Rumsfeld admits that maybe, just maybe, the RMA isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

As was much commented before the election, this administration has a thing about admitting error — any kind of error. No politician ever wants to do this, of course, because it means taking a political hit. Sometimes, however, candor is good politics and can even lead to policy learning — i.e., if you’re willing to ...

By , a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast.

As was much commented before the election, this administration has a thing about admitting error -- any kind of error. No politician ever wants to do this, of course, because it means taking a political hit. Sometimes, however, candor is good politics and can even lead to policy learning -- i.e., if you're willing to admit that your current course of action is wrong, it requires a search for a better policy. So when President Bush announced that Don Rumsfeld would stay on as Secretary of Defense for the next term, my reaction was not completely dissimilar from Josh Marshall's -- on defense-related matters, we're getting four more years of bungled policy implementation. Rumsfeld's belief that the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) requires a transformation of warfighting strategy and tactics is not completely off-base -- however, Iraq certainly suggests that the notion of the RMA really transforming anything related to post-war occupation activities is bogus. Today's Wall Street Journal front-pager by Greg Jaffe (that link should be good for non-subscribers as well) suggests, however, that even Rummy and the rest of the civilian leadership is willing to admit that mistakes were made. The highlights:

As was much commented before the election, this administration has a thing about admitting error — any kind of error. No politician ever wants to do this, of course, because it means taking a political hit. Sometimes, however, candor is good politics and can even lead to policy learning — i.e., if you’re willing to admit that your current course of action is wrong, it requires a search for a better policy. So when President Bush announced that Don Rumsfeld would stay on as Secretary of Defense for the next term, my reaction was not completely dissimilar from Josh Marshall‘s — on defense-related matters, we’re getting four more years of bungled policy implementation. Rumsfeld’s belief that the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) requires a transformation of warfighting strategy and tactics is not completely off-base — however, Iraq certainly suggests that the notion of the RMA really transforming anything related to post-war occupation activities is bogus. Today’s Wall Street Journal front-pager by Greg Jaffe (that link should be good for non-subscribers as well) suggests, however, that even Rummy and the rest of the civilian leadership is willing to admit that mistakes were made. The highlights:

The Iraq attack was built on the premise that speed and high-tech equipment could radically change the way war was fought. Short, swift attacks against key targets — such as communications stations and headquarters — could confuse enemy forces and isolate them from their commanders, according to both Army and Defense Department doctrine. If you chopped off the enemy’s head, the theory went, the whole body would die. Getting to the fight faster became the focus of modernization plans for the Army and all other U.S. armed services. Now, the escalating insurgency in Iraq is showing that lightning assaults can quickly topple a regime — but also unleash problems for which small, fast, high-tech U.S. forces are ill-equipped. “We’re realizing strategic victory is about a lot more than annihilating the enemy,” says one senior defense official in Mr. Rumsfeld’s office. Victory also requires winning the support of locals and tracking down insurgents, who can easily elude advanced surveillance technology and precision strikes. In some cases, a slower, more methodical attack, one that allows U.S. troops to stabilize one area and hold it up as an example of what is possible for the rest of the country, could produce better results, according to emerging Army thinking. Mr. Rumsfeld acknowledges that the military, which is still organized “to fight big armies, navies and air forces on a conventional basis,” must change in order to deal with guerrilla fighters and terrorists. “The department simply has to be much more facile and agile,” he says in an interview. “We have got to focus more on the post-combat phase.” But he adds that the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate the “critical importance of speed and precision as opposed to mass or sheer numbers.”

That’s not much of a concession by Rumsfeld there, but it does suggest some adaptation. Read the whole thing — I particularly liked the observation that, “Commanders in Iraq have found that 70-ton tanks, which literally shake the ground as they move, can help ward off guerrilla attacks simply through intimidation.” And, lest one put all of the blame at Rumsfeld’s doorstep, what I found particularly interesting was the motivation behind the Army’s partial embrace of the RMA as well:

The notion of swift, high-tech wars was first championed by the Air Force in the early 1990s. After the 1999 Kosovo war, the Army began reluctantly to buy into the idea. Kosovo had been a huge embarrassment for the Army. Gen. Wesley Clark, who led the operation, asked the Army to send 24 Apache helicopters to the Balkans to conduct strikes against Serb forces. The helicopters, accompanied by tanks and heavy Bradley fighting vehicles, arrived later than many expected. They were never employed. Two helicopters crashed during training exercises, killing two soldiers. The tanks were too heavy to cross key bridges. Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army’s chief of staff at the time, came away from the fiasco believing the Army needed to get faster and lighter. New fighting vehicles would rely on information technology and speed to protect them instead of heavy armor. Army doctrine, written after Kosovo, boasted troops using new equipment would “see first, understand first, and act first” allowing them to kill the adversary without being hit. Among some senior Army officers, though, there was great discomfort with the notion that the U.S. could ever achieve the kind of quick victories that top Army officials and Mr. Rumsfeld seemed to be promising. Even if high-tech surveillance tools could pinpoint the location of enemy tanks, they couldn’t find fighters hiding in buildings. Technology couldn’t measure the will of shadowy insurgents or the likelihood the populace would resist.

As for Rumsfeld, he’s definitely getting feedback from what James Q. Wilson would call “operators” in the system. Robert Burns has the goods on this for the Associated Press:

Disgruntled U.S. soldiers complained to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Wednesday about the lack of armor for their vehicles and long deployments, drawing a blunt retort from the Pentagon chief. “You go to war with the Army you have,” he said in a rare public airing of rank-and-file concerns among the troops…. Army Spc. Thomas Wilson, for example, of the 278th Regimental Combat Team that is comprised mainly of citizen soldiers of the Tennessee Army National Guard, asked Rumsfeld in a question-and-answer session why vehicle armor is still in short supply, nearly two years after the start of the war that ousted Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. “Why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to uparmor our vehicles?” Wilson asked. A big cheer arose from the approximately 2,300 soldiers in the cavernous hangar who assembled to see and hear the secretary of defense. Rumsfeld hesitated and asked Wilson to repeat his question. “We do not have proper armored vehicles to carry with us north,” Wilson said after asking again. Rumsfeld replied that troops should make the best of the conditions they face and said the Army was pushing manufacturers of vehicle armor to produce it as fast as humanly possible.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast. Twitter: @dandrezner

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