The Death of the RMA

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In the 1989 Marine Corps Gazette article where I and four colleagues first laid out the Four Generations of Modern War, we foresaw two potential futures. One, the way the world has gone, was 4GW. The other, the direction the Pentagon has taken, became known as the Revolution in Military Affairs, or, more recently, Transformation. This vision of future war, a vision anchored in hi-tech, high-price “systems,” is, I am happy to report, militarily dead.

While its corpse still twitches in Iraq and Afghanistan, its obituary was published in April, in Israel, when the Winograd Commission published its report (is Winograd, one wonders, the city in Galicia where old Polish generals go to die of cirrhosis?) On May 29, a summary of its findings by Haninah Levine was made available by the Center for Defense Information. The defense industry fat cats must have read it and wept.

The Winograd Commission was established to examine the Israeli debacle in Lebanon last summer. According to the Levine summary, its first lesson is, “Western militaries are in active state of denial concerning the limitations of precision weapons.” Speaking of the then-IDF Chief of Staff General Dan Halutz — Israel’s first and, I suspect, last Chief of Staff drawn from the Air Force — Levine writes:

Halutz encouraged the civilian leaders to believe that Israel could launch a precision air and artillery offensive without getting dragged into a broad ground offensive. … the failure of Halutz and the General Staff to appraise the enemy’s abilities correctly at the outbreak of the war stemmed not from incorrect intelligence or analysis, but from a willed denial of the limitations of the IDF’s precision weapons.

In how many valleys of Afghanistan is the same sad lesson being taught? In how many towns of Diyala province in Iraq, or streets in Sadr City?

Levine continues,

The Winograd Commission traces studiously the origins of the General Staff’s error of judgment. The commission outlines the changes which took place in Israeli military doctrine over the preceding decade in response both to strategic developments…and to technological developments — the so called “revolution in military affairs," whose keystone is the advent of precision air-to-surface and surface-to-surface weapon systems…

The first lessen of the Second Lebanon War is… that wishful thinking concerning the capabilities of precision weapon systems overpowered the General Staff’ s analytical abilities…. Faith in advanced air and artillery systems as magical “game-changing” systems absolved the General Staff from the need to consider what capabilities (such as distributed and hardened facilities) the enemy possessed, and led the IDF into a strategic trap it had recognized in advance.

This lesson, I think, can be extrapolated in two useful ways in the American context. First, the strategic or more precisely doctrinal, trap set by the RMA has long been recognized. The trap, quite simply is that for the RMA to succeed, it had to contradict the nature of war.

The RMA reduces war to putting fires on targets. It promises to use new technology to make everything targetable. But this means it also promises to eliminate uncertainty, to make war transparent, to eliminate the quality that defines war, the independent hostile will of the enemy. In other words, it is bunk. The fact that it is bunk was evident to a great many people from the outset, even people in Washington.

Why, then, did it get as far as it did (it remains DOD policy even today)? Here we can extrapolate again from the Winograd Commission’s finding: the RMA’s hi-tech systems are indeed magically “game changing.” But the game they change is the budget game, not war. The RMA has given the Pentagon such magical results as bomber aircraft that cost more per unit than the Navy’s ships (the B-2), three fighters for one billion dollars (the F-22), and the most magical system of all, the Army’s Future Contract System, a system no one can describe but costs more than any program in any other service. Boy, that’s magic! Even the Wizard of Id must be jealous.

The fact is, Pentagon policy has nothing to do with war, which has a great deal to do with why we are losing two wars. The Pentagon is the last Soviet industry. It is not about producing a product, least of all a product that works. It is solely, entirely, about acquiring and justifying resources. That the RMA does supremely well.

The defeat in Lebanon seems to have confronted the RMA in Israel with the unpleasant reality of the outside world. Will two defeats have the same effect on Washington? Perhaps, but don’t bet on it. Half a trillion dollars a year can buy a great deal of political magic.

William Lind is an analyst based in Washington, DC.

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