Where's military creativity?

For the desk-bound generals and admirals in Washington, the annual budget wars can be more pressing than any foreign engagement. Today the Pentagon fires its opening salvo - the proposed budget - in this year's skirmishes with Congress.

But this time, don't expect fireworks. Even though the huge increases given to military and homeland defense spending will help push the federal budget into the red and crimp many domestic programs, Congress will probably be as enthusiastic as the generals about the "requirement" to plus up the Pentagon. The US Army is in the field this election year, and neither Democrats nor Republicans want to be found slighting the military.

The coming budget love-in - with Defense anticipating a budget increase of 13.5 percent, or $45 billion - may complicate another battle looming over the Pentagon. Backed by the president, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has renewed his call for military "transformation." The signs are that Mr. Rumsfeld is serious about modernizing the military. Noting that Afghanistan was only the first of many surprises to come in the new century, Mr. Rumsfeld insists new ways of thinking and fighting are needed now.

On the surface, the generals are as enthusiastic about "transformation" as they are about more money. Indeed, we're likely to hear the T-word often during the budget hearings. Since no one wants to be caught out - especially given the extra clout Rumsfeld has earned with his management of the Afghan war - the military services are likely to claim that everything in their budgets, including new forks for the mess halls, proves how thoroughly modern they already are.

Hearing-room rhetoric aside, change as profound as what Rumsfeld says he has in mind is something both the Congress and the generals are resisting, less because they are willful dinosaurs than for the fact that they work inside a budgetmaking culture stacked against change.

The obstacles at both ends of the "Hill-mil" axis begin with budget "fences." In Congress, responsibility for every line item in the budget is carefully parceled out to individual committees and subcommittees. Those committee members and their professional staffs guard their fiscal turf as zealously as any Air Force general fighting to keep funding for a new airplane from being diverted to an updated troop formation for the Army.

Real transformation will need tradeoffs on a grand scale and not just within the defense budget. Under the label of homeland security, more money is going to the FBI, to border and airport security, and to the states for local readiness. Doubtless those are worthy investments, but we'll see no fundamental transformation until new mechanisms in both the executive and legislative branches treat the Pentagon's budget as just one element of an overall national security package. Until then, we'll have to endure more rhetoric and jurisdictional politics by generals and politicians alike.

There is another problem, one even more basic than the architecture of budgetmaking machinery: The top US military leaders seem unable to move beyond their fascination with high-tech hardware to thinking why they need it or how they will use it.

At the heart of the US's recent success in Afghanistan was a wholly new style of action. An unusual ensemble of American military and intelligence people worked with many different local groups, other militaries, and even humanitarian organizations. But with the exception of some creative thinking by the Marine Corps, the military services are not visibly hatching the other kinds of bold new operating concepts and hybrid command structures needed to move from improvisation to settled capability.

Secretary Rumsfeld is urging the military to change how it thinks about war. The real transformation may come when the generals and admirals change the way they think about themselves.

For a generation, success has gone to military leaders most skilled in the battles of the budget in Washington. Today's military leaders can deliver good briefings on new weapons and tell you how they can concentrate overwhelming firepower at will on almost any corner of the world.

FEW military leaders can offer sage advice about the local complexities they'd find, should they actually be ordered into one of those contingencies. Few can extrapolate the strategic reverberations, once they pull the trigger on their dazzling new hardware. The go-it-alone, technology-first tactics of budget battles are unlikely to be the winning combinations on the profoundly different battlefields of the 21st century.

As the new budget bulks up already awesome US military power, how it is used is becoming more important than its size. Since Congress is likely to give Rumsfeld everything he has asked for, nothing could help fuel his revolution better than budget hearings devoted to grilling the military leadership on how they are now preparing themselves to be captains of war, not captains of procurement.

• Larry Seaquist, a former US Navy warship captain and Pentagon strategist, is chairman of The Strategy Group, a global-action network of professionals devoted to peacebuilding and conflict prevention.

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