The Pentagon’s Days of Future Past

I remember spending a day with a Polish cavalry regiment at their headquarters outside Warsaw, and one saw the most marvelous demonstrations of horsemanship. But somehow, I knew enough about military affairs to realize how sad that was. This was an old-fashioned army.

~ British Observer of the Polish Army in the 1930s

Polish cavalry didn’t really charge tanks as the Germans rolled into their country in 1939. But they did have an outmoded military. Last War-ism played a part: Polish cavalry (along with effective code breaking) fended off the numerically superior Soviets in 1920. But the Poles weren’t the only ones who had not kept up with the times.

On December 7, 1941, the U.S. had 19 battleships and eight aircraft carriers. Eight battleships were damaged that day, two permanently. By the Battle of Midway six months later it was becoming clear that carriers were the future of the surface fleet. Yet, eight new battleships were commissioned after Pearl Harbor, showing the enduring strength of the 19th century idea. The remaining battleships played useful roles, but by war’s end the battleship’s day in the sun was over. Several were used as targets during the Bikini Atoll atomic tests in 1946. Virtually all of the rest had been sold for scrap or donated as local museums by the end of the 1940s. However, four decommissioned soon after WWII but not cut-up for scrap famously reemerged for a time in the 1980s and early-1990s, and calls for their return still happen from time to time.

The Pentagon’s reverence for the stealth is a more recent example of over-investing in a fleeting technological advantage is. Stealth, or low observability, was discovered by a Russian scientist in the early-1960s. It took decades of research and development to put into practice, but military value of stealth was short-lived.

In the 1990s even tanks, helicopters, and ships were designed with faceted surfaces like Desert Storm’s famous F-117. None of the high-profile weapons development programs lived up to their marketing, and most were canceled. This soured the fashion for the Everything Stealthy Design School (the Pentagon’s own Modernist movement) though stealth fever lives on in the Air Force.

Cracks in the façade of stealth appeared in 1999 when a clever Serbian antiaircraft commander used an ancient Soviet radar set and some good detective work to shoot down a F-117. The Pentagon’s panic over Turkey’s plan to buy the Russian S-400 antiaircraft system suggests that the F-35, which Turkey also is scheduled to buy, is already vulnerable.

Aircraft detection techniques are evolving, further undermining the old ideas of stealth design. As anyone who has seen the remarkable improvements in prenatal ultrasound technology knows, improved signal processing makes a difference. The indistinct, two-dimensional pictures of 20th century ultrasound tech have since been refined into 3D images that clearly show facial features.

Ongoing research suggests that stealth optimization for selected wavelengths will not be effective for long. Signal processing experts are working on making sense of the reflected radio waves from commercial sources such as television, radio, and cellular broadcast towers. These electronic signals blanket much of the globe and cover a broad range of the radio frequency spectrum. Perhaps signal processing experts will soon find a way to reliably detect aircraft from these common signals.

Since stealth design is an optimization of physical shape, surface materials, and electronic and thermal signature management, by definition this means the design has been tailored to work best in a specific technical performance range. Thus, optimization does not provide a general or robust capability and physics limits the range and degree of what may be optimized into limited stealthiness.

The U.S. status quo model of the military is one composed of advanced conventional forces equipped with modern ships, planes, tanks, sensor networks, and logistic capability and also nuclear weapons. The Pentagon, the broader government, and the industrial base is beholden to this status quo and favored visions of future operations. The Pentagon can modify to a degree for operations but finds it difficult to adapt structurally to new realities. The primary reasons are financial. Last War-ism and nostrums of future scenarios always vastly outweigh truly fresh thinking. The commitment to the ideas of the past that exist today – as business relationships, existing infrastructure, organizations, systems, plans, and past research – dominate the Pentagon’s budget. With rare exception, the entire Pentagon budget funds the status quo.

That what we do today stems from the ideas of yesterday is no revelation. But the reign of the past is so pervasive that virtually all "new" Pentagon ideas are regurgitations of old technologies and scenarios. These are overwhelmingly – and firstly – those which see war as kinetic action using bombs, missiles, and enabling systems. Banking on the future value of once-upon-a-time technological advantages is not moving forward. It is moving backwards.

The Pentagon became accustomed to being good at "precision" airstrikes since the end of the Cold War. Importantly, and narrowly, this capability only exists in wars with technologically unsophisticated forces during favorable weather from safe (for US forces) distances. US aircraft carriers and the operational airfields in and near various warzones have been almost completely free from effective counterattack. The multitudes of armed drones, attack aircraft, aerial refueling tankers, and logistics aircraft generally operate at altitudes safe from surface-to-air threat. The military’s reliance on the high-speed, high-bandwidth global internet backbone and a variety of satcom channels for virtually instantaneous digital communications has to date not suffered from substantive impediment.

Even though the US has become entangled with a variety of strategically formidable adversaries in recent years, the US military operates as the New England Patriots would playing against a sandlot team in strictly technological terms. The Pentagon is grateful for this current technological advantage. Soldiers on the ground have faced serious and effective counterforce. Yet drone footage, aerial weapons support, and communications have rarely been unavailable for technical reasons.

None other than Robert McNamara alerted us 25 years ago that high-tech military forces and equipment are tragically limited in so-called small wars against motivated adversaries. But, the Pentagon refuses to accept this lesson.

The trend in US military operations since the end of the Afghan Surge has been a return to the unconventional, direct action roots of the Drug War, where small numbers of soldiers on the ground are supported by persistent air, satellite, and logistics assets. Combining this new-old mode of small (if widespread) footprint with public and congressional inattention and an increasingly tight-lipped executive branch ensure lack of accountability for the cost and duration, let alone declaration, of US wars. Promotions, contracts, and the distribution of public funds across congressional districts continue without credible challenge.

On the other hand, inattention is inadequate to ensure the endurance and expansion of the Pentagon’s budget. Pretexts are needed and emerging and imminent threats must be publicized. Several years ago, I sat in a room with a few dozen other military technologists and listened to a three-star admiral explain that the Navy – indeed the US – was in an "existential crisis" because it now faced peer-level competition in certain regions of the globe. The admiral’s intent was to spur us nerds out of our obvious torpor to come up with new gadgets to fight the Chinese and Russians in future Leyte Gulf, North African Campaign, and Battle of Britain-style battles in epic clashes of man and machine.

I presume that the admiral was not speaking out of turn. The current generation of government and military leaders have only faced sandlot team technology. Thus, they urgently clamor for an array of new weapons for future peer wars because the Russians and Chinese have been modernizing. Curiously, it is the notion of technological, rather than strategic, competition that alarms US civilian and military leadership. Perhaps it is the only remaining national security realm where we hold any kind of lead.

Recently, a widely-announced study by the RAND Corp. suggested that the US gets "its ass handed to it" in simulated battles with China and Russia. What, then, to do? Get "lots of long-range offensive missiles." RAND helpfully came up with a tab of $8B per service per year to solve the problem. This cost estimate is, of course, very wrong because it always is.

But the real point is "more." The drum beat for more kinetic capability and capacity resounds. The services have gone back in time to request the types of sensor-shooter digital connectivity envisioned in the Network Centric Warfare and Future Combat System concepts.

The head of Indo-Pacific Command recently notified the Senate that he needed a bigger budget to pay for "immediate and necessary resources." According to one of the authors of the National Defense Strategy, "’Nothing is more important’ than getting the commander at IndoPacom what he needs."

The Air Force is directing some research and development funding to the usual places: "smart" weapons, sensor and communications networks, and aids to human-decision making, all of which have been in work for decades. The Army is looking at long range missiles to go after ships, harkening back to their 19th century coastal fortification mission. The Marines want to update their amphibious vehicles in the tradition of 19th century landing party and 20th century amphibious assaults. Something for everyone.

The problem with the RAND study – a typical example – is that its root assumptions distill war to the exchange of damage to each sides’ military systems. Formalizing war planning with math models was devised over 100 years ago and remains the basis for many types of military analysis. Lanchester’s Laws are one common way to compare the fighting strength through a series of iterative calculations. The basic methods are no different that chess, Go!, or the game Battleship – adding sophistication and detail are trivial for computer calculations. The sides exchange moves until one side runs out of an effective number of players. Such experimentation considers the decision-making of the players. But the analysis concentrates on which side has what level of force, on how many ships, planes, tanks, missiles, soldiers, etc. are available at different points of the scenario. This is how the result of a study can lead to an assertion that buying more equipment will create a positive outcome for US forces.

During a panel discussion of the RAND study on the US vs. China or Russia, former Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work suggested that the reason that the US gets shellacked is deficient plans and equipment. Work wants to inspire the military to come up with new operational plans, to swing for the fences with conventional forces concepts. He thinks a contest with a large financial incentive might do it: a war plan essay contest with a big prize. Work’s example of a radical concept of operations is to find a way for the US military to "kill 350 [People’s Liberation Army Navy] PLAN ships and [People’s Liberation Army] PLA Coast Guard ships in the first 72 hours whether they are in harbor, in a tunnel, or on or under the sea."

Although glib, if not preposterous, this plan to thoroughly destroy China’s navy is hardly imaginative. It’s an idea from the Age of Sail, from the continental European wars of the 19th and 20th centuries, from the Imperial Japanese idea of a knockout blow against the US at Pearl Harbor. But sinking the Chinese navy won’t be a knockout blow because this isn’t the mid-20th century when geographical isolation by two broad oceans was a US advantage. What happens after the 350 Chinese ships are sunk? Certainly, the war is still far from over. It is probably just beginning in the cyber realm and other possible retaliatory escalations.

Kinetic military action no longer adds up to a win for the US Its use accrues no enduring strategic advantage. But the Pentagon can’t kick the habit. Massive bombing didn’t secure victory in Vietnam. Well over 100,000 "precision" guided munitions haven’t bent the Taliban, Iraqi insurgents, nor the distributed Al Qaeda and Islamic State franchises or to our will. How will the Russians or Chinese respond to the sinking of navies or the bombing of their homelands? Because every digital system is a potential point of attack, kinetic exchanges attacks on peer power nations will merely be the first step in a widespread cyber war. Perhaps an electromagnetic war, maybe even a nuclear war.

Do US leaders expect the war to end after sinking a peer navy when today, unlike WWII, there are no technological or geographical barriers to retaliation? So far, the US, China, and Russia have been playing cyber patty cake with each other, testing each other and learning. Imagine the aftermath if we sank even one Chinese or Russian warship.

A few years ago, the Red Team Journal created a superb graphic of the US approach to national security challenges. It’s a simple Venn diagram made from just three circles. The outer circle is "money," a smaller circle inside is "tech" and then an even smaller circle inside "money" and partly overlapping "tech" is "strategy." This diagram "captures our inclination to throw money and technology at the problem" – the US firstly wants to builds gadgets and only in a minor way think through what we do and why.

The Pentagon is "a hierarchy fixated on technology [and] is unequipped to confront a world of disruptive challenges" because it is focused on the past, not the future, and mainly on the money. The US military is an old-fashioned military holding onto WWII-era ideas about the value of kinetic force.

Dave Foster is a data analyst in the private sector. From 1988-2018 he was a Marine Corps pilot and a Defense Department contract and civilian weapons engineer and operations analyst. He has degrees in engineering, business, and history.