Escape from Oz

In MGM’s film, the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy discovers that the Wizard who promised to help her turns out to be a little man manipulating smoke and mirrors to create the illusion of omniscience and power. Fortunately, all is not lost. Dorothy clicks her heels and escapes from Oz to reality. If only it were that easy for Congress and the military spending it is considering. Unconditional funding of the Bush defense budget now costs the American taxpayer close to $500 billion a year, if one also adds the $80 billion in supplemental defense spending for fiscal year 2005, yet the only real military “transformation” underway is the conversion of defense spending into a colossal exercise in deficit financing.

But Congress may be tiring of the Pentagon’s light show. Republicans and Democrats are at last summoning the courage to scrutinize outrageously expensive equipment with long lead times for delivery. Of course, given the irretrievable sunken costs associated with the demands of the aerospace and shipbuilding industries, the big-ticket air and naval programs are probably beyond reach. But this condition does not apply to the U.S. Army.

The Bush Administration’s failure to address the problem of land power really is unforgivable. Land warfare moved to the center of military thinking in the 1990s with the realization after Operation Desert Storm that America’s military challenge was on land, not in the air or at sea, but nothing was done to resolve the tension between the old citizen-soldier mass mobilization force with its Cold War structures, policies and bloated headquarters, and the nation’s need for a powerful, standing professional Army.

First, there is “modularity,” a program billed as a conversion of the Cold War division structure to a structure based on smaller, more flexible brigades. But the real purpose is simply to create more brigades inside divisions: 45 brigades with two combat battalions rather than 33 with three combat battalions. What is unforgivable is the shortsightedness: by creating weak brigades, the Army Chief of Staff is mortgaging the future combat capability of the Army to a temporary fix for the personnel rotation needs of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Second, there is the Future Combat System or FCS. FCS is an undefined mix of forces, equipment, and tactics without strong ties to recent experience, field-testing or new threats. The promised networked systems, robots and software have yet to work and no one has figured out where the operational trade-offs should be made. FCS ground vehicles won’t reach the Army until 2014, if then. No wonder both Republicans and Democrats openly question the feasibility or the need to spend $100 billion on such a high-risk scheme.

Third, there is the multi-billion dollar Stryker program that merely turns light infantry into motorized infantry with a lightly armored wheeled vehicle that has no stabilized gun system to fire-on-the-move, and arrives from the sea, not from the air as advertised. Having oversold a transformation that equates lightness with goodness, the Army’s motorized infantry has to stop, dismount, and fight on foot as they did 50 years ago, against future opponents like Iran or North Korea ­ opponents that can swarm American motorized infantry with thousands of men and armored fighting vehicles supported by artillery. And waiting for air strikes to rescue the motorized infantry is ill advised. Iran and North Korea, like just about anyone else we might fight, have air defense system.

All of these Army programs continue to be justified on the basis of an invalid assumption: soldiers will enjoy perfect knowledge of the enemy thanks to perfect networking. But perfect information about the enemy does not exist and will not exist. Airborne manned and unmanned surveillance and reconnaissance systems routinely missed dispersed Serb ground forces during the 1999 Kosovo air campaign. On the march to Baghdad in 2003 and in the urban combat of Najaf, Baghdad and Fallujah in 2004 the promised high level of situational awareness never existed. Without America’s 20-year old M1 Tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles, we would never have prevailed.

In his book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton Christensen explains a better approach than the Army’s. “Many of the ideas prevailing at Intel about where the disruptive microprocessor could be used were wrong; fortunately, Intel had not expended all of its resources implementing wrong-headed marketing plans while the right market direction was still unknowable. As a company, Intel survived many false starts in its search for the major market for microprocessors.”

In war, technology never dictates one clear path into the future, but the Army has resisted flexibility in favor of an industrial age model of mass production that is draining its accounts and providing modest capability in return.

In politics, money has the power to confer absolution. Throwing money at whatever the Army’s top generals want is how many legislators reassure their constituents that they support the troops. It’s time to stop the hemorrhage of money into false starts. Unless Congress asks hard questions, Army transformation will continue to subsidize more false starts leaving the Army as unprepared for the next war as it was for this one.

Douglas A. Macgregor is a retired Army Colonel and a decorated Gulf War combat veteran who has authored four books. His latest is Transformation under Fire: Revolutionizing the Way America Fights. He writes for the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information in Washington.