Transatlantic Briefing No. 1-04

By Mark Joyce


As expected, coverage of NATO’s Istanbul Summit overwhelmingly focussed on operational issues, with Iraq dominant on the first day and Afghanistan getting some airtime and column inches on the second. Away from the spotlight, the more mundane business of dragging NATO’s military capabilities kicking and screaming into the 21st century continued. The Secretary General initiated a potentially radical new round of discussions on force generation and operational funding.  The communiqués contained scant evidence, however, of any significant progress towards meeting the 2002 Prague Capabilities Commitments. Excepting some modest but welcome progress reports on the NATO Response Force and CBRN Battalion, most of the language was depressingly familiar: NATO forces must become ‘slimmer, tougher and faster’; the Alliance must strengthen its operational capabilities and procedures so that its forces are more ‘deployable and usable’; NATO’s ‘military means must match its political commitments’.


At one level, then, Istanbul reinforced the caricature of feckless European governments, unwilling to put their money where their mouths are and consequently falling ever further behind the American transformational juggernaut. Like most caricatures, this one is accurate up to a point. Before Europeans indulge in too much post-summit self-flagellation, however, they should pause to view Istanbul against the background of important discussions currently taking place on the other side of the Atlantic.


Contrary to the myth often perpetuated in European defence forums, the US military is not a perfectly formed transformational archetype, with shiny new command structures, training methods and technologies to be aped by any sensible Western defence ministry. US force transformation, although far in advance of any comparable programme of military reform, is still in its formative stages. Furthermore, there remain deep disagreements within the Pentagon and US armed forces as to the fundamental objectives and directions of transformation. Campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq have created something of a transformational hiatus, during which diverging schools are digesting the operational ‘lessons’ and preparing for the next round of introspection and infighting. The outcome of these discussions will have profound implications not only for the future of US force transformation, but also for the ways in which ‘transformed’ American forces relate to and interoperate with foreign allies. European governments are shrewd to await the outcome of these discussions before attaching themselves too strongly to a potentially redundant transformational paradigm.


Tread-Heads Vs Technophiles


President Bush and Secretary Rumsfeld’s plans to transform the US military from a Cold War-oriented, heavily armoured colossus into a lighter and more rapidly deployable expeditionary force were embodied in the much maligned ‘Future Force’ manifesto. Future Force was a radical attempt to establish a fully networked and drastically streamlined US Army. The manifesto set the administration on a collision course not only with sceptical commanders but also with powerful vested interests in Congress, whose constituents and patrons were being facing the termination of a swathe of lucrative ‘legacy’ platforms. It was partly in deference to these opponents that the manifesto’s original, faintly Stalin-esque aim of ‘leapfrogging a generation of technology’ was quickly watered down into a less revolutionary three-track approach: first, modernisation of selected units in the ‘Current Force’ to provide a heavy capability (and, by implication, a steady stream of heavy armour contracts) for the foreseeable future; second, development of the Stryker combat vehicle with a view to fielding a short-term lightweight capability; third, longer-term development of the Future Force, oriented around the ‘Future Combat System’ (FCS) family of networked weapons and vehicles.


For the first nine months of 2001 it seemed that the Bush administration lacked the stomach for a fight and that the Future Force manifesto would be diluted beyond all recognition. Then came 09/11, and the administration committed itself with renewed vigour to developing a military equipped ‘to win the wars of the future’. Since then, Future Force has received a vast influx of Pentagon cash, whilst many Current Force platforms have been left to wither on the vine. Leading ‘tread-heads’ such as former Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki have fallen by the wayside, whilst card-carrying technophiles such as Joint Forces Commander Admiral Edmund Giambastiani have entered the ascendancy. Recent surveys indicate that this power-shift is reflected further down the chain of command. By 2002, for example, 92 per cent of Army officers claimed to be convinced that information-age technologies would make it easier to achieve decisive battlefield victories in the future, a dramatic increase on the 56 per cent who held this view in 2000.[i]


Beyond ‘Killing and Breaking’


Whilst this pro-transformation shift among military (and especially Army) officers is important, it is perhaps less so than another, parallel development. Whereas the tread-heads Vs technophiles debate revolved around differing views on, for example, whether the Stryker or the M113 tank would be the preferable mode of transport in a Baghdad firefight, it was nonetheless based on a shared premise – that the job of the armed forces is warfighting, and that transformation should be judged primarily in terms of its ability to empower the warfighter. This fundamental premise is now being questioned by a new brand of transformational critic, one whose views are rapidly gaining traction in the wake of Afghanistan and Iraq.


One of the highest-profile proponents of this new critique is former Commander of US Central Command General Anthony Zinni. Zinni has attacked the Pentagon’s preoccupation with developing increasingly sophisticated and devastating engines and methods of war. He has urged the architects of transformation to focus instead on improving the military’s ability to engage in the sort of stabilization, reconstruction and peace support tasks it is increasingly being required to perform in environments like Afghanistan and Iraq. The Bush administration, argues Zinni


“…came in with an idea of transforming the military into something, God knows what, lighter, smaller, quicker, whatever. The military no longer just does the killing and the breaking. It has to be engaged day in and day out, building alliances and coalitions, training others, supporting stability”.[ii]


Unkind sceptics will no doubt dismiss General Zinni as one of the irritating but ultimately irrelevant ‘awkward squad’ of retired commanders. It is less easy to dismiss Admiral Arthur K. Cebrowski who, although no longer in uniform, remains very much a Pentagon insider as Head of the influential Office of Force Transformation. In a recent paper entitled ‘Transformation and the Changing Nature of War’ Cebrowski echoed Zinni’s concerns, arguing that the US armed forces must provide greater ‘political utility’ across a much more diverse and difficult range of scenarios and circumstances:


“This force must act as a flexible instrument of policy engagement, not simply provide a larger sheaf of thunderbolts”.[iii]


Cebrowski’s proposals went considerably further than Zinni’s. Not only must the US military prepare to work across a much broader operational spectrum, he argued, it must also come to terms with a radically new conceptualisation of what constitutes ‘operational space’. Whilst American forces are becoming increasingly dominant in the physical domains of land, sea, air and outer space, they are dangerously deficient in the ‘new strategic common’ of ‘cyberspace’. Cyberspace, by Cebrowski’s definition, goes well beyond the internet, and includes the entire domain of global communications, trade, information and cognition. It is a domain for which the ‘entry fee’ for access and participation is relatively low, and in which the participants are principally individuals, organisations and institutions as opposed to nation states. Failure to adapt to the demands of this new operational space could have dire consequences:


“It is unlikely that our forces will be denied military victory, but we may be denied political victory because we understand and act less in this complex battle space where political victory will be determined in the 21st century”.[iv]


Cebrowski’s role at the Office of Force Transformation is essentially that of ‘blue sky thinker-in-chief’, and his reports are by definition rather thin on practical detail. Nonetheless, the broad outlines of a new transformational paradigm are slowly becoming clear. If Cebrowski, Zinni et al get their way, then the focus of the US military’s intellectual effort and investment strategy will gradually shift from traditional battlefield challenges towards the irregular and multidimensional challenges that in their view will characterise future wars. Traditional delineations between combat ‘phases’ will become increasingly problematic, military actors will have to play a more prominent role in conflict prevention and post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction, and the new ‘strategic common’ of cyberspace will become central to operational planning. The architects of transformation will therefore have to shift their focus from empowering the warfighter to enabling ‘effects based operations’ in a very much broader sense of that term. 


Transatlantic Implications


Although it is still too early to characterise these trends as a paradigm shift, it seems that a new version of transformation is slowly emerging in the US, one that European governments may find it much easier to work with. The networked warfighting platforms that have characterised the last four years of US force transformation are not only prohibitively expensive for most European governments, but are underpinned by a ‘shock and awe’ philosophy that remains anathema to many on this side of the Atlantic. The emergence of a more ‘politically responsive’ US force in the Cebrowski mould could go a long way towards improving Europeans’ disposition towards transformation.


This is by no means an excuse for European hubris or self-congratulation. The Prague Commitments that most European governments have so far shown few signs of meeting are by and large concerned with precisely those capabilities that would be needed by a more responsive, politically useful force. Without drastically improved airlift, C4ISR, and in-theatre mobility, for example, European forces will remain about as responsive as a heavily sedated snail. Ambivalence about the underlying philosophy of transformation is therefore no excuse for Europeans’ consistent failure to develop usable military capabilities. However, a shift in the focus of American force transformation towards a vision with which Europeans are more comfortable can only be beneficial for the health of the transatlantic relationship, and will go a long way towards easing lingering concerns that transformation is essentially about exporting an American vision of future warfare to a reluctant Europe. If these trends continue, it is possible that the next NATO summit could at last see the transatlantic allies reading from the same transformational song-sheet.  


Mark Joyce

Head of the Transatlantic Programme, RUSI







[i] ‘Tread-Heads or Technophiles? Army Officer Attitudes Towards Transformation’, Parameters, Summer 2004

[ii] Gen Anthony Zinni, quoted in National Defense Magazine, November 2003

[iii] Arthur K. Cebrowski, ‘Transformation and the Changing Character of War’, OFT, June 2004

[iv] Ibid

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