Elaine M. Grossman,
Inside The Pentagon,
October 18, 2001, Pg. 1

Reprinted by Permission of Inside Washington Publishers: This article may not be reproduced or redistributed, in part or in whole, without express permission of the publisher. Copyright 2001, Inside Washington Publishers.

Watching the first 10 days of coalition air strikes against Afghanistan play out, the same question is beginning to cross the minds of defense thinkers in and outside the Pentagon: Is the U.S. military up to the challenge presented by this new-generation threat?

No one doubts that the United States wields an unmatched military capability around the globe. But that is typically measured using a conventional yardstick, in terms of spending more annually than the next 18 nations' militaries combined, or fielding a force larger than all others except China, or using weapons that are dramatically superior to all potential foes.

Since taking office earlier this year, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has preached that the $329 billion-a-year U.S. military badly needs "transformation" in order to handle the diverse set of challenges it will face down the road. "We have seen the spread of ballistic missile technologies and technologies relating to weapons of mass destruction in many unusual places across the globe, including countries where people are starving, countries that seem to have very little resources," Rumsfeld told the House Appropriations Committee July 16, calling for a missile defense system. He said he also wanted the Pentagon to better prepare for other threats it will face "in the decades ahead," including cruise missiles, computer attacks and terrorism.

Before the day was over on Sept. 11, Rumsfeld realized the future was literally at his doorstep. As horrifying as the terrorist hijackings and attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center were, they lent the previously amorphous nature of next-generation threats a clear tangibility that was immediately understood across the nation and around the world. Many believe that since the terrorist attacks, Rumsfeld, like President Bush, is hitting his stride for the first time since the Bush administration took office. Both are intensely focused on the mission of ridding the world of terrorists and determined to get the job done right.

"Our response may include firing cruise missiles into military targets somewhere in the world; we are just as likely to engage in electronic combat to track and stop investments moving through offshore banking centers," Rumsfeld wrote in The New York Times on Sept. 27. "The uniforms of this conflict will be bankers' pinstripes and programmers' grunge just as assuredly as desert camouflage."

He added: "This is not a war against an individual, a group, a religion or a country. Rather, our opponent is a global network of terrorist organizations and their state sponsors, committed to denying free people the opportunity to live as they choose."

Few doubt that Rumsfeld knows how the military piece of the war must be carried out. But are the armed services and warfighting commands—as they are currently configured and led by generals and admirals who came of age in the Cold War—up to this fundamentally different breed of challenge?

The defense secretary has already begun moving to speed the military transformation he believes is required, according to defense officials. He has given U.S. Special Operations Command an unusually strong hand in leading facets of the war in Afghanistan. That organization is expected to take a major role in antiterrorism activity when the effort is later broadened around the globe, perhaps weakening the traditionally powerful role of the regional warfighting commanders, sources said.

Additionally, Rumsfeld and his aides are mulling various new combinations of existing commands to form a new organization responsible for the military aspects of homeland defense, officials say.

Still, several current and former defense officials say Rumsfeld remains "frustrated" with the conventional mindset he encounters among many military officers leading the services, warfighting commands and the Joint Staff. Those who have studied so-called "fourth-generation" threats—violence against civilians and non-military structures carried out by loose cells of individuals who represent a cause but no particular nation—say fresh thinking, creativity and ingenuity will be needed to fully understand the adversary and take it apart.

Drawing that out of U.S. military leaders—for whom cautiousness and reliability, not risk-taking and out-of-the-box thinking, are often regarded as desirable characteristics—has been like "pushing on a noodle" for Rumsfeld as he undertakes this challenge, in the words of one Pentagon civilian.

"What you have here is a mating of two cultures," a predominant one that has long prepared for big conventional wars and another in the special operations and intelligence communities that is more oriented toward a terrorist threat, said another defense official this week.

There is a growing sense among military officers and defense experts that Army Gen. Tommy Franks, the U.S. Central Command chief with an artillery background who is leading the war in Afghanistan, has been slow to react to targets of opportunity and overly cautious in launching the battle against Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network.

For his part, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "is a conventional, linear thinker," said one retired officer who has known him for years. This former official and other defense experts said the JCS chief is a solid officer, but will likely not prove to be a plentiful source of new ideas for Rumsfeld.

The Sept. 11 hijackers on their devastating suicide missions "took us down with knives; they humiliated and embarrassed us. They broke our hearts," said retired Col. David Hunt, a former special operations officer. But as much as the desire for justice or revenge has dramatically boosted phone calls to military recruiters, the national anger seems not to have translated yet into a military capacity to destroy the terrorist networks, Hunt says. "The military has not been bloodied since Vietnam. We have promoted a bunch of PowerPoint briefers, not fighters," observed Hunt, referring to sophisticated computer briefing software used widely in the Pentagon. "The soldiers and noncommissioned officers have never let us down, and never will. But we've got some real problems with leadership."

"The military doesn't know that it's at war" following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington that together resulted in more than 5,000 deaths, said one current military officer. "I don't think the senior generals understand that yet. … If we're going to pinprick Afghanistan and think that we've solved the problem, we're out of our minds. We need to take the gloves off and be somewhat more ruthless."

If Rumsfeld reshuffles his military organizations or leadership, "that just means we've gone to war," said one defense expert. The historical norm, according to this source, is for the U.S. military to find itself initially challenged by the particulars of each major war it fights, and then it adjusts.

But one of several senior retired military officers interviewed over the past week said that if Rumsfeld is frustrated, it is only because the political necessity of conducting negotiations in the region on a new Afghan government to replace the Taliban has slowed military operations, throwing the timing off.

"They're not running as intensive an air campaign as could be run because they're trying to get this government together," said this former officer. "They're trying to do it from the air and hold it back at the same time—that's frustrating Rumsfeld."

Others disagree, saying there are serious institutional and personnel problems at the Pentagon that exist even if the political and diplomatic challenges were absent.

"I think there is more trouble brewing beneath the surface than most people realize," said one military officer this week. Rumsfeld appears to be turning increasingly to trusted advisers outside the Pentagon to help him navigate the war on terrorism, much as he did last spring when he kicked off a set of studies prior to the Quadrennial Defense Review to "inform his thinking," as his aides said at the time.

Ultimately the quadrennial review resulted in a document that seeks a military prepared largely for future threats that may yet evolve, including the rise of competitive world powers or rogue nations that may acquire weapons of mass destruction. But there is little discussion of how to use the military to combat the kind of shadowy adversaries al Qaeda represents, and this is the war in which Rumsfeld now finds himself immersed (Inside the Pentagon, Oct. 4, p1).

Secretary of State Colin Powell recently portrayed the military imperative as getting "inside the decision loop" of the terrorism network—a term borrowed from late Air Force Col. John Boyd that refers to observing an adversary, understanding its workings, deciding on a course of action and acting. Boyd believed that to be successful, the U.S. military must be prepared to unravel an adversary's decision loops in endless repetitions—and faster than the enemy can sensibly react. The idea is to sow confusion and terror, taking the adversary apart from within.

While the United States may retaliate against the nations that support terrorism, the al Qaeda network is dispersed widely around the globe in semi-autonomous cells, experts say. Law enforcement, financial and information warfare tools are available to undermine al Qaeda, but the network is not a nation-state and offers few direct targets for the military to attack. Experts in fourth-generation warfare say the only way to emasculate al Qaeda militarily is to "beat them at their own game," in the words of former Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Charles Krulak. "We are desperately trying to fit the 'round' Taliban-al Qaeda peg into the 'square' hole of conventional [war] planning," one Air Force targeting officer told ITP this week. "We have all sorts of technology and systems. However, they are not very flexible and … we just don't know how to leverage what we've got."

"To counter the fourth-generation warrior, we need to think and act like the fourth-generation warrior—except think and act faster than they do," Krulak told ITP last week. While the United States will attempt to focus violence against the terrorists themselves and not innocent civilians, the idea is to undo al Qaeda by introducing terror into their lives and disassembling their plans.

Krulak describes an approach that sounds much like what the Bush administration has laid out. "We should use all military means available, both 'seen' and 'unseen,'" he said, referring in the latter instance to the type of special forces believed to be in Afghanistan to collect intelligence, designate targets for air strikes and perhaps carry out search-and-destroy raids against bin Laden and his cronies.

"We should use our economic power to strangle their funds, deception and [psychological operations] to bring confusion to their organization and, above all, we should make their days and nights ones of terror," said Krulak, who retired in 1999. "They should slowly but surely meet death: on a road or trail, around a campfire, in the peace and comfort of their homes and in every place that they might feel secure. … There should be no sanctuary, no place where they feel safe."

That objective requires the U.S. military to maintain a high level of momentum over a long period of time, according to retired Air Force Col. Chet Richards, a former attaché to the Middle East and longtime expert on fourth-generation warfare [note: and editor of DNI]. "We want to make [the terrorists] stay up at night and worry about every creak of the floorboards," Richards said, echoing the former commandant's words.

The "bottom line," Krulak said, is "they should live in terror." The endeavor to thrust al Qaeda into its own terror nightmare is very different from the current coalition air strikes in Afghanistan aimed at destabilizing the Taliban regime, which has provided sanctuary to the terrorists. That more conventional effort comes with its own military challenges.

In fact, part of the complexity of the operation is that there are diverse objectives at the strategic, operational and tactical levels, observes retired Gen. Merrill McPeak, a former Air Force chief of staff. On the tactical level, the goal is to destroy bin Laden and his associates, McPeak said. On the operational level, the United States wants to destabilize the Taliban. And on the strategic level, he said, the coalition seeks to send a strong message to governments worldwide not to support terrorism. The Bush administration's willingness to use force so quickly after last month's terror attacks translates to success on the strategic level in sending a signal to would-be supporters of terrorism, McPeak said.

Operationally, the coalition appears to be making strides in weakening Afghanistan's ruling regime, but "we don't know yet if the next government will be better or worse than the Taliban," he said. And, McPeak added, although many of the special forces' tactical operations on the ground may be unseen by the U.S. public, bin Laden has not yet been captured or killed. The main thrust this week appeared to be aimed at taking down the Taliban. After reportedly reserving heavy air fire and holding back the Northern Alliance opposition forces on the ground until a new unity government could be pieced together, the Pentagon says U.S. and British warplanes considerably stepped up their attacks on Taliban troops Oct. 15. That included the introduction of the AC-130 gunship, an Air Force platform adept at routing out troop concentrations and military supply lines.

The war-torn and impoverished Afghan nation did not present the U.S.-led coalition with many conventional targets from the outset, lacking much of the infrastructure and governmental organization found in most nations of the world (ITP, Sept. 27, p1). By early this week, the targeting officer reported that "we are out of strategic targets" in Afghanistan. The Taliban's tactical forces were not only a key target to destroy to destabilize the regime, but were also virtually all that was left. But, the officer said, "the Taliban forces are not what we are really after. We want al Qaeda."

Krulak said the same kinds of warfighting tools available to the U.S. military in weakening the Taliban can indeed be used in the struggle to destroy al Qaeda, but strategy and tactics will be different. "The use of conventional means are fine so long as they support a holistic campaign that aims at fighting in an asymmetric manner," said the former commandant. "If the bombs and cruise missiles are intended to confuse and instill fear, that is good. If they are only used to crater airfields, destroy trench lines, interrupt communications, then that is not so good. The planners need to use conventional assets to support an unconventional war."

Richards, interviewed Oct. 15, added that U.S. conventional forces are useful in the unconventional war on terrorism but are currently hampered by insufficient intelligence. He emphasized a need for human intelligence, saying that people are the most important ingredient in achieving success against this kind of enemy, followed by ideas, then technology. "But it requires an enormous amount of intelligence we don't have right now and won't for years," Richards cautioned.

When Rumsfeld laid out the initial military objectives for Operation Enduring Freedom, it had the ring of a methodical approach to the first step of a very complicated enterprise. On Oct. 7, Rumsfeld said "the current military operations are focused on achieving several outcomes":

For Rumsfeld, undermining the Taliban is not an end in itself but a condition for getting al Qaeda on the run. But has the Pentagon's focus somehow shifted to the more conventional war against the Taliban, taking a toll on the military momentum to bring bin Laden and al Qaeda to justice? In an Oct. 16 briefing for reporters on the previous day's military action, for example, Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold, the Joint Staff's operations director, said allied forces used more than 100 carrier-based aircraft and land-based bombers, augmented by five sea-launched cruise missiles, to strike 12 target areas, including a terrorist camp and a training area, plus airfields, aircraft and air defense sites. They also hit Taliban forces including troop and vehicle staging areas, and storage and maintenance sheds.

But even as Newbold added that, to date, more than 2,000 munitions had been expended on targets and more than 350,000 relief supplies airdropped to the sick and starving population, he noted the limited utility of the mind-numbing box scores.

Officials say the air cover has allowed Northern Alliance fighters to continue their steady advance on Taliban positions. Yet attacking the Taliban "doesn't get at the gut issue," said one retired military officer. "It's the water that the fish are swimming in, it's not the fish."

Listening to the Pentagon briefings over the past week or so, it was easy to lose sight of the connection between the laundry lists of targets destroyed by air strikes and the overarching goals set for the Operation Enduring Freedom by Rumsfeld when the war was launched.

If the connection between the defense secretary's objectives and the ongoing military campaign has been somewhat muddied over the past week, it is not on the military level but on the part of the news organizations, according to one defense official. Reacting to the sports-reporting type coverage on some cable television networks that details the day's war tally, the official observed with resignation that "the media beast must be fed."

"I don't sense that there's a disconnect" between Rumsfeld and the military officers charged with carrying out the war against terrorism, said this official, interviewed Oct. 16. "My sense is there's a lot of groping here" by military leaders to find their way in the unfamiliar territory of counterterrorism, according to this source. "In a conventional battle, you have a much cleaner plan. … In this case, you're planning for a lot of improvisation."

Are U.S. military officers up to the task? "These are not our favorite kind of conflicts," acknowledged this defense official. "We are much more comfortable with a Desert Storm scenario. But we don't get to pick." Not yet two weeks into the military side of the conflict, is too early to judge how it will turn out, said the official. Even though the war may last for years, "I think people have got their eye on the ball here and they're going after the al Qaeda network," the source said.

Identifying the challenge may be a first step toward surmounting it, but the U.S. military has its work cut out for it, according to Krulak. "This is a very difficult subject to discuss or to fully understand because we really have difficulty getting into the mind of the fourth-generation warrior," he said. "It will take some time but it will happen. And when it does, the terrorist will rue the day he [or] she picked up their weapons and joined the fight."

-- Elaine M. Grossman


News analysis

Is The U.S. Military Ready To Take On
A Conventional Terror Threat?