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Force of Habit

In defense of a bloated military.

Ever since the Berlin Wall fell, editorialists, politicians, and policy analysts have been pronouncing the United States military bloated, overpriced, mired in antiquated cold war assumptions, and unready for a "small wars" world. The exact critique varies according to its source--reformers on the left tend to focus on getting rid of large, expensive weapons systems as a way to reduce costs; those on the right see cutting overall troop numbers and deployments as part of a "transformational" commitment to high-tech weapons. But commentators across the spectrum agree that the military must abandon its fixation with heavy armor, big tactical aircraft, and other cold war relics in an effort to get lighter, faster, smaller, and more flexible. During the 1990s no fewer than six blue-ribbon commissions recommended sweeping changes in armed forces structure, operational concepts, and weapons types. By the time George W. Bush took office, support for a capital-letters "Revolution in Military Affairs" (RMA) was so widespread--with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld an especially strong advocate--that it looked like a military "transformation" might actually happen. 

Thank goodness it didn't. Because a funny thing has happened since September 11: The bloated, top-heavy, overpriced, cold war military has done fantastically well in Afghanistan--a mission no military planner could have plausibly envisioned just three months ago. Nor was this an isolated success. The expensive, heavy, hardware-oriented U.S. military has proven unstoppable in the Gulf, in Bosnia, in Kosovo, and now in Afghanistan. Indeed, since the end of the cold war, the military has failed only in Somalia--the one place it followed the smaller-faster-lighter dictum. In Somalia, small, flexible groups of soldiers went in with only light weapons and no air cover or armor; the results were American deaths and a policy fiasco.

The lesson is not, of course, that the military should not be reformed. Interservice rivalry and overlap are ongoing problems; the dynamics of the military-industrial complex often make weapons-procurement too expensive; many domestic bases remain open because of political influence rather than need; there are problems aplenty. The lesson, rather, is that since it is impossible to predict the military challenges the nation will face in the future, we need a lot of powerful military hardware and a lot of personnel. One reason the United States military consistently excels is that its expensive, outsized character means it has plenty of whatever turns out to be required. And so when the unexpected happens, as it has over the past three months, the Pentagon is ready.

Consider one of the most criticized features of the post-cold-war military: its "tooth-to-tail" ratio. The Pentagon famously has eleven support personnel for every one person who goes into combat; fully two-thirds of the defense budget is for staff, operations, and maintenance, not weapons. Pretty bloated, huh? Except that the military's long, expensive tail is what enables it to position large contingents of people and equipment anywhere on short notice--an essential component of victory at a time when we may need to deploy force quickly to unanticipated (and often unanticipatable) parts of the globe.

As retired admiral Bill Owens pointed out in his book Lifting the Fog of War, during the six-month buildup to the Gulf war, the United States moved more tonnage of supplies--including 1.8 million tons of cargo, 126,000 vehicles, and 350,000 tons of ordnance--over a greater distance than during the two-year buildup to the Normandy invasion. One reason Iraq's large army was routed in just 100 hours, with few U.S. casualties, was that American forces had all the supplies they needed, where they needed them. The history of warfare is replete with armies done in by the logistics of maintaining supply lines far shorter than those the United States military runs on a routine basis--it was supply problems, for example, that ultimately undid Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union. Since World War II, only once has any nation other than the United States even attempted combat in a place not contiguous to its borders--Britain, in the Falklands. The United States, in the same period, has fought more than three dozen "actions" all across the globe, while maintaining the defense of North America, Western Europe, South Korea, and Japan. Big, cumbersome, expensive logistics are what have made this possible.

In Afghanistan, the American military has performed nothing short of a logistical marvel: taking one month to launch an air war and less than three months to insert ground forces, on the opposite side of the world, in a place where no previous preparations had been made, and where the United States lacked bases in nations adjacent to the foe. Naval aircraft have been in the air substantially longer, and generated many more "sorties" than the Navy trained for, yet neither planes nor pilots have broken down. Since the early hours of the air war, the United States has even operated a fleet of tanker aircraft circling in Afghanistan's airspace, enabling Navy fighters to refuel on their way in toward targets, then again before heading back to their carriers in the Gulf or the Indian Ocean. This is just one example of how the lumbering military has adjusted to the unexpected Afghan campaign with almost blinding speed.

Speaking of those carriers, a standard complaint of the smaller-lighter military crowd is that America's fleet--of twelve supercarrier groups, a force originally intended to attack the Soviet Union from the northern seas--has become a white elephant in a world where America is the only superpower. Really? The availability of three carrier groups has been essential to the current air war in Afghanistan. Usually there is also a carrier battle group in the Pacific near Japan, and another "on station" near the Persian Gulf, in case something bad happens there. Given that, at any moment, most battle groups are not at sea (they rotate for repairs and crew leave), apparent excess is required for on-call strength. There are legitimate arguments about whether future naval battle groups should be based around smaller ships less vulnerable than carriers to counterattack. But the supercarriers are what enable the military simultaneously to project overwhelming force in one part of the world, while controlling the seas everywhere else.

A related complaint holds that America's standing army, at ten active divisions and almost 500,000 total soldiers, is needlessly large. But having such a large standing force is what allows the United States to respond rapidly to regional problems without shirking other commitments, such as maintaining 100,000 military personnel in Europe and another 100,000 in East Asia. Huge as the military is, reservists have had to be called up to support the Afghan campaign. Maybe the United States should leave Western Europe on its own, or should not intervene in places such as Kosovo, in which case standing forces could be reduced. But these are arguments about foreign rather than military policy. If we are to remain the bulwark of NATO and active against evil governments worldwide, then the end of the cold war does not obviate the need for a large United States military.

In addition to complaining about the military's overall size, critics argue that the costly, heavy weapons designed during the cold war--60-ton Abrams tanks, Mach 2 fighters, city-sized ships--are not appropriate to the post-cold-war era. But as we've seen in the Gulf war, Kosovo, and now Afghanistan, the American hardware that was designed to counter a superpower turns out to be the cat's meow against secondary foes. Heavy weapons won't work everywhere; most bridges leading into Kosovo could not support the weight of an Abrams tank, for example. But the fact that all technology has limitations hardly means we should abandon our best stuff in favor of less formidable weapons.

Nor does it necessarily mean the United States should halt expensive arms projects originally designed with the cold war in mind. Currently, for example, the Army wants a new self-propelled field gun--with the untimely name "Crusader"--to replace its 1960s-vintage tracked howitzer. Crusader is a heavy, ponderous hunk of machinery originally designed for use against the Warsaw Pact, and at $11 billion, it's costly. Pundits sneer that the Crusader is overkill and represents warfare's past, not its light, flexible future. But big can be good. The Crusader (please, a new name) is significantly more accurate and fires much faster than any field piece the Army or Marines now possess. A single Crusader might have done in minutes as much damage to any Taliban front line as multiple strike-fighter sorties. If there had been one in the vicinity of the Taliban prison uprising last month, the fighting there would have been brief, as this new gun is so accurate it could have shelled Taliban areas of the complex without striking Alliance areas. The Crusader, in other words, is another weapon that will confer a huge advantage on U.S. forces. Why, for any reason other than affordability, shouldn't the United States take it?

Of course, affordability matters, and may count out some acquisitions. Right now, for example, the Air Force wants to buy the F-22, an advanced fighter originally designed to shoot down the best Soviet interceptors. By all accounts F-22 performance is superb, but the plane is so expensive--each single-seat F-22 costs more than an entire Boeing 747--that it has priced itself out of the market. This is especially true since another new tactical fighter, the F-35, costs one-third as much and would be almost as effective against enemy planes. In this case, giving up on a cold war vintage concept makes sense for economic reasons.

Similarly, the Pentagon is down to fewer than 200 bombers (versus about 35,000 at the peak of World War II), with much of the force consisting of 40-year-old B-52s currently projected to remain in service until the year 2037. To expand the conventional bombing fleet--which seems wise, given the number of times the U.S. military was called on to bomb in the last decade alone--some want to invest many billions for a few more max-tech B-2 stealth bombers. But what the United States really needs is a new B-52, a fairly conventional plane that carries heavy payloads. Something like a bomber version of the Boeing 767 or 777 might be relatively low-cost, available quickly, and just the ticket for dispensing smart bombs and missiles against enemies with limited air defenses.

Yet for every cold war idea like the F-22 or B-2 that is now hard to justify financially, there are others that still make sense if the United States is to maintain its huge battlefield advantage. In addition to the Crusader, there is the proposed Zumwalt-class warship, a strange-looking vessel whose low, pillbox profile suggests the Civil War's ironclad Monitor after genetic engineering. Expensive, complicated Zumwalt destroyers, originally designed to sink an enemy navy, would be the first stealth ships--hard to locate with conventional detection systems, and thus able to sail right up to an opponent and launch missiles and shell targets at close range. (Currently the U.S. Navy prefers to stay in "the blue water," far from counterattack.) Though chances are no Zumwalt-class ship will ever engage a superpower vessel, once these advanced boats are in the fleet they are sure to have innovative uses in unpredictable future conflicts.

And that's where many current military critiques make a key mistake: They assume that expensive weapons intended for one mission will not prove adaptable to another. For example, all current U.S. tactical fighters--the F-14, F-15, F-16, and F-18--were designed primarily for shooting down other aircraft. That mission has become less pressing since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and with it, the main challenge to U.S. air supremacy. So the four planes have taken on the role of tactical bombers. During the Kosovo campaign, they bombed from above 15,000 feet to avoid ground fire; bombs from that altitude sometimes missed, causing civilian deaths and military inefficiency. Some said this showed that cold war relic planes were unsuited to modern semi-wars. But in the two years since Kosovo, engineers have perfected the JDAM, a smart bomb guided by signals from a global positioning satellite network. The JDAM is accurate when falling from high altitude and is relatively cheap, owing to declining prices for chip-based electronics. During Kosovo, JDAMS were exotic items dropped only in small numbers from B-2 bombers. Now almost every U.S. warplane--including most of the aforementioned fighters--has been adapted to carry the JDAM, and this munition has become the bomb of choice for the Afghan campaign. More than 4,000 JDAMS have been dropped so far, with only a few striking the wrong targets. Sadly, one was a miss that killed three Americans. Afghanistan marks the first time any air force has achieved high-altitude tactical bombing accuracy. Suddenly, America's costly, cold war focused, tactical air arm looks custom-made for just the conflict we're now engaged in.

Now consider what an Afghan operation would be like if the "Revolution in Military Affairs" viewpoint had prevailed. Basically, RMA proponents want big reductions in the standing army, aircraft carrier groups, and conventional air wings, with the savings used to purchase more long-range smart bombs and missiles. If the United States possessed an RMA-style military, what it would presumably do in Afghanistan is lob advanced smart bombs and cruise missiles, then wait for the other side to say uncle. But existing smart weapons have already struck at will in Afghanistan, and that has not been sufficient to destroy Al Qaeda and rid the entire country of the Taliban. Ground forces, now being introduced in greater numbers, must likely finish the job. And this is a case in which the opposition is lightly armed. In the Gulf war, the air campaign operated effectively for over a month; but it was not until the introduction of ground forces with heavy armor that Saddam Hussein's forces were driven back toward Baghdad. Perhaps an RMA military, doing nothing more than destroying targets from great distances, could have prevailed in Kosovo, but this was likely the exception. (And even there, Milosevic's capitulation may have been influenced by the threat of ground troops.) Regardless, it's hard to believe that physically occupying territory will ever become irrelevant. And unless it does, putting people and armor on the far side of the world will require an expensive military with lots of big, complicated stuff. There's just no escaping it.

None of which means the Pentagon wouldn't benefit from new thinking--it just needn't be "revolutionary." The Army, for example, is taking its time converting one division to light operation. The goal is a division (with the Orwellian name "Objective Force") that can deploy anywhere in the world in five days, with heavy armor to come later. The Pentagon has also dithered for more than a decade about fielding a medium tank easier to transport than the Abrams. As a result, U.S. units in Afghanistan may end up advancing without much in the way of armor to back them up.

Clear thinking about ways to keep the U.S. military big without runaway cost will be essential if there is to be enough money to take on new anti-terrorism responsibilities while maintaining current global commitments and perhaps building missile defense. The week before September 11 Rumsfeld was drawing up paperwork for a fiscal 2003 budget request of perhaps $348 billion--up about 15 percent in adjusted terms from the final Clinton defense budget--rising to perhaps $400 billion by fiscal 2007. Such numbers will rival, in inflation-adjusted terms, the spending levels during the Reagan buildup--a period during which much useful equipment was acquired but billions were wasted on dubious projects. Keen management will be required if the Pentagon is to experience another big appropriations increase, yet avoid $6,000 coffee-pot purchases. After all, that money can be much better spent keeping the armed forces large, complicated, overstaffed, heavy, and lumbering.

This article originally ran in the December 17, 2001, issue of the magazine.