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Buck Rogers Rides Again

Ken Silverstein

The Nation, October 25, 1999

As soon as the smoke had cleared from the streets of Belgrade, US military leaders began trumpeting a little-known doctrine called the Revolution in Military Affairs, or RMA, as being instrumental in the victory over Slobodan Milosevic. The revolutionary agent here is the microchip, which, combined with strategic and organizational innovations, is said to be transforming warfare in the same way the musket did in the 1600s and the atom bomb did in 1945. Advocates foresee a "digital battlefield" that weds precision-guided long-range weapons to high-tech information and surveillance systems that enable commanders to direct the action from thousands of miles away, and so on down to the smallest computerized gizmo that springs from the mind of a military planner.

High-tech weapons associated with the RMA helped NATO carry out "the most accurate bombing campaign in history," according to Gen. Wesley Clark, who headed NATO forces in Kosovo. Except for some unfortunate attacks on refugee convoys and KLA posts, not to mention the precision-guided bomb that leveled the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, these strikes were also praised for limiting civilian deaths. And, because these "brilliant" bombs can be delivered from planes flying at 15,000 feet and from other "platforms" far from the field of combat, they are vital to the new US military strategy of war with impunity and without casualties-American, anyway.

No American was killed in battle in Kosovo. On the receiving end, according to Fred Kaplan of the Boston Globe, the bombs dropped over Yugoslavia, ton for ton, killed more civilians than during the Gulf War and about the same number as during the Vietnam War. (That may have been because military commanders, overly emboldened by the greater accuracy of high-tech weapons, tried to pick off targets surgically, and failed.) NATO inflicted heavy damage on Yugoslavia's civilian infrastructure and economy, but it didn't need gold-plated weaponry for that. Old-fashioned planes, even B-52s, were as deadly as ever. "It was plain old random destruction," one Pentagon hand says of the Kosovo campaign. "The only thing we proved is that we're able to bomb the shit out of a little country."

Technology is what makes the military industry turn, though, and over the past few years the RMA has become one of the hottest buzzwords at the Pentagon. In 1997 the Administration's National Defense Panel recommended spending between $ 5 billion and $ 10 billion annually to implement the doctrine. The next year, in his report to the President and Congress, Defense Secretary William Cohen said "the willingness to embrace the Revolution in Military Affairs" was critical to military planning for the twenty-first century. Last year, just before he abruptly resigned, Newt Gingrich envisioned the battlefield of 2010, in which soldiers "will have somewhere on their body a personal telephone...that will also have a computer capability, faxing capability, so during lulls they can arrange a date." Now the whole concept of the RMA is so sacrosanct that some military commanders are finding that invoking it is the surest way to get funding for a desired project.

"Some people at the Pentagon take it very seriously as a means of planning for the future, and others use it loosely to serve their bureaucratic purposes," says Professor Tom Mahnken, a former staffer at the Pentagon's Office of Net Assessment (ONA) and an RMA expert at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. "It's become fashionable to justify your pet rock by calling it part of the RMA." Pierre Sprey, a former weapons designer who quit consulting for the Pentagon during the Reagan years in disgust over pork-barreling, is more scathing: "The RMA is just an excuse to funnel money to the defense contractors by funding a whole new generation of high-tech weapons."

The story of this latest wave of high-tech worship begins with a man named Andrew Marshall, the RMA's chief intellectual architect. An aging but still sprightly cold warrior, Marshall heads up the ONA, an outfit charged with projecting threats to national security decades into the future and making sure the United States is prepared to deal with them [see sidebar, page 28].

In recent years, Marshall has heavily promoted the RMA and the high-tech arsenal that goes with it. "Over the next twenty to fifty years a military revolution will transform the way wars are fought," he told Congress in 1995. "Rather than closing with an opponent, the major operational mode will be destroying him at a distance." To take a specific example, Marshall has said that the best way to halt an Iraqi ground attack would be from 100 miles away, with a submarine that could launch missiles that zero in on the sound of Russian-built tank engines.

High-tech skeptics say that such a missile might work under laboratory conditions, but battlefield noises-artillery barrages, rocket blasts, gunfire-make acoustic homing unrealistic. Marshall's dream, which would certainly cost billions of dollars to realize, could be tricked with a pair of $ 100 speakers playing the taped sound of a Russian tank engine. "At the core of the RMA is a radical hypothesis that would cause Sun Tzu, Clausewitz and George Patton to roll over in their graves," Chuck Spinney, a thirty-year Pentagon veteran and weapons specialist, says of the doctrine. "That is, that technology will transform the fog and friction of combat-the uncertainty, fear, chaos, imperfect information which is a natural product of a clash between opposing wills-into clear, friction-free, predictable, mechanistic interaction."

Indeed, the real revolution lies in the concept that wars can be fought from afar, largely without risk or ground troops. Hence, the Pentagon can reduce overseas deployments, US casualties and domestic political opposition without limiting America's ability to intervene abroad. The hubris of it all is conveyed by RMA advocates who promise that high-tech sensors provide "a God's-eye view" of the battlefield. Weapons contractors may not have the same moral presumption when they boast of weapons capable of "seeing" 100 percent of the field, but they understand that the Buck Rogers-type hardware favored by Marshall opens the door for especially heavy profiteering. A Pentagon official, who spoke about the RMA on condition of anonymity, concedes that "precision weapons are always going to be more costly on an individual basis than dumb bombs," but adds, "they are significantly more effective."

He's certainly right about the cost. "Smart" bombs go for about $ 30,000 each, versus $ 649 for "dumb" ones. The former made up just 8 percent of the munitions used in the Gulf War air campaign but accounted for 84 percent of the total cost of those munitions. That war was a watershed for RMA enthusiasts. They pointed to video images-endlessly replayed on television-of laser-guided bombs traveling down smokestacks in Baghdad and to film displayed by Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf showing a US plane blasting a Scud launcher to smithereens. Marshall himself suggested that the F-117 Stealth warplane was especially important in defeating Saddam Hussein. More important, however, was the fact that Saddam's army suffered the largest mass desertions in the twentieth century. Some 150,000 to 175,000 Iraqis, mostly from segregated Kurdish and Shiite units intended as cannon fodder, fled the front before ground combat began, leaving 25,000 troops to confront 400,000 US-led soldiers. The Allies could have retaken Kuwait with water pistols.

As for the performance of high-tech weapons, a little-noted report by the General Accounting Office, declassified in 1997 over the objections of the Air Force, concluded that there was no significant difference in the effectiveness of high-tech and low-tech weaponry. One section of the report directly compared postwar claims made by the Pentagon and arms makers with what actually occurred in combat. Whereas the Defense Department stated that 80 percent of the bombs dropped by F-117s had hit their target-an accuracy rate characterized by Lockheed, the plane's primary contractor, as "unprecedented"-the GAO found that the rate was somewhere between 40 and 60 percent. About the F-16-whose performance General Dynamics guarantees "no matter what the mission, air to air, air to ground. No matter what the weather, day or night"-the GAO tersely noted that its "delivery of precision air to ground munitions was impaired and sometimes made impossible by clouds, haze, humidity, smoke and dust. Only less accurate unguided munitions could be employed in adverse weather using radar."

Martin Marietta (later bought by Lockheed) bragged that its LANTIRN system could "locate and attack targets at night and under conditions of poor visibility." The GAO reported that LANTIRN was effectively "employed below clouds and weather," but its ability to operate under conditions of poor visibility "ranged from limited to no capability at all." Texas Instruments claimed that its Paveway laser-guidance system had a "one target, one bomb" capability, a phrase swiftly picked up by Pentagon officials. The GAO found that at least two laser-guided bombs were used to destroy each target and that 35 percent of the time, six or more were used.

The Pentagon exalted the performance of the F-117, noting that the Iraqis had not shot down a single one. True, said the GAO, but the F-117 flew fewer missions than any other plane and went into action exclusively at night and at medium altitudes. "The most probable number of losses for any aircraft, stealthy or conventional, flying the same number of missions as the F-117 would have been zero," the report stated.

With the Kosovo war, the claims of the high-tech zealots became even more sweeping. Retired Lieut. Gen. Robert Gard said Kosovo showed that there "isn't any question that we have a revolution in military affairs insofar as the accuracy of aerial-delivered weapons is concerned." Reports from the front were far less definitive. Yugoslav forces used a 1964 Russian missile to shoot down an F-117, a craft that is meant to be virtually invisible to enemy radar and that carries a price tag of $ 90 million. Unlike in the friendly terrain encountered in Kuwait in 1991, pilots in Yugoslavia had to fly over mountains and hills, sometimes under heavy cloud cover. During the war's early days, many flights were grounded because pilots couldn't spot targets in the rain. Even when the weather improved, NATO's high-tech surveillance systems were largely unable to pick out enemy troops and equipment.

Air power was most effective toward the end of the campaign, but only after the Kosovo Liberation Army had grown to 17,000 and was able to force the Serbs to mass and expose their armor. Nevertheless, Serb gunners were firing Russian surface-to-air missiles on the final day of fighting despite enormous efforts by NATO to destroy Yugoslavia's air defense system. After claiming on June 10 that US-led forces had destroyed 122 tanks, about 250 armored personnel carriers and some 450 artillery pieces, Pentagon officials have now quietly conceded that the true numbers are far lower. When Milosevic's forces pulled out of Kosovo, some 47,000 soldiers-more than NATO had estimated were there in the first place-staged an orderly withdrawal over a road and bridge network that supposedly had been shattered by the bombing campaign. Serb forces had sufficient stocks of fuel and appeared to take with them from Kosovo almost all of the tanks, armored personnel carriers and artillery pieces that they had taken in, as well as eleven MIG fighters that they'd successfully hidden from NATO's surveillance systems. NATO troops later reported finding only three damaged tanks in the entire province. Belgrade admits that ten more tanks were hit, but says they were salvageable.

Perhaps more embarrassing were press reports that Yugoslavia had repeatedly duped NATO's high-tech arsenal with simple decoys. Among the "targets" destroyed by NATO pilots were dummy tanks, bridges and roads, some of the latter being no more than plastic tarp stretched across fields. The pilots may have been fooled because, while flying at 15,000 feet guaranteed they were beyond the reach of Yugoslav antiaircraft artillery, it also made it hard to know what they were firing at.

Of course, computerized systems will continue to become more sophisticated. But nothing on the technological horizon is likely to provide the "God's-eye view" so fervently espoused by military planners. Remote surveillance systems, for instance, simply aren't able to identify targets that the military considers crucial-such as where the leader of a country is sleeping on a given night or where a command post is located (which these days might be as mobile as a cell phone). No sensor can tell the difference between a tank and a civilian truck. There's no technology that can find small arms in the back of a pickup. "All sensors have limitations, and to a large extent they are limitations imposed by the basic and immutable laws of physics," says Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution. "Visible-light and infrared detectors cannot see through heavy clouds. Radar tends to have mediocre resolution. None of these sensors can deeply penetrate metal, water, concrete or most soils."

Mahnken at the Naval War College says, with respect to sensors, "We're never going to see 100 percent [of the battlefield], but if we're seeing 70 percent and an adversary is seeing 50 percent, that's a major advantage. History shows that having better knowledge is crucial in war." Opponents, he says, can be expected to develop countermeasures to the Pentagon's high-tech weapons-"that's part of the game"-but most will have a hard time competing. And earlier military revolutions show the importance of getting a jump on one's adversaries. He points out that it was years before Hitler's enemies figured out how to counter the blitzkrieg, which combined tactical innovations with deployment of bigger and better armored vehicles, especially tanks. "We don't want to have [Nazi] Germany as our model, but we don't want to be France in 1940 either."

In July the Pentagon's acquisition chief, Jacques Gansler, said that Kosovo had demonstrated that the military's buying strategy was on the right track and that the United States should speed the transition to the "digital battlefield." In August writing in Defense News, Kent Kresa of Northrop Grumman, maker of the B-2 bomber, which debuted in Kosovo, lauded the "magnificent performance" of high-tech weapons and said there was a pressing need to invest in "technological solutions" that will "increase military effectiveness for the next conflict."

The Pentagon has sunk more than $ 60 billion into stealth technologies intended to eliminate the need for electronic jammers, devices long used to suppress enemy radar. Yet Stealth planes like the F-117 and the B-2 must still be escorted into battle by aircraft designed to blind enemy radar. The Pentagon has spent almost as much to acquire thirty-three different types of guided munitions and wants to spend another $ 16.6 billion during the next five years to double its inventory, to more than 300,000 weapons. Last December the GAO reported that existing stockpiles were "sufficient to meet current national defense objectives" and questioned the effectiveness and reliability of the Pentagon's hardware. "It is difficult to understand DoD's rationale for doubling its inventory of guided weapons in today's budgetary and security environment," the GAO concluded.

No one in the Pentagon is likely to challenge the strategy at the core of the RMA-one-sided warfighting, cost-free in terms of American life-but at least there are a few voices that don't believe the hype. In a speech last year, touching on the performance of the high-tech arsenal, Brig. Gen. Russell Honore told Army weapons procurement officers, "You are fielding pieces of crap. Is that clear enough for you?"

Ken Silverstein is a writer based in Washington, DC. Research support was provided by the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute.

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