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Dreaming About War

Nicholas Lemann
The New Yorker
16 July 2001

In September of 1999, George W. Bush, then just trying out his act as a Presidential candidate, gave his first major speech on defense. If you didn't know anything about the subject, the speech, delivered at the Citadel, the military college in Charleston, South Carolina, would have sounded like an unremarkable Republican artillery fusillade: the Democrats were starving and dishonoring the military, peace can be achieved only through strength, and so on. If, however, you owned a secret decoder ring, the speech was highly significant: Bush had endorsed the Revolution in Military Affairs—or, as it's inevitably called in the acronym-happy defense world, the R.M.A.

The R.M.A. idea was first set forth by Marshal Nikolai V. Ogarkov, then the chief of the Soviet General Staff, in a 1982 pamphlet entitled "Vsegda v Gotovnosti k Zashchite Otechestva" ("Always Ready to Defend the Fatherland"), in which he pointed out that recent American advances in missile technology had the potential to change the nature of warfare. During the Cold War, a standard part of the cultural equipment of Republican defense experts was the idea that strategic genius resided within the Soviet military; otherwise life would be as pallid as a James Bond movie in which the villain doesn't have a fiendishly clever diabolical scheme. Ogarkov quickly became required reading in American defense circles. The most important promoter of the R.M.A. in America has been Andrew W. Marshall, the head of the Pentagon's obscure Office of Net Assessment, a cult figure in his own right, and one of the most curious and interesting figures in the defense world. People with decoder rings knew that Bush's speech at the Citadel had been drafted by Marshall's corps of allies and that it endorsed Marshall's main ideas

Bush promised that, as President, he would order up "an immediate, comprehensive review of our military" and give the Secretary of Defense "a broad mandate to challenge the status quo." Sure enough, this February, only a couple of weeks into the Bush Administration, newspaper stories reported that the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, would be conducting a broad review of the military—or, rather, that Andrew Marshall would be conducting it on his behalf. During the Clinton Administration, William Cohen, as the Secretary of Defense, tried, without success, to exile the Office of Net Assessment and Marshall, who is seventy-nine, to the National Defense University. Now, in 2001, it looked as if Andy Marshall was back—emphatically so, in a position of higher influence than at any other point in his long career.

Marshall is the last active member in government of a cadre of strategic thinkers that took form more than fifty years ago at the original think tank, the RAND Corporation, in Santa Monica, California. The best-known member of the group, and still a hero to conservatives, was Albert Wohlstetter; other members were Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers; Herman Kahn, a model for Dr. Strangelove; and James Schlesinger, later the Secretary of Defense and the man who, in 1973, created the Office of Net Assessment and installed Marshall as its head. All these people were involved in what Kahn liked to call "thinking the unthinkable"; that is, working through precise scenarios, based on game theory and statistics, for what would happen in the event of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. There was particular emphasis on how the United States might survive a first strike and still be able to launch a second strike.

In his early years at the Pentagon, Marshall concerned himself with other matters. In the eighties, he performed studies concluding that the Soviet Union had become much weaker than most people imagined it to be. For the past decade and a half, every July at the Naval War College, in Newport, Rhode Island, he has conducted his celebrated "summer studies," in which invited experts spend a week pondering a question posed by him.

Marshall, a small, bald man with wire-rimmed spectacles who dresses in the manner of an unreconstructed nineteen-fifties organization man, has a peculiarly strong mystique. For a defense intellectual, he hasn't published much, and in public settings he doesn't say much, either, often mumbling in a low voice, or questioning but not answering, or simply saying he has nothing to add to the discussion. The medium through which he works is his protégés, who are extremely loyal. These days, the people he knows in high places include Rumsfeld; the Deputy Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz; the Deputy Secretary of State, Richard Armitage (a principal author of Bush's speech at the Citadel); and the Secretary of the Air Force, James Roche, who worked for Marshall in the seventies.

The Revolution in Military Affairs, Marshall's main cause for the past ten years, can be seen as a return to his RAND roots. There is a substantial R.M.A. literature, and one should be cautious about attributing all its main points to Marshall, but most of it posits a version of conventional war that would be waged in much the same way as nuclear war, with strategists at remote computer screens targeting precision missile strikes. The R.M.A. has been up and running—in seminar rooms, at least—for long enough now that it has a language all its own (such as "deep-strike architecture," "systems of systems," "info dominance," and "asymmetric competitors"), which, like all insider jargon, has the effect of pushing non-members away.

The idea of it, though, isn't complicated. R.M.A. belongs to the family of ideas that sees progress occurring in dramatic bursts rather than gradually; and the dramatic bursts in military progress now before us follow from the development of the microprocessor and the fall of the Soviet Union. Advances in information technology have made possible a host of new military equipment, from long-range smart missiles to drone airplanes to spy satellites to computer viruses that can take out an enemy's communications system. All these high-tech military systems, in the R.M.A. vision, could be networked together and deployed in a coördinated fashion by a central command. It was coördination of this kind, rather than the presence of a single new piece of equipment, that explains the success of the German Panzer division, a favorite historical example of the R.M.A. New technology makes it possible to hope for the great reduction, or even the elimination, of Carl von Clausewitz's "fog of war," the enveloping confusion of the battlefield. Maybe there would be no battlefield, no "closing with the enemy"—just people at terminals launching missiles.

To the R.M.A. crowd, the end of the Cold War means that the main threat to the United States in the next few decades will come from smaller nations that have acquired the new missiles and computers, not to mention chemical and biological weapons. (Marshall and his followers also believe that the next world power will be China, but not for a while; one of Marshall's summer studies involved war games set in the future against "a large Asian country.") Rather than attacking traditional military targets, these "street-fighter states" could aim at American water supplies, or oil wells, or forests. In response, instead of our stationing large conventional forces abroad, R.M.A. strategists want us to be able to respond instantaneously to enemies who might be attacking from any direction, with no warning. The R.M.A. isn't overtly ideological, but it makes for a good fit with a foreign policy that is suspicious of international alliances and prefers to see the United States act mainly alone and mainly to protect itself. (It makes for a good fit, too, with the Administration's other leading military cause, missile defense.) The R.M.A. is supposed to be an appropriate defense policy for a time of public intolerance for drawn-out conflicts, since engagements would theoretically play themselves out rapidly.

But a summary of the main ideas of the R.M.A. leaves out something important: how maximally threatening it is to the bureaucratic interests of the three departments of the American military—the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force. Each service organizes itself according to big "platforms," expensive pieces of equipment on which weapons are mounted. The Navy is divided into carrier battle groups, the Army partially into armored divisions, and the Air Force partially into tactical fighter wings. The most prestigious slots in each service are those offering command of the big platforms, especially in direct combat. The defense-contracting industry is also oriented around building the big platforms, and so is the relationship between the Pentagon and Congress, since contractors try to spread production of the platforms across as many congressional districts as possible. In addition to the three services, there are regional commands, oriented around large permanent overseas military bases that the United States has maintained for decades. Over all, the United States' defense posture is based on the idea that we should be equipped to fight two "major theatre wars" simultaneously.

The R.M.A.'s supporters are skeptical about every single item on that list. They want to do away with the two-major-theatre-wars defense posture because they believe it locks the armed forces into their present form, and there probably won't be major theatre wars on the Persian Gulf model in the future anyway. They don't like overseas bases and other "forward deployments," because the troops are too vulnerable to attack from enemy missiles. (The Gulf War, in R.M.A. circles, was not the harbinger of the military future, because it involved an elaborate forward deployment, Operation Desert Shield, that took six months to complete.) The R.M.A. would greatly de-emphasize the big platforms, because they're vulnerable, too, and because advances in long-range-missile technology make them unnecessary. R.M.A. thinkers don't like the defense-contracting process, because it locks us into particular weapons systems for decades at a time. In fact, most of them are suspicious of the basic division of the armed forces into three services (because the services resist the coördination that is at the heart of the R.M.A.). One study produced by Marshall's Office of Net Assessment in 1993 says, "Our initial research indicates that the most difficult part of the transition will come in the area of organizational innovation. Large-scale organizations—especially military organizations—are often highly resistant to change."

In Bush's speech at the Citadel, he seemed to endorse directly a surprisingly large number of the R.M.A. ideas that are the least popular with the military. He said, "Our military is still organized more for Cold War threats than for the challenges of a new century." He said we'll never be able to mount another Gulf War, because we probably won't have time. He called for such concepts as long-range and unmanned aircraft, "arsenal ships" (as opposed to carriers), which would be "packed with long-range missiles to destroy targets from great distances," and, on land, "smaller, more agile formations, rather than cumbersome divisions."

One of Marshall's protégés told me that they sometimes get called the Jedi Knights. This spring, it began to look as though their next adventure would be the bureaucratic version of "The Empire Strikes Back." A few stories from the Washington Post's well-wired Pentagon reporter, Thomas E. Ricks, suggest how things have been progressing since February, when Ricks reported that Andrew Marshall would be running the defense review. In March, he reported that Rumsfeld and Marshall together had briefed the top military brass on their ideas. Then, with the coming of spring, the tone began to change: the "secretive" review had acquired critics, in Congress and the Pentagon, who were likening it to Hillary Clinton's task force on health-care reform in 1993—a kiss-of-death comparison. Finally, on May 25th, Ricks published an account of an unpleasant-sounding meeting between Rumsfeld and the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the super-secure room in the Pentagon known as the Tank, at which they quarrelled directly over the review.

To get a better feeling for the career military's reservations about the R.M.A., I went to see William Crowe, the blunt retired admiral who was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the George H.W. Bush Administration and who still moves in military circles. He said that, except during a major war, there simply can't, and shouldn't, be sudden revolutions in the armed forces, which are enormous organizations that put a premium on loyalty, stability, and tradition. "Rumsfeld's going to run into that right now," Crowe told me. "If he thinks he's going to change the culture of the military overnight, he ain't seen nothing and he ain't been nowhere."

I asked Crowe about Andrew Marshall. "Bright as hell," he said. "Very soft-spoken and gentle. He suffers from one big problem—he has never seen a shot fired in anger." (Many, maybe even most, of the leading defense intellectuals have never served in the military, and that is a persistent source of tension between them and the services.) Crowe teaches at the United States Naval Academy, in Annapolis, Maryland, and once a year he takes his class on a field trip to the Pentagon. On the last visit, he said, he ran into Marshall walking down the corridor and introduced him to his students. "One of my midshipmen, who's going into Naval Air, said to him, 'Why are you doing away with our carriers?' Andy said, 'My study didn't even mention carriers! I don't know what the newspapers are talking about!' " Crowe told me, ever so slightly rolling his eyes.

Crowe went on to make his case against the R.M.A. "First, the idea of precision guided weapons—you're really talking about money," he said. "In the Gulf War, we almost ran through our entire stock of precision weapons. We took out targets that cost less than the weapon. Tomahawks are about a million bucks apiece. If you run out, you need something else. Most of the targets we destroyed in the Gulf War were destroyed by iron bombs. Also, in a really tough war you can't avoid head-on confrontation entirely. You just can't. My God, if you think you can support arms on the ground with air coming in from three thousand miles away—that's sheer nonsense. And, if it's protracted, you run out of sophisticated stuff. So numbers become important and amount of equipment becomes important."

What next? I asked. "There's going to be a storm," Crowe said. "Somebody once told me that if you want to change things you say, 'It's perfect,' and then you start changing. By the time they discover what you're doing, it's too late. If you announce it ahead of time, all the forces muster, and you'd be amazed by how effective they can be. They all have congressional lobbies. See, they're too late. They've already made the mistake. The perception has gotten out of control."

On May 25th, President Bush gave the commencement address at the Naval Academy. Naturally, his speech was subjected in the military world to a Talmudic level of parsing. He undoubtedly endorsed the R.M.A. in general terms—"I'm committed to building a future force that is defined less by size and more by mobility and swiftness, one that is easier to deploy and sustain, one that relies more heavily on stealth, precision weaponry, and information technologies," he said—but the level of specificity was far less than in the Citadel speech. There was a laudatory mention of an aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Constellation. Artful nonspecificity and reassurance seemed to be the new weapons in the Administration's rhetorical arsenal.

That same week, the Pentagon's public-affairs office let me know that a request I'd made some time earlier to do interviews about the defense review had been granted. When I arrived at the Pentagon, the lieutenant colonel from public affairs who met me said I'd have to refer to the person I was interviewing as "a senior defense official." This is standard practice in the Pentagon, and the "senior defense official" you often see quoted in the papers isn't always the same person—he's a member of a category that includes perhaps two dozen high-level figures. In this case, though, "senior defense official" doesn't quite work, because when I was taken up to a grand office on the E-Ring of the Pentagon, two senior defense officials were waiting for me. To meld them, for the purposes of quotation, into a single made-up person would be actively misleading, so instead I'm going to call them the Senior Official and the Defense Intellectual.

I started off by asking them how the defense review was going and when it would be finished. "I think the best way to describe it," the Senior Official said, "is that Mr. Rumsfeld came in. He had a lot of questions. He's been very open in saying that he didn't come in with some sort of chip that was preprogrammed with answers. He wanted to catch up. New Secretary, new Administration. So he asked one retired admiral to take a look at the quality of life of troops—to take a deep look at that. He asked another person to take a look at macro notions of how the department acquires its equipment. He asked others to look at what would be, quote, transformational ideas. Another group to take a look at what would be the long-term best employment of conventional forces. When all was said and done, I think there were, like, twenty of these things. One part of it was 'O.K., the world's changed, lots of things are different, what might be a way of thinking about the longrange future?' So that was asked of Andy."

The Senior Official was telling me that there was no massive, top-tobottom defense review of the kind President Bush, in his speech at the Citadel, had said he'd order his Secretary of Defense to conduct. Instead, there was merely this very minor, informal effort; and Andrew Marshall, rather than being in charge of it, was just doing one innocent study. What was all the fuss about? Rumsfeld would look at the studies when they were done, and then perhaps some of the results might be reflected in the 2003 defense budget, which wouldn't be unveiled until January. Perhaps "revolution" begins to look less appealing once you're in power.

I turned to the Defense Intellectual and asked if he'd give me an example from military history of a new technology dramatically changing the way war was conducted. He thought for a minute and gave two from the Second World War: the Germans' development of the Panzer division and, later, the American breakthrough in carrier-based naval aviation in the Pacific. "What comes out, so interestingly, in both of these cases," he said, in a soft, scratchy voice, "is that the new kinds of forces, in both cases, represent a small portion of the total force. I mean, we go into the war with about a seven-hundred-ship Navy, of which eight are carriers. In the German case, they go into the war with about a hundred and sixty-five divisions, of which four are Panzer divisions. I mean, that's Poland. By the time they go into France, the number of Panzer divisions is seven or eight."

We talked for a while about military breakthroughs. The Defense Intellectual was obviously a man who had spent a lot of time studying military history and who enjoyed ruminating about it. I asked him whether there wasn't always intense bureaucratic opposition to military innovation. He sat slumped on a couch, his big hands fidgeting absently with the laminated security badge on a chain around his neck. He spoke in a casual, offhand way. "Yes," he said. He recommended that I look up a book on the subject by Stephen Rosen, who is another of Andrew Marshall's protégés, and is now teaching at Harvard. "He gives, I think, the best analysis of the internal politics or sociology of military organizations and what it takes to have a major change. There is reluctance. It's one of the reasons, I think, why you find that these big changes many times happen through this process—that is, where only a small part of the force is really changed. And it's changed because, within the officer corps, there is a subgroup that thinks that the available technology can be used in some novel way, and it's either supported enough by the top people or somehow or another gets allowed to be tried. And then comes the war, and real combat that shows that, by God, these guys were right—that this is the thing that really works."

Conversationally, the Defense Intellectual was a slow starter, unlike the more direct and hearty Senior Official, but once he got going his voice became louder and clearer. He went on, "So they got certain general descriptions right, and that helped frame things, and they were able to do things. But, in almost all of these really successful cases, a small part of the force was transformed, and then the actual combat decides how good an idea that is."

I was getting the point. The forces of the Revolution in Military Affairs would not be making a frontal assault on the military bureaucracies and their beloved platforms, right?

"At least, my view," said the Senior Official, "and I think Andy's view, is: no, you too easily can make a huge mistake when you throw away something that's good. Arleigh Burke"—one of the great naval commanders of the Second World War and, later, Chief of Naval Operations—"once said to me— I asked him, 'When is it time to move past the aircraft carrier?' He said, 'When it fails in war.' You don't throw out something that's worked. But you can be adapting parts of the force in interesting ways."

The Defense Intellectual broke in. "Taking out insurance against threats to the things that you have and the way you're doing business now that may crop up."

What I had just heard reminded me of the old "counterforce studies" that Andrew Marshall used to conduct at RAND. The decade of stentorian articles and lectures leading up to Bush's Citadel speech could be thought of as the R.M.A.'s retaliatory strike. This spring, the Pentagon had evidently launched its own first strike. Now the R.M.A. forces were obviously preparing their second strike, which, appropriately enough, would employ stealth technology.

Originally published in The New Yorker, 16 July 2001.

Lemann, Nicholas "Dreaming about War" The New Yorker, 16 July 2001.

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