Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's meeting engagement with Army Specialist Thomas Wilson in Kuwait last week was not just a reality check for an arrogant and isolated Beltway bigwig. It was also, and perhaps more profoundly, an overdue reality check for what has proved in practice to be a terrible idea: military "transformation."
For the past 15 years, big thinkers and strategists have observed that the application of information technologies had made businesses more efficient and effective. Why couldn't similar efficiencies and increases in battlefield effectiveness be wrung from military forces which, after all, were troglodytic expressions of the Industrial Age? Heavily armored ground forces, in particular, were too ponderous and therefore vulnerable in the emerging age of "netwar" with al Qaeda and spectacularly "enabled" leaders like Osama bin Laden. And, as Rumsfeld told the troops in Kuwait, armored vehicles still get blown up anyway.
Whatever genuine wisdom was resident in these observations was long ago smothered by two more traditional impulses: air-power theory and number-crunching systems analysis. In fact, these two schools of thought actively conspired to capture the flag of transformation. And so it turned out that transformation perfectly fit the programs that the Air Force already had on the books, most importantly and expensively the tactical fighter programs like the F-22 and the Joint Strike Fighter. And to pay for it, the green-eyeshade analysts at the Pentagon looked to cut Army force structure. Like all good captains of industry, they looked to substitute capital for labor.
Thus we have a Defense secretary more concerned about the Army and the force he'd like to have -- the high-speed-low-drag transformed force of the future -- than the force with which he actually has to fight today's wars. And, in fact, Rumsfeld and his lieutenants would also simply like to fight the wars they'd like to have rather than the war as it is. How else to explain the Pentagon's conduct of operations in Iraq? The administration is still patting itself on the back for the initial invasion; this week's ceremony honoring retired General Tommy Franks, President Bush acted as though the problems of the post-invasion period didn't exist: the invasion was "the fastest, longest armored advance in the history of American warfare" with "a force half the size of the force that won the Gulf War" and "defeated Saddam Hussein's regime and reached Baghdad in less than a month."
But the reality in Iraq today is Tommy Wilson's war, not Tommy Franks's war.
Nor is it Donald Rumsfeld's war, or at least not the war he wants. Even longtime supporters and transformation advocates have begun to recognize that Rumsfeld is now a large part of the problem. Loren Thompson, head of the Lexington Institute, a defense think-tank long supportive of the secretary, told the Washington Post on Monday that Rumsfeld won't face reality: "He knows what the situation is, but he has been unready to change his plans."
Rumsfeld has been most reluctant to change his plans about the size of U.S. land forces, and the Army in particular. It was, perhaps, a good idea to "go early and go ugly," as senior generals put it, to war in Iraq; waiting longer to build up forces in the spring of 2003 was not a risk-free proposition, and most of those now bemoaning the size of the invasion force are at heart still bemoaning the invasion itself. But the experience of the past 18 months must count for something in reconsidering the overall size of the Army.
In agreeing to stay on as Defense secretary in the second Bush term, Rumsfeld has made it known that he wants to "complete the job of transformation" he has started. It would be far better if he would dedicate himself to winning the war he helped to start.
Tom Donnelly is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard.
By Tom Donnelly