On War #51

The Army’s “Transformation”

By William S. Lind

The favorite buzzword in Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon is “Transformation,” and for the most part it means nothing more than winning through superior technology, an old but highly profitable delusion (see Martin van Creveld’s Technology and War). It is geared almost entirely to fighting other states, which is to say jousting contests, and has little relevance to war with non-state entities, which is where real war is headed. So long as it keeps all the contractors happy (and it does), Washington is content with it.

But the U.S. Army seems to be looking for something more. I was recently invited to join a daylong session of the Army’s “Transformation” task force dealing with force structure, and I left with the feeling that the soldiers in the group were striving for real reform (the contractors were another matter).

It has been widely reported that the Army intends to replace the division with the brigade as its basic “building block,” as advocated in Doug Macgregor’s Breaking the Phalanx. In itself, this is a positive change. Most armies went to brigades or smaller divisions long ago.

The problem is that change may be good but insufficient; the French Army’s development of armored forces in the 1930s is an example. Is what the Army is defining as “Transformation” sufficient change to meet the Fourth Generation of modern war, or at least bring it from the Second Generation (firepower/attrition warfare) into the Third (maneuver warfare)? The answer is at best unclear.

Two subsidiary questions might help answer that large question: how far does the Army’s proposed “Transformation” move it toward being able to engage non-state opponents effectively, and if all the proposed reforms were already in place, how much difference would they make in the two wars the Army is now fighting, in Iraq and in Afghanistan? From what I saw in my day with the force structure task force, the answers are a) not very far and b) not very much. That does not bode well in terms of answering the larger question. In my opinion, far more radical change is required than merely substituting brigades for divisions as the basic building block.

Here are two concrete examples: if “Transformation” truly means moving the U.S. Army from the Second to the Third Generation, headquarters above the brigade level would become both fewer and smaller. Will that happen?

Another example: a Third Generation military understands John Boyd’s point that implicit communications are faster and more reliable than explicit communications. Yet the Army (and the other services) continues to spend billions making communications explicit, computerizing anything and everything to the point where commanders drown in “information.” When Boyd asked German Generals Balck and von Mellinthin how computers would have affected their ability to fight maneuver warfare, they said, “We couldn’t have done it.” Small staffs and a small officer corps above the company grades, not vast information flows, are the key to communications for a Third Generation army.

What seems to be emerging from the Army’s “Transformation” process is a hybrid of the Second and Third Generations. The concepts, some of them anyway, are Third Generation. But the Army’s structure will remain Second Generation. Hybrids are dangerous, because their internal contradictions can become vast friction generators, and Clausewitz tells us where that can lead.

The key issue is not the Army’s force structure, but its culture. Does it remain Second Generation, focused inward on process, prizing obedience above initiative and depending on imposed discipline? Or does it transition to the Third Generation, focusing outward on the enemy, the situation and the result the situation requires, prizing initiative over obedience and depending on self-discipline? A Third Generation culture will eventually fix a Second Generation force structure, but no force structure can help a Second Generation military culture.

At the end of the day, my impression was that the big, green Army dinosaur has gotten its head up out of the swamp (apologies to you Ranger types, but from my vantage point it appears to be an herbivore). The question is whether it can evolve fast enough to match the speed of change in war itself. If not, it will join the rest of its kind in the coming mass extinction of Second Generation armies, and of the states defend.

William S. Lind is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism
Free Congress Foundation

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