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August 11, 2005

Commandeering the Language of Defense
Posted by Lorelei Kelly

Today I had the chance to catch up with a DoD big picture thinker--who works closely with all aspects of defense transformation.  Our conversation gave me some ideas about why now is the time for progressives to take over the lexicon of defense.  "Transformation" is one of those words that has made the Pentagon a modern day tower of Babel.  It is a chameleon word that changes depending on the circumstances.  This might be why I couldn't find it in the Joint Electronic Library (if anyone can find it, the ice cream is on me). 

The term has been around almost ten years now: On Dec. 1, 1997, the National Defense Panel report, “Transforming Defense – National Security in the 21st Century,” was sufficient to establish the concept.  This panel, remember, was established to report in concert with the 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review. (Wouldn't it be great to have such a feedback mechanism in place today?) 

In fact, there exists an entire office at the DoD that works to get some traction on this concept:  The Office of Force Transformation--led until recently by Vice Adm. Arthur Cebrowski--and now without an appointed director.  Cebrowski upped the ante, making concept freaks practically grow antennae by defining transformation as “those continuing processes and activities which create new sources of power and yield profound increases in military competitive advantage as a result of new, or the discovery of, fundamental shifts in the underlying rule sets"  (Yes, that IS where Tom Barnett got that jargon)

This is dense, but full of great potential in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan. Although the OFT has been behind the adoption of some innovative hardware --like micro satellites and a millimeter wave area denial weapon (another question for the lexicon hunters, if it is non-lethal, should it still be called a weapon?)  I think their most important contribution has been pushing forward activities that would make even a veritable humanities geek feel at home in the Pentagon. 

"Transformation" in its very heart must be more about human resourcefulness than hardware.  In today's rapidly changing environment, only well schooled individuals truly have quick response and adaptive capabilities.   Sexy hardware concepts can be overtaken by events (like the Navy's DDX destroyer, coastal firepower isn't too helpful 400 miles inland). The glacial pace of weapons procurement makes it a miracle every time a plane or ship pops out without arctic lichen attached to it.  In contrast, people can change direction in seconds.

OFT knows that professional military education can't wait years to integrate today's lessons. In order to boost this much needed adaptation, OFT has created "transformation chairs" in almost every military service school.  They also co sponsor a seminar series and essay contest--last year's was "Rethinking the Principles of War" This year's will be "Rethinking a Theory of Victory".

These sorts of big picture initiatives provide the foundation for operational policy prescriptions: more language training, more Foreign Area Officers, more civil-military co training, more anthropologists at DoD. They also point to the need for  a new OFT Director to be appointed as soon as possible.  My friend said that last year a DoD anthropologist (the only one there) organized the best conference he'd ever attended--on understanding adversary culture.  This makes a huge difference.  In theater, the transformation curve for DoD is pretty steep. My colleague who was deployed to Iraq as a Marine last year told me that when he was there, his company had no knowledge of resident Arabic language speakers--one fellow Marine--an Iraqi American-- rose to the occasion.  If the DoD leads on these communication priorities, many will follow. (David Kay's inspection group in 2002 had only one Arabic speaker, for example).  I remember seeing an AP clip last year that reported how US troops--trying to get people to leave an area were misunderstood when declarations that the area was "risky" was interpreted by locals as promises of "whiskey" --nothing a little arabic "hooked on phonics" wouldn't cure.


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(another question for the lexicon hunters, if it is non-lethal, should it still be called a weapon?)

Yes. Emphatically.

It is quite possible to kill someone with a 'non-lethal' weapon- a rubber bullet hitting someone directly over the heart can cause a heart attack, for example. All the term means is that the weapon isn't intended to be immediately lethal when used properly- not that you can't kill someone using it. Police and troops issued such weapons are frequently given training in how (NOT) to use it.

"Transformation" in its very heart must be more about human resourcefulness than hardware.

Maybe. 'Transformation' seems to be the latest iteration of what used to be referred to as the 'Revolution in military affairs' back in the '90s, which specifically referred to new technologies making existing equipment, tactics, and doctrine obsolete.

Some historical examples: the steam engine made sailing ships obsolete, iron-hulled ships made wooden ships obsolete, aircraft carriers made battleships obsolete, jet engines made propeller fighters and bombers obsolete, and tanks made trench warfare obsolete.... to mention only a few...

What the Pentagon seems to be doing is trying to come up with the technologies and tactics that make everyone else's stuff obsolete, before our adversaries come up with something that makes our equipment and tactics obsolete... and while the human factor is important, it's not enough on it's own.

Lorelei wrote:

... "These sorts of big picture initiatives provide the foundation for operational policy prescriptions: more language training, more Foreign Area Officers, more civil-military co training, more anthropologists at DoD." ...

Sure Lorelei, but they don't supply fertile ground for progessive moves to "take over the lexicon of defense." As important as these discussions might actually be, they are for most people eggheaded musings which have little to do with the way they actually think about national security issues.

My sense is that what people would most respond to right now, in the area of national defense, is a call for a "back to basics" approach - defending the homeland, cultivating and strengthening alliances, checking nuclear proliferation, busting up terror networks, planning prudently for the long-term and controlling costs. No more adventurous state makeover projects and artificial democracy insemination initiatives.

I'm not sure there is a great untapped public demand for major defense "transformations" or "revolutions", however they might be labelled. It's not as though the public is terrified of a "missile gap" or some other major technological shortcoming. Nor is there a public outcry in favor of enhanced capabilities, or structural reorganizations. And public perceptions aside, this is not the area in which we need to focus our efforts. The defense problems of the current time have to do with bad decisions and lousy planning at the top, not deficient capabilities in the armed forces.

There is a tried-and-true progressive strategy of emphasizing the way in which misguided and wasteful defense expenditures prevent us from doing other valuable things with the money, and actually make us less safe. Let's get back to that approach. Focus on more bang for the buck, rather than simply more bucks and more bangs. Also focus more on building the intelligence capabilities necessary to finding out where the threats are, rather than sending a 150,000-man expeditionary force to smash a country so we can see whether there are any WMD-like threats hiding under the rocks. Doing it the latter way leaves you with some needlessly smashed countries on your hands, more of a threat in their smashed state than they were before, and your soldiers stuck there trying to hold the pieces together when they could be defending you from threats elsewhere. You also end up several hundred billion dollars light in the national wallet.

Here's one way in which Iraq has cost us big time: Despite the fact that it is glaringly obvious to most Americans, across the political spectrum, that our petroleum dependency has drawn us into debilitating foreign entanglements, and exposed us to all sorts of threats, we have been treated to a weak business-as-usual energy bill, failing to generate the major investments and dedicated national effort that will be required to end this dependency. One reason may be that the main Bush constituency have interests that make it incapable of responding intelligently to that challenge. But perhaps we also haven't done it because we can't. It's going to cost a lot. Meanwhile the tab for Iraq goes up and up.

Along these lines, progressives would also do well to focus on the ways in which the Bush administration has made us less safe, wasted money, acted rashly, neglected essentials, lost lives needlessly, exposed our troops to attack and weakenened the military. He's shown he's big on tough talk and dramatic moves, but short on smarts.

The approach of the past few years has been based on a reckless and overly-ambitious "pro-active" strategy. The idea seems to be this: let's go out and use brute force to change the world into America-lovers, so that there won't be anybody left who wants to do us harm. Surely the major lesson of the Iraq misadventure is that this approach is naive, costly and eventually counter-productive. The task of changing the world into a world without enemies is the work of centuries - if that. Our fundamental defense aim should always be to protect ourselves from the enemies that actually exist, and leave the work of conversion to ministers, writers and providence. We need to maintain strong defenses to deter powerful states who might be tempted to attack us; to use intelligence and necessary force to thwart those rogue elements who are already trying it; and to avoid the proliferation of far-flung "interests" all over the globe that extend our need for defenses beyond what is necessary, prudent and economical.

On a separate not: "Rethinking a Theory of Victory"? I like it! Maybe the defense intellectuals can think of some clever rationale for calling whatever exists in Iraq "victory", so our troops can all come home to a tickertape parade, and we can move on.

Rosignol, yes, that's what I was assuming re: calling something a weapon. Re: transformation human resources versus technhology. Of course we need both...but from what i've seen working on the Hill, the HR parts of defense (not veterans benefits, which is the poster child) but the education and training and "soft" security stuff has no constituency and therefore gets short shrift. Not a level playing field...

Dan, the point I'm trying to make here is not translating concepts for general public consumption, but to help frame new military needs in ways that liberal arts types will join the conversation.....develop relationships and regular communication with military professionals, etc...something we really lack at the moment...

Project on Defense Alternatives did a good "guns versus guns" tradeoff piece earlier this year. it was called the Unified Security Budget, I believe.....


"...but to help frame new military needs in ways that liberal arts types will join the conversation.....develop relationships and regular communication with military professionals, etc...something we really lack at the moment..."

This sounds commendable and potentially very interesting but I wonder if you could you expand on what you have in mind. Which liberal arts people would you hope to bring in? Would you want something along the lines of the dialogues that precede each National Intelligence Council five-year projection, or something more or different?

Re: NIC Projections

Sorry that should be each fifteen-year projection; they are done every five years, though.

The term may have originated 10 years ago but the concept is much much older. Rumsfeld and team adopted the concept from the RMA concept folks like Krepinevich had been pushing for decades. And similar notions with different language have been around since Sun Tzu.

Yes, a weapon can be non-lethal. Death is one of many battlefield effects a force might require. A weapon need not even cause physical injury.

The point I think you are trying to make in your piece is the difference between what the theorist view of transformation and DoD's implementation of Transformation in recent decades. Whereas you correctly give the theoretical view about finding congruences of technology/concept/doctrine to change the way war is fought, the Pentagon (under Rumsfeld's leadership) had largely promoted Transformation as a focus on on netcentric high intensity warfare -- an interpretation that ignored the more pressing shortfalls in US capabilities against irregular threats such as insurgency. There are serious military thinkers like Lt.Gen Paul Van Riper, USMC who have made such arguments well before Iraq. And I agree that human elements not received sufficient attention compared to technology.

I do applaud seeing a thoughtful piece about defense issues. The military is an institution widely demogoged and misunderstood by some Democrats who have no experience with it (think back to the infamous and possibly apocryphal encounter between Gen Barry McCaffrey and a young WH staffer early in the Clinton Administration). This bias has damaged Dems political credibility in defense and national security and the ability to offer better alternatives to Republican policies.

Democracy Arsenal would be wise to recruit a hard core defense thinker into its contributors. The staff roster of CSIS would offer some good options and there are others.

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