumptions are now echoed in the thunder accompanying the "revolution in military affairs." This time, a new generation of robotic sensors based in unmanned air planes will be data-linked to computerized decision-making centers which will in-turn fire long-range guided weapons on an unreactive enemy who is still seen as a mechanical system of targets.

Today's menu of miracles envisions computerized battlefields, where commanders are never confused, where fear does not affect rationality, where the fog and friction of combat are curious anachronisms and mental clarity is always the rule, and where weapons can be fired from safe antiseptic distances to strike the enemy inventory of targets with unerring accuracy.

It's a top-down mechanical vision, where strategy boils down to target-servicing. Like the French theorists who designed the Maginot Line, the new-age swamis view war as a predictable engineering problem rather than an unpredictable evolutionary stew of chance and necessity.

To be sure, we now have new and better sensors, faster computers, and more advanced stand-off weapons than McNamara did, but the "revolution" is merely his failed dream dressed in new clothes. Also, like their predecessors in Vietnam, the new-age swamis know that their technologies will revolutionize the conduct of a distant future war. They also must know what the world will look like in 20 years, because the logic of their solution is premised on an argument from design.

Lost in the fog of confident predictions is any humility deriving from the fact that the visioneers failed utterly to foresee the end of the Cold War while it was ending, not to mention the fact that they can not do mundane planning tasks like balancing the accounting books today or making accurate predictions of five-year costs.

Visioneering is a mentality bordering on the superstition-and in this regard, the new age swamis are not unlike the oracles mocked by Edward Gibbon in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire—a book that ought to be required reading for the inmates of Versailles on the Potomac, but will not be read, because it is too long to be put into a power point presentation. Mediated by domestic politics, the elixir of techno-revolution has become wildly disconnected from the dirty reality of conflict-which should have been evident in our inability to hit tactical targets in Kosovo, the Russian nightmare in Chechnya, and Israel's growing desperation in the Al Aqsa Intifada.

Spinney is an aviation expert with the Pentagon's office of Program Analysis and Evaluation. The views expressed here are his own.

Chuck Spinney

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