Avoiding a D.O.D. Train Wreck

“There is a time for all things: there is even a time for change; and that is when it can no longer be resisted.”
– Duke of Cambridge, 1904

The howling started as soon as the Department of Defense released its list of base closings. After the appeals process it is possible nothing will change. The controversy over base closures is symptomatic of much larger problems within the Department of Defense.

The Army faces problems with recruiting and junior officer retention. Ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have stressed the Army and Air Force reserve components. Additionally, the intelligence services need a far greater overhaul than they have received. To put the conclusion up front, the national security structure of the United States, organized for state-on-state Industrial Age war, may prove woefully inadequate for the challenges of twenty-first century asymmetric warfare. Unless restructured soon, a future train wreck may be unavoidable.

Separate services for land, sea and air made sense for the world of 1918 to 1990 when threats most prominently focused on forms of warfare developed from the mid-nineteenth century as the Industrial Age blossomed and matured. Just as Karl Marx predicted, industrialization drove imperialism. In the wars that resulted massive armies and navies clashed. The extreme bloodletting on the Western Front in the Great War led visionaries like the Italian Giulio Douhet and America’s air power prophet, Billy Mitchell, to posit strategic bombing as a means of destroying the industrial capacity of enemy nations so that massive armies, dependent on industrial production to supply everything from beans to bullets, would “wither on the vine.”

In the post-Vietnam War era, U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Creighton Abrams restructured an all-volunteer Army to integrate more fully the Army Reserve and National Guard under the “total force concept.” With limited manpower resources available, in future wars the smaller, highly capable active forces would engage the enemy initially; if the war lasted longer than a few weeks, the mobilized Reserve components, would arrive in time to “seal the deal.” While any war with the Soviet Union would have entailed more of a “come as you are” affair rapidly escalating to nukes, the design was appropriate for second tier threats like those posed by Iraq, Iran and North Korea. Accordingly, the Army’s structure remained largely unchanged from its post-Spanish American War design elaborated upon by General John J. Pershing in 1917 when he doubled the size of U.S. Army divisions.

The United States Air Force, created in 1947 based on the assumption that atomic weapons made air power potentially decisive in warfare, developed into a great nuclear retaliatory force to play a key role in deterring the Soviet Union until it collapsed in 1991. Meanwhile, during the Cold War 100,000 Americans died in conflicts undeterred by nuclear forces, mostly in Korea and Indochina but also in places like the Congo, Cuba, Central and South America. Generally, the defense establishment remained confident forces designed for traditional inter-state warfare would be sufficient for these situations of a lesser magnitude.

Al Qaeda, allied groups like Hezbollah and nations that back them, specifically Iran and Syria, are at war with the United States. Their strategic goal is to establish a world-wide Islamic caliphate by century’s end. Current operations in Afghanistan and Iraq are theaters in a larger global conflict. Unfortunately, U.S. forces already are hard pressed by what has turned out to be a longer, harder fight in the Iraqi and Afghan theaters.

New force structures, doctrines and weapons are needed to meet the challenges of twenty-first century warfare. The 1990s attempts at addressing future threats, programs like the “Army After Next,” “From the Sea,” and the Air Force’s “Global Reach-Global Power” assessed the future linearly, retaining basic roles, missions and force structures enhanced by advanced communications and weapons guidance technologies and focused on developing and procuring improved versions of systems conceived for twentieth century Industrial Age warfare: most prominently the Crusader Gun System, Comanche stealth helicopter, and  F-22 Raptor. The Army cancelled the Crusader and Comanche programs but the Air Force insists it needs $100 million a copy Raptors to compete with European and Russian advanced fighters.

We must ask some hard questions. Since land forces dominate post-Industrial Age warfare with sea and air forces supporting does the U.S. still need a separate Air Force? How can we maintain an Army large enough to fight the Global War on Terror (GWOT) without a draft? What force structures are appropriate to Information Age Warfare? How can we expand special operations and better integrate intelligence into the GWOT?  It is imperative these and other questions be addressed now rather than after what might be an inevitable train wreck.

Earl H. Tilford

Earl H. Tilford

Dr. Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East & terrorism with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. He currently lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. A retired Air Force intelligence officer, Dr. Tilford earned his PhD in American and European military history at George Washington University. From 1993 to 2001, he served as Director of Research at the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute. In 2001, he left Government service for a professorship at Grove City College, where he taught courses in military history, national security, and international and domestic terrorism and counter-terrorism. Email: [email protected]

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