Will Rumsfeld's reforms last?
America's military is more high-tech now, but it's not clear how that's helping to win in Iraq.
WASHINGTON — Donald Rumsfeld's efforts as secretary of Defense to modernize the US military helped make American fighting forces more lean and muscular. He envisioned a military powered by information and relied on technology to deliver a more effective, more dominant, and more connected armed forces.
But not all experts believe the transformation has been helpful in the war on terror, and the sustainability of many of his reforms may ultimately depend on the ability of people to rise above intense negative feelings about him and see beyond his failings in the Iraq war.
"Rumsfeld made an impressive start [on military transformation]," says Andrew Krepinevich, executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington. "He set out to restructure global basing posture and succeeded. He enlarged special operations. We have a strong precision-strike capability now."
From the beginning of his tenure in early 2001, Rumsfeld aimed to create a military firmly planted in the 21st century. He insisted that orders for powerful but, in his view, outdated weapons systems, such as the Comanche helicopter and the Crusader artillery, be canceled. He felt the 70-ton Crusader system, for example, was too cumbersome for the kind of rapid deployment needed in modern battlefield situations. After a bruising battle with Congress, he was able to kill the program in 2002.
Mr. Rumsfeld's intent was to change what he believed were old ways of thinking. Peter Singer, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, says Rumsfeld wanted to send a message as much as to cancel programs. "He was telling the [armed] services: 'You have to have a new operating mentality,' " he says.
The military got the message. Discussions over designing the military of the future were once confined to universities and think tanks. But, Rumsfeld brought the debate to the Pentagon. Now, each branch of the military analyzes new ways to grow.
To help give his reforms momentum, Rumsfeld opened the Office of Force Transformation in late 2001, and he pushed the concept of "networkcentric warfare," the theory that a military can gain battlefield advantage through information advantage. The purpose, according to the Pentagon document "Elements of Defense Transformation," was to create "networked forces that operate with increased speed and synchronization and are capable of achieving massed effects, in many situations without the physical massing of forces required in the past."
Networkcentric warfare has been on display in Iraq. Singer points to a tale of marines under mortar fire during the second US offensive on Fallujah in November 2004. The soldiers' call for help went not to fellow marines but to an office in Nevada, which was controlling an unmanned Predator drone in the skies above Iraq. The "pilot" in Nevada steered the drone over the area and launched a missile that took out the mortar.
But not everyone was buying into Rumsfeld's vision. Fighting today's wars, some experts say, is not just about smarter technology but about smarter ways of handling people. Jim Dobbins, director of the RAND Corp.'s Security and Defense Policy Center and the Bush administration's first special envoy to Afghanistan, believes Rumsfeld's efforts at transforming the military are "largely irrelevant" to the counterinsurgency efforts in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, and in fact may be destructive.
Mr. Dobbins acknowledges that at the tactical level, networked weapons systems can be helpful. But computers can not gauge collateral damage. The drone's missile may take out the mortar, but it may also take out the entire house.
"If you substitute firepower for manpower, you kill innocent people and antagonize the population you are trying to help," Dobbins says.
The unexpected difficulties of the Iraq war ultimately soured many people on the value of Rumsfeld's reforms. Pinpoint attacks can effectively take out tanks and missile silos. But lightning strikes don't work in house-to-house raids or when rooting out guerrillas in caves. Those scenarios require manpower.
Rumsfeld's management style, often described as arrogant, also raised resistance to his ideas.
In some ways, the fate of many of Rumsfeld's reforms has already been determined.
"He was so preoccupied with transformation and wrong about Iraq, I don't think most of his concepts will be realized," predicts Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, a think tank on military issues. "He had two [unsuccessful] challenges on his watch: finding Al Qaeda's leaders and the war in Iraq. So his achievement will be discredited."
Will the new nominee for Defense secretary, Robert Gates, continue with Rumsfeld's reforms? "My impression is that Gates is being hired to deal with Iraq," says Mr. Krepinevich. "I don't see him giving high priority to transformation."