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The end of an era at Defense

A transformation is taking place in American military affairs.


Transform or Die

In many ways, Gates' budget, and the fight which immediately erupted in Congress as lobbyists began raising alarms, is the final act of a drama which started when the Berlin Wall fell 20 years ago. Twin fears gripped Pentagon planners.

The first fear was of irrelevance. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and talk of a "peace dividend" by then-newly elected President Bill Clinton, large segments of the American military faced an almost existential crisis. Nuclear tipped ICBMs? Ballistic missile submarines? Huge armored divisions based in (gulp) a united Germany? Round-the-clock alerts for strategic bombers? The rationale for the weapons and tactics underpinning all these activities suddenly disappeared.

The second fear was less paranoid: mobility. The Cold War had led the military to expect that any serious war would take place on the plains of central Europe featuring U.S.-led NATO force slugging it out with the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact. The U.S. developed weapons systems, structured its forces, trained its soldiers, and deployed its units accordingly.

But in late 1990, when the military was ordered to lead a multinational strike against Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, it took nearly six months before enough of the military's gigantic, heavy divisions could mass in the Persian Gulf to counterattack.

Most people remember the "Powell doctrine" — the idea of fighting only when you can deploy overwhelming force and have a clear exit strategy — as the main takeaway from that war.

But some, including many who became senior aides to Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Gen. Colin Powell himself, drew precisely the opposite conclusion. The names will be familiar to those who followed events of the past several years: defense undersecretaries Douglas Feith, Stephen Cambone, and deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz. Don’t overwhelm them with troop numbers, they argued. Send fewer troops, but make then lighter, faster and more lethal.

For the Navy and Air Force, of course, lighter and faster translated, broadly, into business as usual. Both had been freshly re-armed by 1989, the end of the Reagan buildup, and had no intention of moth-balling high performance fighters, warships, or canceling orders.

For the Army and Marines, though, transformation translated into layoffs as the military sought to cut payroll to pay for new weapons. Much of this made sense, given that the wars then envisioned were smaller — on the scale of Bosnia, the Gulf War, or perhaps North Korea.

Yet as the Army dropped from a 780,000-strong force to 480,000 during the decade, the "enemy" had been transformed, too.