Frederick Kagan: American Defense Policy at a Crossroads

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Frederick W. Kagan ( is a resident scholar at AEI. He is the author of Finding the Target: The Transformation of American Military Policy (Encounter, 2006).]

America's military policy is in disarray, but not for the reason most people think. For the first time since around 1950, there is no coherent theoretical framework for thinking about how to shape our armed forces for current and future threats. This fact presents both a danger and an opportunity. The danger is that we will either fail to develop one and therefore drift aimlessly at a troubled time, or that we will reach back to some of the tattered remnants of the theories that guided military policy until 2007. But we now have the opportunity for a serious discussion about the shape of the world today and its likely shape tomorrow.

From 1950 to 1991, American military policy was fundamentally shaped by the nature of a specific enemy--the Soviet Union. As Soviet thought and action--both of which we watched closely, if never completely accurately--changed, our military policy changed. When Nikita Khrushchev made it clear that he was going to encourage revolutionary movements around the Third World, John F. Kennedy created the Special Forces to train indigenous armies to resist them. As the Soviets moved toward nuclear parity, the Air Force and the RAND Corporation developed a sophisticated (which is not the same as reasonable) nuclear strategy in response. In some cases, the action/reaction was remarkably swift. Army doctrine was revolutionized completely in 1976 based on a careful reading of Soviet doctrine of the time. But the Soviets changed their doctrine (or, at least, our understanding of their doctrine changed), and by 1982, the Army had revolutionized its doctrine once again. A lot of other things went into shaping American military policy and the armed forces, of course, but military leaders during the Cold War were never at a loss for how to start thinking about the problem: look at the enemy, figure out what he can or might do, and figure out how to respond to it.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to confusion and frustration among American military theorists. There was much hand-wringing about the challenges of designing a military policy, national security strategy, and force structure without having any clear enemy. A solid effort to do so was conducted by then-secretary of defense Dick Cheney and his under secretary of defense for policy, Paul Wolfowitz. They produced the Regional Defense Strategy, which attempted to continue to develop military policy on the basis of concrete geopolitical realities, but this effort died with the waning of the first Bush administration.[1]

The Information Revolution

The strategy was replaced with a theoretical frame-work antithetical to the Cold War paradigm. Instead of focusing on concrete geostrategic realities, the paradigms that shaped the American military between 1991 and 2007 were based on theories. The Army's leadership rapidly seized on the information revolution as the basis of its thinking about future war, quoting abstract works like Alvin Toffler's The Third Wave and Alvin and Heidi Toffler's War and Anti-War. The result was an initiative first called "digitization," then "Force XXI," and finally, by the end of the decade, the "objective force," which was part of a three-phased transformation program (moving from the "legacy force" through the "interim force" to the "objective force").[2]

The current manifestation of this concept is the Army's principal modernization program called the Future Combat System (FCS). FCS incorporates and relies upon the principles of the information revolution with an additional emphasis on reducing the weight of Army vehicles in order to make them more rapidly deployable. That requirement resulted from Army analyses of some of the challenges the institution faced in the conflicts of the 1990s. Military planners could not expect to produce tanks light enough to deploy rapidly with armor protection anything like what the M1 Abrams has. The dilemma was resolved through the information revolution: superior information would allow the Army (and the other services) to use precision munitions to destroy any potential threat to our vehicles before they came in range, thereby rendering heavy armor unnecessary. With the geostrategic realities of the Soviet Union gone, the logic of the information revolution reliably produced answers to difficult questions that arose in the process of designing forces and weapons.

The air power services were even more enthusiastic about the information revolution, which had enabled them, according to air power devotees, to defeat the Iraqi military in 1991 and the Serbian military in 1995 and 1999 almost entirely from the air, using precision munitions. They argued that air power could do even more if it received the necessary share of a shrinking defense budget, and they had some success.

Air power theory also generated a number of intellectual frameworks, ranging from the "five rings" or "centers of gravity" theory developed and used during the air campaign of the first gulf war (and again, in a variant form, in Bosnia), through the "halt phase" strategy that emphasized air power's ability to stop enemy aggression without the presence of American ground forces, and finally to "network-centric warfare" (NCW) from around 1999 to 2007.

NCW was a variant of the information revolution theory that underlay the Army's various paradigms. Where the Army writings quoted the Tofflers, NCW advocates quoted Wal-Mart and the writings of computer scientists about network theory. The principles were at once simple and complex. Businesses like Wal-Mart had used information technology to generate incredible efficiencies in their operations, and similar approaches would generate similar results in war, it was argued. Much more sophisticated arguments pointed to phenomena in the development of computer technology itself--that the power of a network is proportional to the square of the number of nodes, that the speed of moving information is the critical pacing factor in the responsiveness of organizations, that the flatter the hierarchy of an organization--made possible through information technology--the more agile it would be, and so on.[3]

The concrete manifestation of these theories was investment in precision munitions, the communica-tions and analytical tools needed to provide them with targets, and the platforms (such as the F-22) needed to launch them. NCW theory also provided all the answers to key questions about how to design and build military forces: build everything around the network.

Although the Army never really formally embraced NCW, its own "transformation" programs were based on almost identical principles and merged easily with the NCW paradigm when it became policy in 2001. Shortly before September 11, 2001, then-secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld had accepted and ordered the implementation of NCW theory as the basis of American military policy, and established the Office of Force Transformation, headed by an initial author of the NCW concept, to coordinate the transformation efforts of all the services. For months, it seemed that the air power enthusiasts had even carried the day enough to persuade Rumsfeld to cut the ground forces to pay for additional air power resources, but September 11 ended that effort.

Rumsfeld's departure at the end of 2006 effectively laid NCW to rest as the theoretical basis of American military policy. By then it had become common wisdom that the emphasis on precision air power and a small ground footprint that is the hallmark of NCW theory had led America to disaster in Iraq. The nature of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan after initial operations seemed to discredit the validity of NCW concepts, including such critical concepts as "information supremacy" and precision strikes against centers of gravity as the keys to success. Whatever else is true, there can be no simple return to the information revolution theories that had defined American military policy since the end of the Cold War. As originally conceived and partially implemented, those paradigms are dead, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has made no effort to revive them.

But Gates has made no serious effort to replace these force transformation theories. The defense budget is still shaped by the programs that defined and were defined by information revolution theories--ranging from the Army's FCS to the Air Force's F-22 and the host of ancillary weapons and systems designed to support and work together with them. It is by no means inherently bad that these systems are continuing to tick along even after the collapse of the theories that spawned and supported most of them. (The F-22 actually began development in 1986.) The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have repeatedly demonstrated the value of many of these systems, although often in uses other than the ones for which they were designed. And it would, of course, be disastrous to shut down current programs before we have developed new ones....

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Arnold Shcherban - 11/4/2007

The US military doctrine has always been and continue to be tailored not by the real strategic military threats, but by the corporate ideological thinking of American political elite and military-industrial complex along the idea of Pan-American world design.
The continious and conspicuous pattern of scaring the public to death with real enemies through multiple (and frequently ridiculous) exaggeration of the threat or provoking the weak
adversary to some defensive action that is quickly promoted to offensive one by the local war trumpeteers, or just inventing the threat to national security presenting false evidence, etc.
Recall US policies in Europe, Pacific, Indochina, Central and Latin America, MidEast, Africa, Indonesia. They all fall under this pattern.
It is exactly on the reason of loosing the image of archi-enemy - Soviets (the military threat coming from whom was greatly exaggerated) - and the difficulties related to inventing the comparable global one, the US political and military strategists were in disarray (as correctly indicated by the author)
by the start of 1990s.

The new Strategic Initiative developed by the neocon ideologues is one more proof that the US military doctrine has nothing to do with the "defense" of the national interests, but designed to be an offensive imperialistic doctrine, which promotes the iinterests of American corporate capital and the the ideology of socio-political elite of the single economic and military superpower in the world.

Arnold Shcherban - 11/3/2007

1st rule of engagement: Blame the military when the things don't go, as they should have been, according
to strategic plans designed by corporations and subservient to them politicans.
2nd rule: to better accomplish the 1st rule distort the military developments and doctrine of the past
by swapping the antonims "offence" and "defense" (as it routinely done
by your fellow ideologues.)

<From 1950 to 1991, American military policy was fundamentally shaped by the nature of a specific enemy--the Soviet Union. As Soviet thought and action--both of which we watched closely, if never completely accurately--changed, our military policy changed.>

The validity of the entire statement
is controvercial, to say the least.

The US policy to interfere by force around the world had been established
and executed well before the 1950-1991 time interval, e.g. Pacific, Central America, Indochina, etc.
The US military doctrine and its practical embodiment throughout 20th century, especially in the Third World, has always been intervention, when and how the US governents saw fit.
The idea that the US military would just react to the changes and actions
of the Soviet side also contradicts the facts, in particular, in their chronology and essense.

To begin with, the Cold War itself has been a product manufactured and offered for general consumption (for better or worse) by the West and for the West.

During that period the major military counter-standpoint was NATO versus Warsaw Treaty.
As it is well known NATO was created prior to the formation of Warsaw Treaty; the latter was formed,
essentially, as military counter-block to NATO.
But even prior to these events, the
merge of American, British, and French zones of occupation of Germany into one Western zone, prompted the Soviets to unify the Eastern zone of occupation by creating GDR.
The territory of the Soviet Union
had been attacked thrice from the West over the 20th century in WWI, in Civil War (by Antanta's forces), and in WWII.
The territory of the US has never been attacked over 20th century by any neigboring country, not mentioning the attack comming fromn over the Atlantic or Pacific.

However, it was the US military that
would be continuously ahead of the Soviet Union's military in developing new OFFENSIVE and defensive weaponry during 1950-1991 period of time, and it was continuously the Soviet Union
that was desperately trying to catch up with the US military developments, not vice versa (the article's author "moved to the nuclear parity" is characteristic to its mode of thinking: how dared they, right!?)
To be continued...