Cover Story

Thinking outside the 5-sided box

Reformers are trying to transform a Defense Department that wastes billions and may not be prepared for future security threats. But management inertia, infighting, and arcane accounting and procurement procedures may torpedo their best efforts

Issue: "Mounting a defense," May 25, 2002

From the moment they landed in Afghanistan, American forces worked to blend into a dusty, windswept warscape from another time. Crack U.S. fighters trained to strike with stealth and lasers instead grew beards, donned scarves, and rode horses trained to charge into machine-gun fire. They used pack-mules to transport equipment at night past minefields, and along narrow trails that dropped away into harrowing mountain chasms. Preparing to attack Taliban stronghold Mazar-e Sharif, they helped anti-Taliban Afghan soldiers with food, taught them tactics.

At a briefing of junior and senior officers at the National Defense University in January, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told the rest of the story of the battle for Mazar: "On the appointed day, one of the [Special Forces] teams slipped in and hid well behind the lines, ready to call in airstrikes, and the bomb blasts would be the signal for others to charge.

"When the moment came, they signaled ... coalition aircraft and looked at their watches. Two minutes and 15 seconds, 10 seconds-and then, out of nowhere, precision-guided bombs began to land on Taliban and al-Qaeda positions. The explosions were deafening, and the timing so precise that, as the soldiers described it, hundreds of Afghan horsemen literally came riding out of the smoke, coming down on the enemy in clouds of dust and flying shrapnel.... And they rode boldly-Americans, Afghans, towards the Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters. It was the first cavalry attack of the 21st century."

We see you’ve been enjoying the content on our exclusive member website. Ready to get unlimited access to all of WORLD’s member content?
Get your risk-free, 30-Day FREE Trial Membership right now.
(Don’t worry. It only takes a sec—and you don’t have to give us payment information right now.)

Get your risk-free, 30-Day FREE Trial Membership right now.

Mr. Rumsfeld wasn't just entertaining senior troops with a gripping war story that day. He was addressing the need for the "transformation" of the American military. He held up the victory at Mazar-a strategic domino that ultimately toppled the Taliban from power-as an example of what American ingenuity could achieve. But he also pointed out the need for the whole Department of Defense, not just troops on the ground, to break free from Cold-War thinking-and from a bureaucratic quagmire that swallows fresh ideas the way a black hole swallows matter.

"The way the Department of Defense runs," said Mr. Rumsfeld, "... is broken. It is not serving the department or the country well. And yet it is inexorable. It just rolls along, like the freight train coming from San Francisco with the wrong things for New York."

George W. Bush's 2003 defense budget, passed quietly by the House last week with little of the usual interparty swordplay, may help. The $393 billion, two-bill package is the largest real increase in defense spending since 1966, and the largest defense budget, period, in more than a decade. The core "non-war" budget raises military pay, funds ballistic missile defense ($7.8 billion), increases key readiness accounts ($4.6 billion), bankrolls procurement ($73 billion), and allots more than $56 billion for military systems research and development.

That's a promising start. But DOD critics-and some government reports-say money alone won't jumpstart the management inertia that plagues the department. Instead, they say infighting, parochialism, and arcane accounting and procurement practices may torpedo the Bush-Rumsfeld vision of a "transformed" U.S. military.

"American forces are, on the whole, extremely flexible at tactics but more rigid institutionally," writes Johns Hopkins University Professor of Strategic Studies Eliot A. Cohen in the current issue of Foreign Affairs. "Although some stirrings are visible, the services have generally been unwilling to explore moving beyond old forms of organization."

Why do the armed services need transforming when the point of the American military spear is proving so sharp in Afghanistan? Because defense analysts worry that the new century will usher in threats from far more able adversaries.

Among them: China. Though it lags seriously behind the U.S. in firepower, China's military expenditures may have increased by roughly 40 percent between 1990 and 1995, according to an Army Strategic Studies Institute report issued in March. China also "appears to be developing a war-fighting, as opposed to a deterrence-oriented, nuclear weapons doctrine."

Another threat: North Korea. Now capable of firing ballistic missiles at U.S. interests, the communist nation worries national security analysts. They also are concerned with Russia's ability to maintain a coherent state-and thus maintain control over its significant supply of tactical and strategic weapons. Add to those worries a vast number and variety of "asymmetric threats," such as the 9/11 attacks.

"It is entirely possible that within a generation, more than one aspiring regional power will have both the motivation and the means to pose a sizeable military threat to U.S. interests," wrote then-Defense Secretary William Cohen in his 2001 Annual Defense Report. That report, issued prior to the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, also warned of state-sponsored "terrorists capable of increased levels of violence [that] directly threaten American lives."


You must be a WORLD member to post comments.

    Keep Reading


    Power campaigns

    The GOP is fighting to maintain control of Congress…


    Troubling ties

    Under the Clinton State Department, influence from big money…