Defense Transformation at the Crossroads

When the Bush administration first took office, its intention was to transform the U.S. military to meet the challenges of the 21st century. In February 2001, President Bush said to troops and personnel at Norfolk Naval Air Station:

"We’re witnessing a revolution in the technology of war, powers increasingly defined not by size, but by mobility and swiftness. Advantage increasingly comes from information such as the three dimensional images of simulated battle that I have just seen. Safety is gained in stealth and forces projected on the long arc of precision-guided weapons. …

"We will modernize some existing weapons and equipment, a task we have neglected for too long. But we will do this judiciously and selectively. Our goal is to move beyond marginal improvements to harness new technologies that will support a new strategy. …

"On land, our heavy forces will be lighter, our light forces will be more lethal. All will be easier to deploy and to sustain. In the air, we will be able to strike across the world with pinpoint accuracy, using both aircraft and unmanned systems. On the oceans, we will connect information and weapons in new ways, maximizing our ability to project power over land. In space, we’ll protect our network of satellites essential to the flow of our commerce and the defense of our common interests."

The Iraq war has demonstrated some of that defense transformation. The so-called shock and awe strategy at the beginning of the war was a manifestation of the U.S. military’s unparalleled capability to deliver sustained precision firepower against selected high-value targets in an effort to decapitate the regime and minimize civilian collateral damage. The swiftness with which U.S. land forces moved from Kuwait and through Iraq to dispatch the Iraqi military and capture Baghdad was a testament to advances in net-centric warfare and real-time intelligence-sharing. In many ways, the first four weeks of the Iraq war vindicated the vision of defense transformation: a smaller force could do what would have previously required a much larger force, in a shorter period of time and with fewer casualties.

But the subsequent occupation of Iraq has also demonstrated some of the limits of defense transformation. In May 2003, the Bush administrated forecasted that U.S. forces in Iraq could rapidly be drawn down to no more than 30,000 to 40,000 troops by the fall. Almost three years later, the U.S. garrison in Iraq is still more than 130,000 troops to support Operation Iraqi Freedom. The ongoing occupation to deal with a persistent insurgency ultimately requires the exact opposite of what defense transformation calls for: a larger force, which has been advocated by Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Biden (D-Del.) – but even a larger force does not guarantee victory and would have the effect of increasing Iraqi resentment against foreign military occupation, thereby pouring more fuel on an already volatile insurgency.

The strains of the Iraq deployment have resulted in calls for a larger Army (although the Pentagon has resisted such suggestions). Even very early on during the Iraq campaign (November 2003), the Association of the United States Army advocated increasing end strength by 50,000 troops "to support deployments from the Balkans to Baghdad." In January 2005, the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) issued a letter to the Senate and House leadership calling for "an increase in the active duty Army and Marine Corps, together, of at least 25,000 troops each year over the next several years." What was striking about the PNAC letter is that it was signed not just by hawkish conservatives and neoconservatives, but also by many liberal internationalists. And in March 2005, Senators Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) introduced legislation to increase the congressionally authorized Army end strength by 30,000 troops to 532,400 (Representative Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., introduced similar legislation in April 2005).

So Iraq has become a crossroads for defense transformation. At heart, defense transformation is about making the force better – more capable, more precise, and more lethal. Although not mutually exclusive, there is an inherent tension between making the force better and making the force bigger. This is especially true when the push to make the force bigger is being driven by the Iraq occupation, which is no longer about building a modern military to vanquish foes on the battlefield but about stability operations, peacekeeping, and nation-building.

And Iraq could just be the tip of the iceberg for the U.S. military. In his January 2006 State of the Union address, President Bush suggested the possibility of more military interventions and democracy-building occupations when he declared:

"Abroad, our nation is committed to an historic, long-term goal – we seek the end of tyranny in our world. Some dismiss that goal as misguided idealism. In reality, the future security of America depends on it. On September the 11th, 2001, we found that problems originating in a failed and oppressive state 7,000 miles away could bring murder and destruction to our country. Dictatorships shelter terrorists, and feed resentment and radicalism, and seek weapons of mass destruction. Democracies replace resentment with hope, respect the rights of their citizens and their neighbors, and join the fight against terror. Every step toward freedom in the world makes our country safer. …

"Ultimately, the only way to defeat the terrorists is to defeat their dark vision of hatred and fear by offering the hopeful alternative of political freedom and peaceful change. So the United States of America supports democratic reform across the broader Middle East."

Indeed, both Syria and Iran seem to be looming on the horizon as candidates for potential regime change. And then there is the question of the fallout from Hamas – listed as a designated foreign terrorist organization by the State Department – winning a large majority in the recent Palestinian elections.

For now, the Pentagon is trying to have its cake and eat it too. This is reflected in current fiscal year 2006 defense spending of nearly $500 billion (about $100 billion of that is for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan), which in real terms has been exceeded only by defense spending at the end of World War II and one year of the Korean War. Even spending during the Reagan buildup at the height of the Cold War was less than the current fiscal year. And the proposed fiscal year 2007 Defense Department budget is $439.3 billion, not including funding for ongoing military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. But such large defense expenditures cannot be sustained forever.

So if a capable Iraqi security force cannot be brought online relatively soon (the recent sectarian violence that has resulted in more than 1,300 dead Iraqis in the last week suggests otherwise) so that U.S. troops can be withdrawn – according to President Bush, "As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down. And when our commanders on the ground tell me that the Iraqi forces can defend their freedom, our troops will come home with the honor they have earned" – the Pentagon may be faced with having to make a choice between transformation and occupation. The former is what Secretary Rumsfeld would want to be his legacy, but the latter may be his albatross.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.