Frederick W. Kagan is director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute.
President Obama’s new defense strategy champions the same arguments military downsizers have invoked since 1991: The United States must invest in technology and disinvest in active-duty military personnel. The plan unveiled Thursday by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is based on two such tenets: It must “protect key investments in the technologically advanced capabilities most needed for the future . . . [and] no longer size active forces to conduct large and protracted stability operations while retaining the expertise of a decade of war.” The budget thus eliminates 92,000 soldiers and Marines on the premise that future wars will require new weapons systems but not large numbers of troops. Should America need more troops, this thinking holds, it will be easy enough to find them. Technology takes longer to develop and field.
These well-worn syllogisms are the reverse of reality. Technology development can be accelerated in wartime. The development of capable military leaders cannot.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on potential cuts to defense spending.
Military technology rests on the technological status of society at large, especially today, when our military increasingly prefers modifying off-the-shelf solutions to building its own. A failure to invest in military technology does not stop the development of technology useful to the military, though it is an unwise and dangerous strategy.
Indeed, every major war of the past hundred years has prompted, in months, technological innovations that in peacetime would have required years. Even the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — which were not supported by any significant technological or industrial mobilization — spurred the rapid fielding of systems and vehicles to counter improvised explosive devices, the primary technological challenge to our soldiers. It is easier, of course, to build mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles than an F-35 fighter jet. But it need not take two decades to build a stealth fighter or even to refurbish an aircraft carrier, if the equipment is urgently needed.
There is, on the other hand, no way to accelerate the fielding of good military leaders. Certainly soldiers can be recruited rapidly and their training courses shortened. Junior officers can be swiftly promoted, skipping the career steps and educational requirements of peacetime. More senior officers can be drawn from reserves and staff positions. During World War II, entire divisions were recruited, trained and deployed within a year. But the brigade and battalion commanders in those divisions did not know how to command brigades and battalions. The company commanders might not have seen combat. They learned awfully fast in North Africa, Europe and the Pacific — at a very high price in lives.
The development of military leaders cannot be accelerated beyond a certain point without seriously degrading quality. People can learn, adapt and assimilate experiences only so rapidly. Good software or other distributed learning tools help individuals master enormous amounts of information, but there are innate limits.