In response to my previous post on this topic, and historian Fred Kagan's Opinion Journal article, commenter Owen Johnson wrote the following analysis and gave me permission to post it in its entirety.
Since the mid-80’s I have been deeply involved in the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs, network-centric warfare, asymmetric warfare, IW and IO, and all the rest. The groups I worked for and the teams I lead were primarily responsible for evaluating these concepts and assessing and projecting the threat posed by potential adversaries — both States and "non-state actors" — to our military when operating according to these principles. We were widely considered to be among the preeminent experts on these matters in the US Defense community.
I therefore read Mr. Kagan’s article with interest, and while his history is quite good, the conclusions he reaches based on it are, to me, mostly puzzling. I can’t help but feel Mr. Kagan has been reading a different literature on the "RMA" than I ever did, and understands it a different way. Indeed, he says: "The problem with the current vision of military transformation, therefore, is not that it relies on the concept of a revolution in military affairs, but that it does not properly understand that concept."
I would contend that the shoe is actually on the other foot. Of course, it is easy to be confused about this, as all of these concepts were — and I suspect still are — highly contentious and ill-defined, no matter what has been said in various "authoritative" government publications. As always, there is a disconnect between what the thinkers think and the doers do, but never was it so great as in the so-called RMA during the 1990s. I suspect Kagan has read too much into what he’s read and what the military leadership has been saying it wants to achieve, and not enough into what is and has been actually happening. Much of what he writes does [sort of] apply to the military of the Clinton years, when weak leadership and concepts like "force preservation" were allowed to take precedence over concepts like "winning". These factors perverted much of the debate on evolving military doctrine and clouded what it did not pervert. But the actual effect they had I think has been overstated. And I’m not sure Mr. Kagan appreciates the change that the debacle of the Kosovo Campaign made in the operational military, and how those changes were reinforced by the lessons of 9/11.
Nor do many of Kagan’s historical "lessons" apply under the conditions obtaining today and for the foreseeable future [which is about 2030]. His conclusions are redolent with the thinking of several generations ago. It appears he doesn’t appreciate exactly how our doctrinal writings and debates were and are absorbed and interpreted by our real and potential adversaries, be they the Chinese, the [then] Soviets, or Al Qaeda. There has been a longstanding joke in my profession that we have fully crippled the Chinese military by selling them so completely on the RMA — the joke within the joke is that this is substantially true. Nor are the Chinese alone in this predicament. Much of the world believes some astounding things about the US military, crediting us with things we can’t do while blithely unaware of what we can do; being utterly confused by the conflicts within and between US doctrinal debates and political debates; confusing commentary with policy and policy with operational doctrine. In short, we do things in a particularly noisy, messy, and apparently disorderly fashion, giving our adversaries — and sometimes our allies — ample scope to read all the wrong things into what they see. Thus, the history Kagan quotes can be misleading when applied to the current conditions; it rather appears to me that we have confused Kagan almost as much as we have confused the Chinese and the Russians.
Overall, I don’t think Kagan appreciates the very profound differences not just in technology [which is probably wider than he allows] and in the way that technology is employed, but most importantly in the way the US military has learned to think and operate. In some very important ways, the US military has been changing the rules of warfare faster than the other guys can learn the old rules. By the time they think they understand what we’re doing, we are doing something different and surprising. This isn’t "NCW" or "RMA" or even "IO" [though the Russians in particular claim it is] — it’s mainly good ol’ seat-of-the-pants adaptation and flexibility, fed by a technology development cycle that produces innovations roughly twice as fast as the rest of the world can assimilate them. Kagan does not understand this; in fact he turns reality on its head by arguing that; "Since technology inevitably becomes less expensive as it proliferates and as time goes on … the situation for America's would-be adversaries will only improve in this regard."
Yes, it does improve in an absolute sense, but the point Kagan misses is that it has, for more than 20 years, been improving faster here. Buying technology and capitalizing on its capabilities, especially in a military sense, are different things, and is not something that can be exported. This one reason that the militaries of the world are substantially father behind us now than they were during the first Gulf War, despite all the technology we have sold them.
Next, Kagan suggests we are vulnerable to a kind of doctrinal leapfrogging: "Much of America's tested doctrine has been published, much can be deduced from the CNN coverage of America's most recent wars. Once again, America's enemies can start from the position of proven success that the U.S. armed forces achieved, and build from there."
What history really tells us is: no they can’t, because they build more slowly than we innovate. And the people best positioned to be able to build as Kagan suggests are those we are very unlikely to go to war with [e.g. Britain and Australia; Japan and Germany, if they finished rearming.] This may change over time, but that time is measured in decades not years; if we were to stagnate today, the rest of the world might catch up in 20 to 30 years. But we are not stagnating yet.
Nor do I think Kagan well understands the point of what Rumsfeld’s so-called "transformation" really is. At this pint, I’m not sure I understand it perfectly myself, as I left my profession in early 2002 and have been somewhat out of the loop on DOD policy since then. But I suggest that it isn’t as unbalanced as Kagan thinks. It’s not about our military doing "one thing superbly well" and therefore "presenting [the enemy] with only one threat to defeat". It is about doing whatever it wants to do very well and very quickly, whether that be by land, air or sea. It about maximizing flexibility and initiative and striking power, not about air-power vs ground or sea power, or PGMs vs infantry vs armor.
Finally I can’t close without mentioning two of Kagan’s statements that he uses to buttress his points; the first of which I don’t recall being the case and the second of which I find almost bizarre. I mention these not to nit-pick, but because they cast a disturbing light over Kagan’s reasoning in general.
The first statement is: "During the Kosovo operation Slobodan Milosevic withstood the American air attack right up until it became clear that a ground attack might follow--and then he surrendered." I was rather in the thick of the assessment of that conflict, and I don’t remember that. I recall exactly the opposite — that Clinton absolutely ruled out ground forces and that Milosevic "surrendered" because he largely accomplished what he’s set out to do [he thought] and decided it was a good time to give in, fully expecting to remain in power for a long time to come. His mistake was underestimating his internal opposition, not Clinton or NATO. Those of the US military I talked to, or read opinions from, viewed the campaign as an embarrassing debacle, due to Clinton’s blunders and General Clark’s mismanagement.
The second statement is: "America is suffering badly now from having an army that is too small." This sounds like a sop to the antiwar press; how exactly are we "suffering badly" from the size of our army? [It is the Navy that is most severely undersized but we are not suffering from that yet, although we might someday and naval personnel certainly are right now.] Yes, there have been casualties in Iraq, but the fact of the matter is that Americans in Iraq are being killed at roughly the same rate as they are in Oakland, CA. When the casualty rate in a war zone approximates that of a mid-sized city, either the city is very very bad, or the war is going extraordinarily well. And while leftist commentators and Baathist sympathizers sincerely want America to be suffering badly, I see no objective evidence of this whatever. Thus I’m surprised that Kagan, whom I take to be neither a leftist nor a sympathizer, would say it. It smacks of a long and disingenuous — almost dishonest — reach to support a his conclusions by any means, including dragging in a left-wing canard without evidence or elaboration. This is not something I would think a man sure of his arguments would have to resort to.
Now I’m not myself convinced that Rumsfeld’s vision is perfect, or even the best possible, but I think he understanding is much sounder than Kagan’s and I assert that the situation itself is much better than Kagan paints it.