Military Reform, Post-War

A field-binocular view of the war in Afghanistan reveals, by most accounts, a spectacular success - even though Osama bin Laden has so far proven to be a roadrunner to the American coyote.

Still, there's now a need for a closer look at how the war was waged in order to draw the right lessons for guiding the US security establishment to fight - or avoid - future conflicts.

This US war, the first new one of the 21st century, will be remembered for a few key achievements:

• A campaign relying on a local army working with US special forces, which were highly effective in coordinating US bombing.

• The most advanced electronic surveillance ever in a war, using "real time" data from high-tech instruments.

• Use of the most precisely guided weapons and of the Predator "drone." This aircraft made its battle debut, proving that unmanned aerial surveillance, combined with a few missiles, can flush out the enemy as well as protect US troops.

• And in a striking example of adaptability, American special forces often rode on horseback, even as they called in precision airstrikes.

Each of these elements played a role in routing the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and each helped minimize loss of American lives. Mistakes were few, but they did include the tragic prison riot, in which hundreds of prisoners and CIA employee Mike Spann were killed; and an errant US bomb killed three US soldiers near Kandahar.

Future wars may not be as cleanly fought - especially if there's no equivalent of the Northern Alliance forces. That's a reason to be careful in putting too much emphasis on improving the capabilities used so well in this war.

Still, all the lessons of this war in forcing terrorists out of a hostile country will now be joined with all the prewar plans of the Bush administration to overhaul the nation's military to meet the challenges of a post-post-cold-war world.

No doubt the focus of a military makeover will be on how to capture terrorist cells, notably Al Qaeda's, that are trying to gain use of chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons.

Added to a new United States arsenal will be the just-created Office of Homeland Security. If preventing terrorism has become the focus of US security, that means the homefront is now also a battlefront. The long-held distinction between the military and domestic forces, such as the National Guard, is fast becoming blurred.

Cold-war weapons converted

President Bush wants to transform the military into a lighter, more high-tech, agile, intelligence-reliant fighting force. But given the successful use of some cold-war-era weapons in Afghanistan - such as the long-range B-1 bomber - he'll probably have to tone down that goal a bit.

Two B-1s carry as much ordnance as an entire carrier attack wing. The Air Force, committed to spending some $200 billion over the next two years on more of the faster F-15 and F-16 fighter jets, might want to do some rethinking. With the US having increasing difficulty in finding bases around the globe, long-range bombers like the B-1 can help secure victories in more remote parts of the globe.

Bush may also discover that his pre-war focus on building a missile defense system will be too expensive if the national priority shifts to fighting a kind of terrorism that can slip easily across borders.

Pick up innovation pace

In practice, a "transformed military" may be akin to what's already under way at the Pentagon, where innovation has become more or less institutionalized.

The Predator, for instance, was developed without any "revolution" in the military. Satellites, developed in the '50s and '60s (as was infra-red vision), were innovative products stemming from good research.

In recent defense-policy speeches, Bush has pushed for military reform. His words should spark a healthy debate on the subject, which is needed before his defense budget proposals are released in February.

With the country still on a war footing, and spending money at a rapid clip, Congress should certainly forgo support for pet military projects and excess military bases. Big Pentagon budget increases, especially after a costly fight in Afghanistan, should be more carefully weighed than usual.

Despite the success in Afghanistan, there's a danger that military planners will merely readjust to fight a similar war. That would be like driving a car while steering with the rearview mirror. Instead, the military can just go in for a much-needed tune-up, learning from the past while focusing on threats that haven't been fought yet - or even anticipated.

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