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War may prod military reforms

Afghan campaign revives debate over need for more mobile forces, fewer generals.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 3, 2002

The American war against terrorists and their supporters in Afghanistan may be winding down as the enemy scatters and international peacekeepers move to oversee an interim government there.

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Throughout, the US military seems to have worked efficiently, relentlessly, and with a controlled ferocity that illustrates its role as the sword and shield of the 21st century's only superpower. And in Washington, the ascendancy of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld within the Bush administration raises the Pentagon's political clout.

But the war on terrorism also brings added urgency to a long-running debate over if, and how, the US should transform its defense policies in light of 21st-century threats.

At stake are fundamental issues:

• The shape of the forces themselves. Should they be significantly lighter and more mobile, or does this war prove the worth of heavy (and expensive) aircraft-carrier battle groups, big bombers, and other traditional ways of deploying force?

• The difficulties and complexities of fighting "asymmetrical war," where intelligence-gathering, multinational cooperation, international finance, the controversial notion of "nation-building," and other nonmilitary elements are increasingly important.

• The challenges of maintaining public support for potentially dangerous and expensive conflicts of this type, absent direct attacks on the homeland.

In his final briefing of 2001, Secretary Rumsfeld emphasized the need to rethink US national-security policies.

Today, "it is less clear [than in the past] exactly what countries or people might pose a threat to us," he said. As a result, the US can instead define its own vulnerabilities, rather than tackling the much harder task of identifying each and every potential enemy.

This outlook, Rumsfeld said, "has really turned the strategy issue around in a distinctly different way, which will have a significant effect on how this department functions, how we manage our affairs, how we think about things...."

To what extent have the US military services (and the politicians who fund them) responded to this new era in which the main threat seems to be international terrorism? It's a mixed picture, according to most defense experts.

While big-ticket weapons - ships, tanks, and planes - often get the most attention, such hardware may be far less important than how the services are organized, given the advances in intelligence-gathering and dissemination.

"The immense powers of information technology are doing to the military what they have already done in the private sector - eliminated unneeded levels of control, flattening out the hierarchy. and increasing efficiency," says a former Army officer.

Because of advances in computer and communications technology, special-operations teams in Afghanistan - led by master sergeants, captains, and majors - have been able to perform the tasks that used to require generals and large supporting staffs, says this source, who has considerable experience in Afghanistan.

Bloated command?

Others put it more bluntly.