He Wants to Go Back
Mark Helprin's "What We Did Wrong" assessment.


Mackubin Thomas Owens

Mark Helprin always makes me examine my assumptions, even when I am pretty sure I don’t completely agree with him. His article “Analyze This” in the May 5 National Review is a case in point. I agree with his criticism of the abandonment by the Pentagon of the “two major-theater war” (2MTW) metric for force planners and with his concern that certain parties will use bogus “lessons” of Iraq and Afghanistan to push their agendas. But much of the rest of the piece left me wondering. As I read him, I can only conclude that he doesn’t really believe that 1) wars should be subject to political judgments, a conclusion that would surprise Carl von Clausewitz; and 2) war has changed since 1945.

Let me address our areas of agreement first. As I argued in January on NRO, there was a case for abandoning the 2MTW standard because it “had evolved into a bureaucratic tool for maintaining service and combatant commanders’ claims to the defense budget and for protecting favored programs. It had therefore become, as a number of defense intellectuals claimed, a substitute for strategic thinking. . . . [But force planners still must answer] the question, ‘How much is enough?’”

I continued: “The problem that we face today is not the result of the emphasis on transformation, which is necessary if the United States is to be prepared for the likely emergence of a competitor in the future, but the attempt to achieve transformation ‘on the cheap.’ Two administrations essentially bet the farm based on the assumption, or hope, that the sort of situation we now face in Iraq and North Korea would not occur.”

The Clinton administration paid lip service to readiness and transformation while under-funding both. Unfortunately, the under-funding continued under the Bush administration. Until 9/11, OMB refused to provide money to fund both current readiness and transformation, forcing Pentagon planners to choose between them. Most of the increase in defense spending since 9/11 has gone to the war on terrorism and to pay for personnel costs. It has not for the most part gone to increase U.S. capabilities, especially the so-called high demand, low density (HD/LD) assets such as aerial refueling aircraft, strategic lift — both air- and sea-lift assets — surveillance aircraft (AWACS and Joint STARS), and unmanned aerial vehicles such as Predator and Global Hawk.

That being said, Helprin seems to want something akin to the Cold War idea of a “minimum risk” force. This force was determined by having every combatant commander list the forces for his theater that would assure victory — where one additional unit would not increase the likelihood of success. In this exercise, planners assumed that war would occur simultaneously in multiple theaters.

The resulting force structure was, of course, unaffordable. The assumptions were then relaxed by assuming a certain amount of risk — that an adversary would not attack simultaneously in every possible theater. That still resulted, at least for planning purposes, in a force presumably capable of fighting “two and a half wars.” The point is that even during the high-threat years of the Cold War, military force planners realized they couldn’t afford the force Helprin wants now.

Helprin and I also agree that future military-force structure should not be based on bogus “lessons” pushed on decision makers by those who have an agenda. Indeed, during the many years I have taught force planning and written about strategy as a guide to planning future military forces, I have taken aim at two groups who push perspectives I consider especially dangerous. The first perspective is advanced by “technophiles,” who argue that technology is a panacea for all defense problems and who would accept substantial force-structure cuts and dump what they call “legacy” weapons systems — tanks, personnel carriers, manned aircraft, and many surface ships — in order to invest in advanced information technology.

They would, it seems, replace the classical Clausewitzian “trinity” — “primordial violence, hatred, and enmity” (the realm of the people); “chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam” (the realm of the commander and his army); and the “element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes [war] subordinate to reason alone” (the realm of the government) — with a new technological trinity: intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) technologies; advanced command, control, communications, and computer (C4) systems; and precision-strike munitions.

The second group advances a perspective that might be called “strategic monism,” which is based on the idea that all of our security problems can be solved by a single approach to war or a single system. Advocates of “airpower can do it all” are a good example of strategic monism.

The problem with the technophiles’ perspective is that it can lead to a dangerous de-emphasis on other factors critical to success in war. One manifestation of this outcome is the belief that investment in emerging technologies can be achieved at the expense of force structure, readiness, and training. Another is the idea that information technologies will, in and of themselves, improve decision making on future battlefields.

The problem with the strategic monists is that the United States might invest in an approach that is not able to address the entire spectrum of conflict. Eisenhower’s “New Look” defense posture, which emphasized long-range nuclear-armed bombers, is a case in point. Adversaries were able to develop asymmetric strategies which the United States could not counter. With the election in 1960 of John Kennedy, the New Look was superseded by “Flexible Response,” which remained more or less the defense posture for the remainder of the Cold War.

But because Helprin seems to argue that war hasn’t changed since 1945, he makes an equal, though opposite, error from those of the technophiles and the strategic monists. While these groups essentially argue that war has changed so much that we no longer have to worry about the effects of “friction” and the “fog of uncertainty,” Helprin does not take into account changes that make the U.S. military a far more capable force now than it was only a decade ago when it first routed Iraq in the one-sided Gulf War of 1991.

Today’s forces are on the road to becoming highly mobile, stealthy, dispersed, and electronically networked. They are able to execute compressed operational cycles, to launch extended-range precision strikes, and to insert widely distributed forces rapidly into a theater. The networking of forces enables military units from all services to share a common operational picture. This means that missions can be planned and executed in a fraction of the time that it took during Desert Storm and even the more recent action in Kosovo. The accuracy of American weapons has improved by many orders of magnitude. Thus a smaller force can achieve a favorable outcome.

This brings me to his critique of the civilian leadership in the Bush administration. As I read him, Helprin contends first, that the president and his advisers waited too long after 9/11 to attack Iraq and second, that when they finally did decide to go after Saddam, they ended up deploying a force that was far too small. In Helprin’s view, the man Victor Davis Hanson calls a “radical for our time” (Donald Rumsfeld) didn’t really know what he was doing (nor did the president, or, apparently, anyone else in the administration).

According to Helprin, Rumsfeld is responsible for overruling the combatant commander concerning the size of the invasion force. Citing the numerous published leaks that flowed from the various agenda-pushers, Helprin claims that the uniformed military wanted a much larger force than the one that actually conducted the war.

Soldiers always want to hedge, and for obvious reason. They want to reduce risk and uncertainty. But they are not always right. (Take the case of George McClellan in 1862.) Leaks leading up to the war indicated that the military was only lukewarm about attacking Iraq. There are many recent cases in which the uniformed military has provided high estimates for what it would take to do a particular job in an effort to dissuade civilian authorities from undertaking it. Colin Powell did it in 1990-91. There is some indication that the uniformed military was doing the same thing this time.

On the other hand, some civilian technophiles wanted a much smaller force, some going so far as to tout the “Afghanistan model” of special forces and long-range air strikes. And, of course, air-power advocates argued that a “shock and awe” air campaign would make ground forces unnecessary.

The resulting plan was indeed a compromise, and that’s not a bad thing. It was a bold plan; it was also a flexible one. It is too bad that Helprin associates himself with the arguments of the second-guessing pundits and reporters who were quick to claim that the plan was flawed and that the force assembled for the war not large enough. This claim is essentially meaningless without considering “risk,” which is measured in terms of the possible costs (time and casualties) of a given course of action.

But, based on circumstances existing on March 19, 2003, President Bush and his military advisers decided that the combination of air, naval, land, and special-operations forces in theater were adequate to implement the campaign plan within an acceptable level of risk. That is the responsibility of civilian policy-makers.

Helprin contends further that “the [coalition's] timing was off because the resistance was underestimated.” Well, this is what Clausewitz called friction. War plans seek to take friction and the “fog of uncertainty” into account. I hope NRO readers will forgive me for citing one more time Helmuth von Moltke’s observation regarding a plan of war. “The commander,” wrote Moltke

must keep his objective in mind, undisturbed by the vicissitudes of events. But the path on which he hopes to reach it can never be firmly established in advance. Throughout the campaign he must make a series of decisions on the basis of situations that cannot be foreseen. The successive acts of war are thus not premeditated designs, but, on the contrary, are spontaneous acts guided by military measures. Everything depends on penetrating the uncertainty of veiled situations to evaluate the facts, to clarify the unknown, to make decisions rapidly, and then to carry them out with strength and constancy.

I conclude with a point that seems to escape Helprin. The same people he criticizes for getting the plan wrong — for insisting it could be done with a small force — are the very people who pushed for invading Iraq early on — Secretary Rumsfeld, Undersecretary Wolfowitz, and various others. The military, which insisted on a larger force, seems to have preferred deterrence to launching the war. So which is it? Did the civilians in the Pentagon know what they were doing or not? He can’t have it both ways.

I have written many analytical pieces for NRO on defense issues in general and the war in particular. I don’t know if Mark Helprin ever reads them (heck, I don’t know if anyone reads them!), but I believe I have said some useful things, most of which are opposed to Helprin’s observations in his recent piece. In my last article, “Transforming Transformation“, I suggest a moderate response to the lessons of the war. Here are the concluding paragraphs:

The U.S. military must be capable of operating jointly in all operational environments: land, sea, air, space, and across the electromagnetic spectrum, both now and in the future. Accordingly, while remaining of sufficient size and composition both to fight and win major theater wars and carry out constabulary operations in the present, this force structure must also be flexible enough to exploit new technologies, doctrine, organization, and operational concepts in order to maintain military preeminence in the future.

If the United States is to remain a global power, if it is to be able to deter or defeat enemies while reassuring friends and allies, it cannot afford to reduce force structure or gut land and naval forces. The use of ‘transformation’ as an excuse for failing to match military investment to the goals of U.S. foreign policy is a recipe for disaster.

I agree with Mark Helprin that we can’t cut our force structure, but I don’t believe that we need to return to a World War II military structure.

— Mackubin Thomas Owens, an NRO contributing editor, is on leave from the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., to write a history of U.S. civil-military relations.