Thursday, January 10, 2008

Defense technology never really goes out of style

Posted by John Keller

I've often thought that defense technology, like my wingtip shoes, never really goes out of style. As silly as that statement sounds to many of us, however, there evidently are plenty of people who would argue the point.

Who hasn't had the watercooler conversation about the supposedly dwindling need for major military platforms like the F-22 Raptor advanced tactical fighter, the Seawolf-class fast attack submarine, and the upgraded M-1 Abrams main battle tank? Here's the argument: we're arrayed against unconventional, non-state forces of terrorism. Who needs these powerful systems anymore?

The argument goes on: The forces of terrorism are decidedly low-tech -- human couriers, cell phones, garage-door-opener triggers for roadside bombs. The best way to fight low-tech is with low-tech, and facing these guys we could save a bundle on defense.

This has always made me nervous. We've seen this type of reasoning before. Remember military initiatives a generation ago to win the hearts and minds of the Viet Cong? Look where that got us. You don't win shooting wars by building recreation centers. I've been called a warmonger for saying less than that, but so it goes.

The low-tech approach for the military has been discussed since even before 9/11 -- all the way back to the crumbling of the Berlin Wall. When the military talks low-tech, they often cloak it in rhetoric concerning a switch from heavy to light forces -- frigates instead of cruisers, wheeled vehicles instead of tracked armor.

Whenever I hear this I can't help thinking that the U.S. military won't be fighting terrorists forever. What about China and a resurgent Russia? No one wants to think about it, but what about the potential for armed conflict in Europe or Asia? Are we really serious about going toe-to-toe with the new Russian T-95 main battle tanks with Humvees and Light Armored Vehicles?

Yesterday I read a piece in The New York Times by U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles J. Dunlap Jr. that made me feel a lot better. Not only does Dunlap point out the continuing need for an advanced-technology military to cover emerging conventional threats, but he also makes a convincing case for the value of military technology in the unconventional war on terror. "The lesson of Iraq is that old-fashioned force works," Dunlap writes. In an article entitled We Still Need the Big Guns, Dunlap says:

And while the new counterinsurgency doctrine has an anti-technology flavor that seems to discourage the use of air power especially, savvy ground-force commanders in Iraq got the right results last year by discounting those admonitions ... Nonetheless, fans of the counterinsurgency manual are using it as a bludgeon against anyone who wants to plan to fight the next war rather than the last one. Their line of thinking holds that our next war will be a replay of Iraq, and thus most of our armed forces should be structured for counterinsurgency. But this ignores other potential threats. Should we simply wish away China’s increasing muscle, or a resurgent Russia’s plans for a fifth-generation fighter that would surpass our top of the line jet, the F-22 stealth fighter? Moreover, does anyone really believe that creating corps of civil affairs officers will deter North Korea or Iran?

Dunlap rightly points out that gearing military forces to fight the forces we face now essentially is looking backwards, not forwards. The world changes fast, and we will continue to need a high-technology military to meet what comes. Writes Dunlap:

Looking ahead, America needs a military centered not on occupying another country but on denying potential adversaries the ability to attack our interests. This is not a task for counterinsurgents, but rather for an unapologetically high-tech military that substitutes machines for the bodies of young Americans.

A senior military leader who doesn't go in for fleeting fashion trends. I'm glad we still have those around.

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