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Defense Transformation: To What, For What?

Defense Transformation: To What, For What? - Cover

Authored by Colonel Kevin Reynolds.

November 2006

82 Pages

Brief Synopsis

“What form is transformation taking and what end(s) are the armed forces transforming to obtain?” The author argues that U.S. foreign and national security policies should drive the pace and direction of defense transformation, but finds that all too often the military’s weapons systems preferences determine the shape and form of the armed services transformation and their future capability sets. Due to the lengthy Research, Development, Testing, and Evaluation (RDT&E) time to acquire technologically advanced weapons systems, up to and beyond 20 years in many instances, future administrations will inherit weapons systems and force structures that, although recently fielded, were imagined several administrations previously and whose capability to support current policy may now be limited. He concludes by arguing that the military should acquire a broad range of technologies now in order to present as yet unknown future political leaders with a broader range of military capabilities with which to pursue future U.S. policy preferences.


The U.S. armed forces are transforming at a rapid rate while simultaneously fighting a Global War on Terror (GWOT). Changing tactics, techniques, procedures, and even organizations when faced with a dangerous and adaptive enemy is nothing unusual. Almost all successful armed forces have had to master change in the face of adversity. However, the changes that U.S. armed forces are adopting began long before the events of September 11, 2001. To begin to understand the scope of defense transformation and its impact on the future policy of the United States, the GWOT and the operations that define it must be viewed from the wider context of U.S. foreign and national security policy. Policymakers must recognize that the defense transformation decisions they make now are the ones with which as yet unidentified future political leaders will have to live.

Ideally, policy should drive the direction and form of defense transformation. However, defense transformation is not necessarily proceeding in this fashion. Rather, the military is pursuing a transformation plan based on its weapons systems technological preferences. Although when developed and fielded these weapons systems preferences almost assuredly will provide U.S. supremacy in state-centric warfare, their utility for lesser conflicts is suspect. Due to the long lead times associated with weapons system development, future political leaders may have their policy options constrained by a force structure that, although recently fielded, was imagined over 15 to 20 years previously for a reality that may no longer exist when the weapons become operational. The potential to have a military force inadequately equipped and structured to support future policy has occurred largely because of three factors: first, the military, not policymakers, are the primary determinants of which weapons systems to acquire and develop; second, policy formulation planning horizons are much shorter than those of weapons systems acquisition; last, the military, at the urging of the civilian leadership within the Department of Defense (DoD) is pursuing a transformation plan based primarily on the somewhat narrow theoretical constructs of Network Centric Warfare (NCW).

The military, in determining what weapons systems are available to choose from, heavily influences the choices of the decisionmakers within DoD. De jure the Secretary of Defense decides what weapons will be funded for development; however, de facto the uniformed military steers the course of weapons systems procurement. Although the armed services would not be willing to relinquish this position, it is not a role they created, either. Rather, the exponential growth of technology in general and weapons systems technology in particular, coupled with the increasing complexity of warfare since World War II, have compelled the nation’s civilian leadership to defer to the military’s expertise in determining which weapons and force structures to acquire. Simply stated, neither the executive nor the legislative branches of government have the time or the inclination to master the arcane concepts, processes, and dialect of weapons systems development. Seldom do members of the executive branch or Congress challenge the military’s weapons systems preferences, and when they do, it is in the aggregate, i.e., does the military really need that number of systems vice do they need the system at all. In rare instances, the Secretary of Defense or the Congress will cancel a particular weapons development program, but this normally occurs only after the program has been in development for 15-20 years, its developmental costs have far exceeded its projected funding, and other weapons systems with similar capabilities have obviated the need for it. Congress is more concerned with the military’s stewardship of its budget and not whether the future military capabilities the armed forces are developing will be those that future political leaders will need to promote U.S. policy.

The transformation decisionmaking conundrum is compounded by foreign and national security policy development lagging behind weapons systems procurement and force structure development. This phenomenon, referred to in this monograph as “policy lag,” results from the differences in the planning horizons, budgeting cycles, and predictability forecasts between foreign policy/national security strategy development on the one hand and weapons systems/force structure development on the other. Foreign and national security policy planning rarely extends more than 4 to 5 years, whereas weapons system planning is seldom shorter than 12 years, with the norm being closer to 15 years. Additionally, policy is much harder to budget for since it depends on factors in the humanitarian world that are not quantifiable or measured easily. Conversely, weapons system procurement is easy to quantify, measure, and hence budget for. Weapons are material objects and subject to laws of science, while human beings, leaders, populations, and nation-states are not. Moreover, the congressional committees that authorize and appropriate funds for the development of weapons systems are discrete defense committees within Congress that are dedicated to military issues. The rest of government must navigate through nondepartment specific authorization and appropriations committees. Last, the results of foreign and national security policy planning are much harder to predict even in the short term (4 to 6 years), let alone in the long term. However, the development of weapons systems is very systematic and foreseeable. Although not all inclusive, the differences in planning horizons, budgeting cycles, and predictability are the chief factors that account for policy development lagging behind weapons systems development. Policy lag almost always results in the military acquiring tomorrow the weapons systems and force structure it needs today.

Last, the military and civilian leaderships within DoD are pursing a transformation plan that is based on a unitary theoretical operational construct: NCW. Combat operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003, respectively, appeared to have justified NCW’s proponents’ belief in this form of warfare. But subsequent operations in both countries against insurgents, along with other low intensity combat undertakings, have called into question the utility of NCW as a panacea for America’s future military operations. Wholesale adoption of the weapons systems and the force structure required to execute NCW could leave the United States prepared to fight the most dangerous but least likely threats and unprepared to fight the lest dangerous but most likely threats.

To mitigate the effects that the factors enumerated above have on defense transformation, the senior civilian and military leadership should: ensure that the congressional committees coordinate their actions so as to synchronize foreign/national security policy objectives with weapons systems/force structure decisions; reform the Defense Acquisition System’s bureaucratic structure and procedures in order to reduce acquisition timelines significantly; acquire a broader range of technologies that will expand the U.S. military’s future capability sets; develop a more diversified force structure capable of responding to the full range of the most likely challenges the United States will face; and, apportion the service budgets in accordance with the relative share of the missions they will receive in the future so they may acquire the technologies and force structure they need to obtain and promote the nation’s interests.

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