90.9 WBUR - Boston's NPR news station

The Pro's and Con's of a "Revolution in Military Affairs."

LAVs will replace the larger M1 A1 tanks in the Army's Interim Brigade Combat Unit (Photo: Joe Barrentine)

Some say the power of technology is fueling a revolution, a so-called "Revolution in Military Affairs" or RMA. They say technology has become so powerful that soon wars will be fought by remote control. Space-based sensors, unmanned drones, and precision-guided weapons will be knit together in a powerful system to give commanders the ability to pierce the fog of war: to see, shape, and dominate any battle, anywhere.

Stephen Rosen, who directs the Olin Institute of Strategic Studies at Harvard, says the Dutch probably waged the first modern RMA in the 17th Century. It allowed their armies to beat Spanish forces ten times their size. It was pretty basic says Rosen, and was based on the drill.

"It was the idea that if you got people to move with synchronicity on the battlefield and to act under discipline and act together, they were more effective than a group of very brave but unorganized soldiers fighting as a mob," he says.

An influential group of Pentagon strategists sometimes called the "Jedi Warriors" believe the current RMA should dictate how they transform the military. Their influence reaches well beyond academia to top defense officials and the president.

President Bush spoke at the Citadel Military College in Charleston, South Carolina, "This Revolution in our military is only beginning, and it promises to change the face of battle. Afghanistan has been a proving ground for this new approach. These past two months have shown that an innovative doctrine, and hi-tech weaponry can shape and then dominate an unconventional conflict."

To the cadets at the Citadel last December, Bush's speech was a call to arms. To those in the know, it was the language of the Revolution in Military Affairs. It's controversial because RMA advocates would turn the defense establishment on its head.

Related Links:

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld calls for billions of dollars in new spending on hi-tech weapons to defend the U.S. against "the unknown, the uncertain, the unseen and the unexpected" after the attacks of September 11th. Speaking at the Pentagon's National Defense University on Thursday, January 31, Rumsfeld said the Bush administration is requesting $379 billion in defense spending in fiscal year 2003, up $48 billion from this year. This would represent the largest Pentagon budget increase in two decades.

» LISTEN: Rumsfeld's Speech

Related Links:
The RMA Debate - the Commonwealth Institute
Defense and the National Interest        
DoD Site on Military Transformation       
Fort Lewis - Transformation Site       

When he first took over the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld talked the talk, threatening to cancel some of the military's older programs in favor of weapons for the new world. Ashton Carter, a former Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Clinton administration, says Rumsfeld hit a wall. "Rumsfeld had difficulty getting rid of the B1 bomber, really a 1970's technology bomber of no great utility to the U.S. military and of great expense, and why is that? Because they had an iron triangle of support. Contractors, their friends in Congress and their friends in the arms services who wanted to buy them," says Carter. In fact, when Secretary Rumsfeld issued his long-awaited quadrennial defense review last fall, he didn't recommend canceling a single existing weapons program.

Critics of the RMA weren't surprised. Among them, retired Admiral William Crowe, who says the military can't be revolutionized. "I do not like the term RMA- Revolution in Military Affairs, mainly because it is impossible to change military affairs that rapidly," he says. "Secondly," he says "because I don't know if you want to do it in a revolutionary way, you want to do it in an evolutionary fashion."

Crowe, who was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the first Bush administration, says the military is slow to change, and for good reason. "The problem with being truly revolutionary is you have to be right," he says. "If you go wrong then you're really in trouble."

Related Links:

» Michael O'Hanlon - Biography, Readings

Michael O'Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution, and another RMA skeptic, agrees. O'Hanlon says in the zeal to try to win the next war, reformers shouldn't be too quick to abandon what won the last war.

O'Hanlon argues that the old approach brought victory in Iraq and Kosovo, and now success in Afghanistan. He says the most impressive tool in Afghanistan is the Special Force person on the ground conducting liaison operations with the Afghans, speaking their language, helping them with old fashioned tactics, spotting positions for airplanes to bomb. "That's a lot of old fashioned skill," he says.

Stephen Rosen of Harvard says Afghanistan makes a good case for R-M-A advocates. "In fact, the use of Special Forces is very consistent with what the advocates of Revolution in Military Affairs said would be the future of ground warfare."

Click for the large version of the Army's wired soldier, the "Land Warrior System."

Instead of large, mechanized divisions, the U.S. has relied on small numbers of elite troops armed with elaborate sensors and precision-guided weapons. "A lot of people, me included, would have said Afghanistan is the worst place in the world for the RMA to work, it's rugged, the terrain is horrible, these guys have had years to dig tunnels and hide themselves. Are you telling me that satellites or airplanes flying overhead are going to find these guys hiding in the caves?" Rosen asks. "Looks like we did, what actually affected the military balance of power was something that looks like the RMA."

President Bush concurs: "Our intelligence professionals and Special Forces have cooperated with battle-friendly Afghan forces, fighters who know the terrain, who know the Taliban and who understand the local culture. And our Special Forces have the technology to call in precision air strikes along with the flexibility to direct those strikes from horseback in the first cavalry charge of the 21st century."

Technology is changing warfare, and if you believe military PR, the future is almost here. The Department of Defense is developing "The Land Warrior System." In the future, hi-tech soldiers will carry infrared-laser sites, global navigation systems, and portable computers linked to aircraft, satellites and command centers that will display an array of data right on their visors.

Next: The Price of Change