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U.S. military transforming itself for distant battles

WASHINGTON—When he was a presidential candidate in 1999, President Bush vowed during a speech at South Carolina's Citadel military academy that he would "skip a generation of technology" to create armed forces that would leave the United States without rival in the 21st century.

"The best way to keep the peace," Bush said, "is to define war on our terms."

That was before al-Qaida terrorists shattered the peace on Sept. 11, 2001, and redefined war on their terms. The Bush administration counterattacked in Afghanistan and found itself battling insurgents in Iraq, but the administration and the Congress have continued to transform the military not to fight such unconventional wars, but for an old-fashioned showdown with a major power such as China or Russia.

In other words, the military is still transforming itself to fight the war it wants, not the wars it's got. It's continuing to invest in multimillion-dollar stealth aircraft and new nuclear weapons research. The ballistic missile defense program receives more funding than any other weapons system: The Bush administration plans to request about $9 billion for it in the next budget.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the shadowy "Global War on Terrorism," however, suggest that what the military needs most are more and better trained troops, better armor and much better intelligence.

"The methods of war have fundamentally changed. The problem is that the Pentagon hasn't been paying attention," said Col. Thomas X. Hammes, a Marine Corps officer and 29-year veteran and author of "The Sling and The Stone: On War in the 21st Century."

The Bush administration has begun to acknowledge that serious changes are needed in the military to fight and defeat terrorists, and the debate over how to reshape America's forces will be spotlighted this week, when Pentagon officials go to Congress to discuss proposed weapons cuts and new spending priorities.

Bush has often said that the global war on terrorism will be long and involve many fights. That outlook suggests that the current strains on the military aren't simply the result of the war in Iraq.

The vision that Bush outlined in his Citadel speech has been around since the 1980s and was embraced by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and the top Pentagon brass under their rubric of "transformation." Their central premise is that technology is the decisive factor on the modern battlefield.

But even as some of the changes that Bush promised—new remote sensors, communication links and precision weapons—have become integral parts of the U.S. arsenal, the radical overhaul he promised hasn't come to pass. And the central premise that technology will deliver victory hasn't been proved true in Afghanistan or Iraq.

While a handful of Special Forces soldiers in Afghanistan and precision air strikes were enough to topple the Taliban regime in a matter of weeks, the strategy failed to kill or capture Osama bin Laden or cripple his al-Qaida organization.

In Iraq, air strikes and a rapid advance of U.S. and British troops deposed Saddam Hussein in 21 days. But after that, four divisions of U.S. and British soldiers and Marines weren't enough to prevent Iraq from collapsing into anarchy.

Some analysts say the U.S. military's failure to achieve its objectives so far in Afghanistan and Iraq demands a re-examination of how the military should be reshaped.

"America's military has been transformed on Rumsfeld's watch, but not the way he expected," said Loren Thompson, chief of the Lexington Institute, a policy analysis group with close ties to the Pentagon. "Rather than being reoriented to information-age warfare with countries like China, the military is chasing religious zealots through some of the world's most backward neighborhoods."

This doesn't mean information technology is useless, Thompson said. "Some sensors and networks have proved very useful in tracking terrorists and insurgents. But it's harder to make a case for big-ticket weapons systems when America's military might appear unable to defeat a poorly equipped irregular force in (Iraq's) Sunni Triangle."

The first assessment of U.S. military resources and capabilities after the Sept. 11 attacks came in the 2002 Quadrennial Defense Review, an overall look at the military undertaken at the start of every presidential term. The 2002 QDR emphasized speed, "information dominance" and precision as the keys to victory.

The National Security Strategy published in the months before the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 repeated those tenets, but further asserted that "we are menaced less by fleets and armies than by catastrophic technologies in the hands of the embittered few." It identified regime change—the administration's initial goal in Afghanistan and Iraq—as a fundamental objective in the war on terrorism.

Rumsfeld and other top officials have said they're not interested only in improving weapons, but also in changing the way the Army is structured, in new approaches to gathering intelligence and in how to stop such threats as chemical attacks or cyberwarfare.

Even so, most of the Pentagon's weapons spending is still being funneled into high-tech systems made by big defense contractors with big payrolls in many congressional districts.

In Iraq, however, insurgents are armed not with precision-guided munitions or stealth aircraft, but with automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and homemade bombs that they detonate using garage door openers, cell phones and radio controls from toys.

"The war in Iraq has revealed that the U.S. military's senior leadership was only prepared to fight attrition-style battles, or `symmetric combat,' against an enemy who fights using similar doctrines," said Kalev Sepp, a retired Army Special Forces colonel and a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. "The senior leadership has struggled for almost two years to understand violent insurgency and `asymmetric warfare' against opponents from a different culture who are adaptive, intelligent and merciless."

Rumsfeld and other top officials contend that the military—especially the Army—must continue to improve its weapons and technology to prepare for a potential conflict with a rival world power.

But a recent intelligence assessment looking ahead to 2020 said that the threat of conflict between major powers in that period is at its lowest point than at any time in the past century.

"Instead of more high-tech machines, the military needs more soldiers and Marines," Sepp said. "Those troops also need to speak foreign languages, understand other cultures and be able to engage populations to win the war of ideas critical to suppressing terrorists and insurgents."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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