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Cold War Transition, Part IV (Conclusion)

November 13, 2008

Part I (Army),here

Part II (Air Force) here

The services remain largely stuck in their efforts to transform for the 21st century. The Army, though moving closer towards developing an institutional knowledge of counterinsurgency, remains wedded to purchasing high technology equipment and weapons more suited for large conventional war. The Air Force has attached itself to the F-22 air superiority fighter and now, rather than regrouping, spends much of its time desperately seeking an enemy or a mission for that fighter. The Navy has made a few, intermittent steps towards revamping itself, but without any overarching strategic vision.

This slow transition has made the United States vulnerable. Most particularly, in Iraq, the inability of the Army to handle—at least at first—an insurgency meant that the United States was bogged down in that country for several years. Only as the Army developed counterinsurgency tactics on the fly did the situation improve. But the slowness meant that one of the original goals of the Iraq invasion—to serve as an object lesson to states that might oppose the U.S.—was utterly undercut. Iran and North Korea—for example—knew that there was and is no realistic chance that the U.S. will invade them in the near future and risk the same sort of protracted war as in Iraq.

The slow transition also has the potential to make the United States vulnerable in the future. War often sees revolutions in tactics and strategy that catch militaries unaware. The machine gun in WWI, blitzkrieg and the aircraft carrier in WWII were all game-changing weapons that left the old ways of war in the dust and mud (quite literally in the case of the battleships of the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor). Should another such revolution happen while the U.S. military continues at least to glance back to the Cold War, America could find the military superiority it takes so for granted to have disappeared.

There are hints that such a revolution is in the offing. The rise of unmanned vehicles, particularly unmanned aerial vehicles, could potentially alter the balance of power in the air. UAVs have numerous advantages over manned vehicles, most importantly range and maneuverability. They have developed quickly in capability over the last decade and have the potential to displace manned planes within the next 10-20 years. Should they do so, and the United States falls behind in their development, we face the possibility of regional powers such as India or China being able to rival American forces. Military revolutions are unforgiving in their effect, with little credit for past performance or current position.

The challenge that the Obama administration thus faces is not only to deal with external military issues, like Iraq or Afghanistan, but to figure out how to redirect and refigure internal military issues as well. The services do not have the same immediate hostility to a Democratic President that they did in 1992 when Bill Clinton came into office. Eight years of George W. Bush’s disasters have put paid to Republican superiority on military matters, at least temporarily. But the military remains skeptical of a Democratic administration, and that skepticism will likely deepen if Obama pushes them to reconsider their attachment to conventional Cold War verities. The senior officers would ratherbe “preparing –and procuring — for the big, conventional Russia-China scenario the U.S. military institutionally prefers,” as one anonymous Pentagon official put it (Hat tip to The Washington Independent).

Obama does have potential allies within the services, none more so than the Army, where a growing cadre of officers, head by General David Petraeus, are trying to remake the force from one exclusively focused on conventional warfare to one focused on a range of different military scenarios, from peacekeeping to counterinsurgency to conventional. Obama’s visit with Petraeus in July of this past year gave both men a chance to size each other up. Getting Petraeus on his side would go a long way towards assuring that Obama has a successful relationship with the military, perhaps the most important institutional relationship a President has. President Obama is faced by an institution still at least partly caught in the paradigm of the Cold War. He, the first genuinely post-Cold War President, has to pull that institution forward into this century. The kaleidoscope of threats that face the United States demands nothing less.

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