A Critique of Pure Superstition:
The Question of "What Revolution in Military Affairs?"

April 6, 2001

Comment: #409

What Revolution in Military Affairs?


There is a general agreement that the American military establishment is in serious need of transformation or reform. The multi-billion dollar question is what kind of transformation or reform that should be.

On the programmatic level, the Pentagon is clearly broken—as we have seen in many earlier blasters, the existing modernization program can not 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 that we were at the height of the cold war (taking out the effects of inflation). A corrupt 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% cost overrun and 2 year slippage of the 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.

But there are also the questions of threats, strategy, and force structure—really, the question of "ready for what?" 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 Versailles.

In the 21st Century Pentagon, this belief in miracles has been formally structured into VISIONS produced on complex PowerPoint Slides, which create a substitute for reality (viewed epistemologically, one is tempted to call the pervasive phenomenon of "power-point induced reality" an outward manifestation of an evolving post-modern, neo-Kantian, anti-mind).

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 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 airplanes will be data-linked to computerized decision-making centers which will in-turn frag long range guided weapons on an unreactive enemy who is STILL viewed as an 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 is 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 McNamra did, but the RMA is merely his failed dream (Igloo White) 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 the 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 elixer 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 Russia nightmare in Chechnya, and Israel's growing desperation in the Al Aqsa Intifada.

But more than reality is lost in the techno-debate. So are the people. No one wants to hear the concerns held by the bees in the beehive—their job is to follow the vision by slugging in the trenches.

If you are interested in hearing what some of these lower-level workers (or in the immortal words of a former assistant secretary of the Navy, "low-level pukes") think about the Pentagon's problems, a forthcoming book might help you to organize your thoughts. Produced at the initiative of Major Donald Vandergriff, an army tanker from the hills of East Tennessee, Spirit, Blood, and Treasure is an anthology of essays written by low and mid-level soldiers and civilians, including this writer.

Their common denominator is that they have lived with the real problems—be they in shock trauma wards of our veterans hospitals, the battlefields of Vietnam or the Persian Gulf, the cockpits of B-1 bombers, F-18s, or M-1 tanks, the budget trenches in the Pentagon, the trading rooms of Congress, or the citadels of the defense industry. While the individual authors of these essays do not agree with everything in this anthology, they have one thing in common—they know things are screwed up and they ALL agree that the order of priority for fixing things is:

  • people first

  • ideas second

  • hardware third.

As a contributing author, I am naturally a biased advocate of this book, but I urge you to read the introduction to see for yourself if the entire book is worth reading.

Chuck Spinney

[Disclaimer: In accordance with 17 U.S.C. 107, this material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.]

SBT will appear in June, and can be ordered directly from Presidio Press (415-898-1081) or pre-ordered from Amazon, Borders, or Barnes & Noble.

The introduction to Spirit, Blood, and Treasure

A short review, written by the webmaster of Defense and the National Interest

Table of Contents:

Introduction: "Why It's Time to Adapt to Changing Conditions." by Franklin C. Spinney, Lt Col John Sayen (USMCR), and Major Donald E. Vandergriff (USA)

Part I: People

Chapter 1: "Trust: The Touchstone for a Practical Military Ethos." Jonathan Shay, Ph.D., M.D.

Chapter 2: "Character: The Cornerstone of Military leadership." Lt Col. Carl Rehberg (USAFR)

Chapter 3: "Personal Policy and Army Culture." Lt Col William Bell (USA Ret.)

Chapter 4: " Its the Personnel System." Lt Col John Tillson (USAR Ret.)

Part II: Ideas

Chapter 5: "Minimal Force: The Mark of a Skilled Warrior." Lt Col John Poole (USMC Ret.)

Chapter 6: " Maneuver Warfare: More Than a Doctrine." Lt Col Gregory Wilcox (USA Ret.)

Chapter 7: "Force and Unit Design." Lt Col John Sayen (USMCR)

Chapter 8: Notes on Close Air Support: Historical Vignettes from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam." Franklin C. Spinney

Chapter 9: "The Carriers Pack the Airborne Cavalry." Capt Daniel Moore (USN) and Major Christopher Yunker (USMC Ret.)

Chapter 10: Over the Horizon." Major Christopher Yunker (USMC Ret.)

Chapter 11: "Taking Center Stage: The Reserve Components and Their Growing Role in National Strategy." Major Gregory Pickell (US Nat'l Guard)

Part III: Hardware

Chapter 12: "Transformation and the Illusion of Change." Col Douglas MacGregor (USA)

Chapter 13: "Reforming the Market Place-The Industrial Component of National Defense." Chester W. Richards, Ph.D. (Colonel USAFR Ret)

Chapter 14: "Gimmicks, Deceptions, and Ignoring the Rules: How Congress and DoD Shape the Defense Budget." Spartacus (current or past member of the Congressional staff)

Chapter 15: "The Continual Readiness Death Spiral: Are the lessons learned From the Last QDR Being Applied Today?" Franklin C. Spinney