The Army's Empire Skeptics | The Nation


The Army's Empire Skeptics

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For a military that, in the context of Iraq and beyond, is likely to face urban warfare and subsequent low-intensity conflict in cities and mountains sans adequate training, wonder weapons and networked surveillance/communications systems may not only be lacking; they could even be exploitable weaknesses. In his recent Parameters essay "Doomed to Fail: America's Blind Faith in Military Technology," John Gentry, a retired Special Forces officer and veteran of East Asian and Bosnian operations, draws attention to the recent Defense Department planning document Joint Vision 2020.

Research support provided by the Investigative Fund of the Nation

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Jason Vest
Jason Vest writes on national security affairs for The Nation.

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The neocon think tank's recent call for an increase in troop strength is myopic.

In Washington, it's hardly without precedent for a presidential appointee to swear one thing before a Senate confirmation committee and then, once ensconced in the sought-after post, do another.

JV 2020, Gentry reports, champions more technology for future military operations and is "a virtual article of faith in DOD." In Gentry's view, it's the epitome of "simple arrogance," as its inspiration is Operation Desert Storm--a military abnormality, something that really shouldn't be the basis for doctrine, as it pitted "an inept, demoralized Iraqi army" against US troops who were allowed to "assemble forces unmolested for six months, then allowed to attack on their schedule" in a clear, flat desert environment "well suited to use of precision munitions."

While the gee-whiz stuff works great in optimal conditions against a ham-fisted opponent, Gentry notes that "technology contributes virtually nothing to complex civil-military operations, like recent ones in Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, in which the US military has not performed particularly well." Technology, he observes, "has little applicability to political and many military situations for elementary reasons," as "sensors cannot identify human motives, measure human emotions, quantify the coherence of human organizations, or assess the importance of the data they gather." For existing sensors to have any worth, actual troops, he continues, "must acquire adequate background knowledge and understanding of their areas of responsibility before they deploy in order to be able to convert the incremental bits that their sensors give them into useful information."

Alas, he continues, "US troops rarely make such preparations.... While surely the United States can put munitions on any place on the planet through sheer mass of resources, there is no corresponding superiority of individual troops or units--and, more important, no superiority of operational result." The results range from the "Black Hawk Down" (Somalia, 1993) and Anaconda scenarios on the micro level to Kosovo on a macro level--situations that either end badly, or with an illusion of triumph (while the 1999 NATO bombing campaign worked as an exercise in coercive diplomacy, the Serbian Army's use of decoys and natural cloud cover, coupled with the lack of maneuver-oriented NATO ground troops to engage the Serbs and protect the Kosovars, negated the operation's value as a military success).

Noting the current Administration's "pursuit of dominance," now "widely called American 'hegemony' [that] is widely resented," Gentry points out that as the US military continues to spend money to make its systems and weapons more technology-dependent, the rest of the world will probably find cheap, low-tech ways to get inside this technologically driven decision cycle. This means that "opponents can take deception actions that lead US forces to waste scarce precision munitions on low-value targets," he writes. And the rest of the world knows that isn't hard to do, as "America's dearth of collective patience and self-discipline is legendary."

If the military continues on this techno-driven track, Gentry's view--echoed by a number of officers interviewed for this article--is that the odds get higher of accelerating "a spiral that threatens to become increasingly expensive, both financially and politically." The success of the technocentric "Revolution in Military Affairs" can, Gentry holds, actually "create new categories of weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Enhanced connectivity already increases the generals' ability to micro-manage tactical operations from afar...to the detriment of initiative, operational performance, and the morale and retention of junior officers." In the end, Gentry writes, it all boils down to the fact that the Defense Department's "basic problem is leadership," and Donald Rumsfeld's vaunted "transformation" program "barely addresses the fundamental institutional problems and pushes the department to use yet more gadgetry."

According to former OSCE Bosnia chief Barry, while the right sees post-Saddam Iraq under US military governorship as akin to post-World War II Japan or Germany, it's more likely to resemble the former Yugoslavia--where, after more than six years and $100 billion, peace and prosperity are far from secured. It's troubling, he writes, that "there is little sign that serious preparations are under way" for Iraq's future. That the Defense Department has a "distaste for nation-building" and that "the one thing all Iraqi exile groups oppose is a US military government" should also be the stuff of consideration. But at a time when even the objections of historical US allies are seen as intransigent betrayal, don't count on it, as Uncle Sam clearly knows best.

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