Three years into the Bush administration's effort to transform the U.S. military -- a critical part of its defense platform in the last presidential campaign -- there is little consensus on whether progress has been made in creating the sort of radical change envisioned.
President Bush and his civilian Pentagon leaders were determined to move the military from a heavy, slow-moving industrial era-type force designed to fight the Red Army to a faster, more adaptive organization built around information age technologies. It would become more agile and easier to deploy, making it better equipped to deal with failed states, terrorism and other 21st-century missions. One of the first steps the administration took toward that goal was creating the Pentagon's Office of Force Transformation, led by retired Vice Adm. Arthur K. Cebrowski.
But many experts say that few tangible steps have been taken.
"It is hard to pin down anything concrete that has come out of the office," said retired Army Lt. Col. James Jay Carafano, who now follows defense issues at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Retired Col. Douglas Macgregor, author of several studies of how to change the Army, said he thinks that, apart from better linking of military data networks, the armed forces have largely ignored Cebrowski's efforts.
"He has had no impact on programming other than to push the notion that networking will solve our problems," said Macgregor, a longtime advocate of radically changing the Army who left the service in June.
Overall at the Pentagon, he said, "I see no direction other than pouring money into a range of programs with their roots in the Cold War," such as the Air Force's F-22 fighter, the Marine Corps' V-22 tilt-rotor troop transport, space-based radars and national missile defense.
Cebrowski counters that the most important changes underway in the military are not in readily visible weapons systems and easily quantified budget items. The main successes in transformation, he said, have been in creating an openness to new ways of doing business and in organizational changes that make that possible.
The Army, for example, has moved to break its long-standing division structure in favor of smaller, more easily deployed brigade combat teams. "They aren't studying it anymore; they're doing it," Cebrowski said. He also pointed to major alterations made by the Bush Pentagon to the Unified Command Plan, which divides responsibility for various parts of the world among different U.S. military headquarters.
"These kinds of things point to how deep the roots of transformation are; whereas you add a program, you cancel a program, that's very superficial," Cebrowski said.
Cebrowski said he has pushed the military to focus less on preparing for combat in major battles, where it now faces few serious challengers, and more on the threats from less traditional directions, such as terrorism, guerrilla warfare, chemical and biological weapons, and cyberwar. He said he has affected military thinking in other areas, such as the Air Force's approach to spending on satellites and other space programs, on which the Pentagon spends billions annually.
One of the problems with the transformation effort is that, three years into it, there is not a clear understanding at the Pentagon of what the term means.
"It's become more a generic buzzword for ill-focused change," said Andrew Krepinevich Jr., a member of the 1997 congressionally mandated National Defense Panel, whose work heavily influenced candidate Bush's defense positions two years later.
Even transformation chief Cebrowski shies away from providing a definition of transformation.
"Some say it is about injecting new technology into the military," he states on his Pentagon Web site, www.oft.osd.mil. "Others believe transformation is about new ways of buying weapon systems. Still others hold that transformation is about the wholesale change of organizations." The statement then says, "Frankly, I don't care which one is used," as long as it is understood to be a process that keeps the U.S. military changing and competitive in warfare.
Asked to elaborate, Cebrowski said there was a good reason not to dwell on what exactly is meant.
"I've watched senior leaders get knotted up in the definition of transformation" and lose their focus on substance, he said in an interview in his Rosslyn office. His bottom line, he said, is that "what we're really talking about is changing behavior."
The haziness is a departure from the radical change that Bush outlined in his September 1999 campaign speech at the Citadel in South Carolina.
"The real goal is to move beyond marginal improvements -- to replace existing programs with new technologies and strategies, to use this window of opportunity to skip a generation of technology," Bush said then.
Among the specifics that Bush vowed to pursue once in the White House was making the Army more agile and better able to deploy in units smaller than "cumbersome" 15,000-troop divisions -- a change the service at first resisted, especially when advocated in the mid-1990s by Col. Macgregor, but more recently has embraced.
Bush also said he would "encourage a culture of command where change is welcomed and rewarded, not dreaded."
The record on that promise is more mixed, but surveys of officers and other internal studies have found that there is indeed an atmosphere more receptive to change than there was a few years ago.
"I think Cebrowski has pushed the military to change," said Army Lt. Col. Richard Lacquement Jr., author of a book on the Pentagon's reform efforts since the end of the Cold War. "I would submit that a lot of the changes the services have made have been in response to pressure from him, and through him, from [Defense Secretary Donald H.] Rumsfeld." He said these changes have occurred not in weapons programs but more in how the military is organized and thinks about itself.
Bush, in his campaign speech, vowed to "earmark at least 20 percent of the procurement budget for acquisition programs that propel America generations ahead in military technology."
That goal, however, appears to have been abandoned. Asked about the percentage of the Pentagon budget that now goes to such transformation, Cebrowski said, "I have no idea. I don't care," adding that it is a mistake to focus on a dollar amount.
Critics of the administration's efforts, however, say the effort to modernize the services' major budgetary decisions have essentially failed, leaving the Pentagon's transformation office to focus on other areas.
"There are efforts in transformation in some areas -- like UAVS [unmanned aerial vehicles] and networked Navy battle groups -- but if you look at the overall budget, what you see are the legacy programs," Krepinevich said. Most of the spending, he said, goes to large ships, submarines, fighter aircraft and other programs that he calls "the traditional force structure items."
Even one of the leading congressional supporters of Bush's transformation effort, Rep. William M. "Mac" Thornberry (R-Tex.), gave a lukewarm assessment of its course in recent years, saying he thought the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan had somewhat distracted top Pentagon officials from such efforts.
"I think it's generally a mixed bag," said Thornberry, a member of the House Armed Services Committee. "In some way it's advanced, in some ways it hasn't. . . . They're moving in the right direction, but it's not enough."