Thomas Parker has worked on national security affairs at the State Department and Defense Department, served as international affairs adviser to Senator Joseph Lieberman, and taught at the University of Paris.
T he most interesting military debate in Washington today is not about the size of the Pentagon's budget or the performance of its forces in Yugoslavia, but whether the nature of war is changing so much that a new, even revolutionary, set of weapons are needed.
This discussion has particular salience for the Persian Gulf, the region where America's current weapons are most likely to become increasingly vulnerable and irrelevant over the next several decades.
The Revolution in Military Affairs
Defense reformers call for the building of revolutionary new weapons systems they say must be developed to maintain U.S. military supremacy. All these weapons have a single common theme: reliance on new technologies, notably computers, sensors, and micro-electronics, that will permit the amassing of huge amounts of information in the service of weapons so as to give them unprecedented precision and stealth. Defense reformers find that the impact on warfare of these information technologies is so dramatic, they call it a revolution in military affairs (RMA). According to RMA proponents, these weapons will affect warfare as dramatically as the railroad and the telegraph did in the nineteenth century, the machine gun in the early twentieth century, and the tank and aircraft carrier in World War II.1
Proponents of a revolution in military affairs believe that the traditional weapons systems around which each of the services is still organized—tanks and medium-range artillery, fighter aircraft, and aircraft carriers—should be increasingly replaced by weapons that are based more on advanced information technologies. These new systems would enable the United States to project power in the absence of forward bases and reduce the increasing vulnerability and costs of traditional weapons.
Problems in the Persian Gulf
Greater political sensitivities to U.S. military forces operating from the Arabian Peninsula, plus an increasing vulnerability of naval ships and personnel on shore make the revolution in military affairs, with its emphasis on long-range, stealthy weapons, particularly salient in the Persian Gulf.
Land and air forces. During the many military confrontations with Iraq since 1991, Kuwait alone has publicly and unreservedly backed the United States and freely allowed the use of its territory for fighter aircraft. All the other Gulf regimes have publicly criticized the U.S. and British bombing campaign against Iraq, even when they have reluctantly agreed to the use of their territory by Washington and London.
Take the most recent case—Operation Desert Fox in December 1998. Yes, Qatar and Oman allowed the use of their bases by combat aircraft. Saudi Arabia agreed only to permit support aircraft to use its territory, such as tankers and AWACS, but not fighters. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) did not permit the use of its bases for any purpose, nor were Bahraini air bases used.
This growing wariness about military cooperation on Iraq results from several factors. Arab leaders and publics feel sympathy for the Iraqi people; they dislike the concept of Western bombing of any Arab country unless it directly threatens them; they see a double standard in the U.S. stance towards Iraq and toward Israel; they doubt that a serious Iraqi conventional threat exists at the present time; and they fear reprisals from Iraq. In the case of Saudi Arabia, the leadership exhibits a particular sensitivity about associating too closely with the United States, having seen how calling on Western powers to defend it during the Kuwait war diminished the regime's legitimacy. Further, most Gulf countries do not consider Iran and Iraq to be equally dangerous. Kuwait sees in Iran a counterweight to Iraq. In contrast, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, and Oman all see Iraq as too far away to be a threat but are suspicious of Iran. Only Saudi Arabia fears Iran and Iraq approximately in equal measure.
Reservations about military cooperation with the United States will probably grow over time. The fear of retaliation will increase as Iraq and Iran acquire weapons of mass destruction, making Gulf leaders even less eager to have their territory used for foreign bases. Ironically, increased democratization will probably lead to more controversy over the presence of U.S. forces because parliaments will be tempted to criticize their country's leaders for their perceived dependence on Western forces. Serious incidents involving the thousands of U.S. sailors who use the ports in the UAE and Bahrain for shore-leave could well spark anger against their presence, as has been the case in Japan and Italy. Finally, with the establishment of local universities during the 1970s, combined with low oil prices since the mid-1980s, Gulf countries have sent fewer of their future leaders to the West for education, weakening what has been a dense network of ties to the West. In the aggregate, these trends may further undermine support for a U.S. military presence in the Gulf, and especially for those that must be based on the Arabian peninsula.
Naval forces.Regimes and public opinion in the Persian Gulf show a greater tolerance toward U.S. naval forces in their midst, but this does not offer a solution, for the Navy has its own problems—threats by Iraqi and Iranian cruise missiles, mines, and satellite intelligence.
The growing arsenal of anti-ship cruise missiles in Iran that can be fired from land or patrol boats has already proved its lethality (by Argentina in the Falklands War, by the Iraqis against the USS Stark in 1988). Russia and China are now developing more advanced versions of these weapons, equipped with thermal imaging technology for night targeting. A worst-case scenario might recall the 3,000 Kamikaze sorties on April 12-13, 1945, when the Japanese sank twenty-one ships, put forty-three ships permanently out of action, and incapacitated twenty-three others for a month or more. Unlike the massive expanses of the Pacific Ocean, the Persian Gulf's narrow physical confines prevents the Navy from dispersing its vessels, so the numbers could be even worse.
Anti-ship mines are also increasing the vulnerability of the U.S. surface fleet. Iran is purchasing thousands of Russian, Chinese, and Yugoslavian mines that remain on the sea floor until activated by a passing ship. Their potential effectiveness was demonstrated during the Kuwait war of 1990-91, when mines, costing less than $1,500 each, damaged the cruiser USS Princeton and a countermine task force flagship, the USS Tripoli. During the Kuwait re-flagging operation in the late 1980s, a World War I- era mine damaged the frigate USS Samuel Roberts.2
All forces.At some point in the not-distant future, satellite imagery, coupled with cruise missile technical advances, will place U.S. port and air bases at serious risk. Cruise missiles, first from Iran and then from Iraq, will increasingly benefit from the high-resolution satellite imagery now available on the open market. Militarily-relevant imagery sales began when France first offered to sell 10-meter resolution to the public in the late 1980s; China and Brazil have followed suit. Within the next ten to fifteen years, anyone with a laptop computer will probably be able to purchase and interpret satellite imagery with a resolution better than one meter—superior than what either the United States or the Soviet Union had during the Cold War.3
Non-conventional attacks, including suicide bombings, will continue to threaten all U.S. forces in the Gulf region, as demonstrated by the 1995 Khobar barracks bombing in Saudi Arabia. Although Air Force and Army personnel in Saudi Arabia have subsequently been moved to the desert, thereby improving their security, thousands of U.S. sailors still use UAE and Bahraini ports for shore-leave.
These many problems suggest that even though the United States does not face an immediate challenge to its primacy in the Gulf, over time, missiles, mines, improved surveillance systems, and the continued threat of suicide attacks, will put its forces at increased risk. This in turn argues for a U.S. military force in the Gulf based less on large surface ships, ports, and air bases—and more on the new weapons made possible by the revolution in military affairs.
Designing a New Military for the Gulf
To take advantage of the full potential of the new information technologies to maintain its current military supremacy, the United States should adopt several basic procurement strategies in the short term:
• Upgrade existing weapons instead of purchasing a whole new generation of systems still based on the old technology. If a weapon does not move ahead by the quantum leap promised by the revolution in military affairs, do not build it from scratch. It makes more sense, for example, to modernize the current F-15 and F-16 fighter fleet rather than build the next generation of expensive fighter aircraft, the F-22 and the Joint Strike Fighter, that the Air Force is so intent on.
• Adapt Cold War weapons to new missions. The Navy should, for instance, convert the majority of its submarines from their current nuclear or anti-submarine role to a land-attack mission. A Trident ballistic missile submarine could carry up to 162 missile tubes from which to fire cruise missiles. They could also undertake mine and countermine operations, and operate at a fraction of the cost of a carrier.4
• Procure weapons more relevant to the changing strategic situation in the Gulf. The Air Force, for example, should review its decision to end production of the B-2 Stealth bomber, which can be based on Diego Garcia (an island base in the Indian Ocean) or on the American mainland, rather than the Gulf. It can carry eight 5,000-pound bombs that can be used for "bunker-busting" of underground compounds, something beyond the capability of fighter aircraft. Yet, until its limited role in Kosovo, in April 1999, the B-2 has not been used, for fear that its success would undermine the rationale for the next generation of fighter aircraft.
Similarly all services should place a greater reliance on precision-guided-weapons. Despite their having had tremendous success during Operation Desert Storm, spending on these weapons has decreased as a percentage of the defense budget.5 As a result, during the three-day campaign of Desert Fox in December 1998, the military used approximately 10 percent of its entire inventory of cruise missiles, including 20 percent of its advanced block-3 type.6 During the Kosovo operation, the Pentagon acknowledged that after firing fifty missiles in the opening week of the war, it was down to 100 of their conventionally armed cruise missiles, launched from B-52s.7
• Focus more on long-term visionary systems. Over the longer term, the U.S. government should focus on more visionary weapons to largely replace the manned aircraft, naval carriers, and tanks of today. As the Air Force evolves toward an unmanned future, it could develop an aircraft carrier in the sky—an intercontinental-range, unmanned, stealthy "mother" ship capable of launching, controlling, and refueling unmanned strike weapons, and doing so for extended periods by hovering. The Army should experiment with robotic weapons capable of operating like today's tanks and armored vehicles in urban areas; and with long-range ground-based cruise missiles that could be fired from extremely long distances, including from outside the Gulf. The Army's manned element would probably consist primarily of special forces, equipped with their own missiles, robotic "helpers" for surveillance and logistics, and personal mobility systems at speeds approaching forty miles per hour on the ground.8
The Navy could resuscitate plans for the experimental arsenal ship, a semi-submersible combatant with a low profile, capable of carrying about 500 cruise missiles. (In contrast, all of the Navy's surface ships deployed in the Gulf during the 1997-98 confrontations had 250 cruise missiles at any given time.)9 The arsenal ship's double-hull makes it highly resistant to mines and its crew of about fifty would make it vastly cheaper to operate than the 5,000 to 6,000 carrier crew, not to speak of less subject to mass casualties. The arsenal ship program was terminated in 1997 because it competed against the Navy's traditional surface ships.10 Eventually, the Navy might be able to develop unmanned submarines and arsenal ships capable of rising near the surface in war time to fire as many as a thousand missiles per vessel.
Obstacles to the Revolution in Military Affairs
Defense intellectuals tend to support the revolution in military affairs and its quest for a new generation of weapons systems; in contrast, those with vested interests to protect are skeptical. RMA advocates include senior Reagan and Bush officials such as Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle (both now advising Governor George W. Bush), Richard Armitage (author of a recent Congressionally-mandated study on the subject), Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins University, and Zalmay Khalilzad of RAND.11 Andrew Marshall, the head of the Department of Defense's Office of Net Assessment, an in-house think tank, has pushed hard for the RMA; while he had a close relationship with former secretaries of defense Cheney and Perry, his office was almost moved outside of the Pentagon under Secretary Cohen.12
In contrast, much of the armed forces and Congress are indifferent to or resist the revolution in military affairs. In the base-force study of 1992, the Pentagon's first post-Cold War comprehensive study, Colin Powell ordered that all the service budgets be cut equally, avoiding an internecine fight among the services (Power's purpose), but also missing a needed discussion about which services might be cut more than others given the changing nature of warfare. The Clinton administration continued this cautious approach in Les Aspen's Bottom-Up Review in 1993 and William Cohen's Quadrennial Defense Review in 1997, which both supported the services' traditional weapons systems and force structures.13
Pro-reform elements within the uniformed military have been limited in numbers and impact. The most articulate and active advocate for change at the upper echelons of the Pentagon was William Owens, a former vice chief of the Joint Staff in 1994-96 who retired in part out of frustration with the traditional approaches to warfare.14 The current service chiefs are preoccupied with the daily challenges of Kosovo, Iraq, and North Korea, with the difficulties of recruiting shortfalls, and budgetary issues. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Henry Shelton is a fine leader, but one with a background in special forces, and not particularly drawn to the conceptual issues raised by the revolution in military affairs.
Younger officers are more open to arguments in favor of new weapons, being more conversant with information technologies. Many believe, however, that a revolution in military affairs has largely taken place, as demonstrated by the overwhelming success of the Kuwait war. As for enlisted personnel, most doubt that an RMA has either taken place or is needed; they see war mainly in terms of raw courage and good training rather than weapons technology.15
On Capitol Hill, most members are intent on defending their states' and districts' existing military programs. Moreover, with the end of the draft during the Nixon administration, fewer and fewer Congressional members have the military experience that would make them easily conversant with such issues. Of twenty senators on the Armed Services Committee, only three have expressed any sustained interest in the revolution in military affairs: Joseph Lieberman, John McCain, and Charles Robb.16
More broadly, the lack of urgency surrounding the revolution in military affairs reflects a general torpor regarding international politics. The overwhelming American victory in the Kuwait War made Iraq (and, by implication, Iran) look like defenseless punching bags. China's potential as a serious military adversary is seen as several decades away. Insofar as there are concerns about new security threats, they have focused largely on the continental United States, notably on how to develop the logistical and medical responses surrounding biological terrorism and a national missile defense system rather than a RMA.
As a result, the service's current priorities are merely upgraded versions of existing weapons systems. The Air Force's main priority is the development of two new tactical aircraft, the F-22 and Joint Strike Fighter, despite the fact that Iranian and Iraqi air forces have proven no match for the current U.S. aircraft—or even Saudi Arabia's.17 The Navy is investing heavily in a new class of aircraft carriers and short-range aircraft, despite the growing vulnerability of the carriers in the narrow confines of the Gulf. The Army is focusing on the new Crusader artillery system and Commanche helicopter, good but expensive systems that do not represent the quantum leaps offered by the RMA.
Evolving technologies in the hands of likely adversaries do not threaten the United States with military defeat in the Persian Gulf; but they do raise the prospect of enough damage being done to deter a forceful U.S. presence. Already, during Operation Desert Fox, the Clinton administration used fighter aircraft very cautiously, going so far as to avoid daytime attacks for fear of losing pilots. While the U.S. military does not yet worry about sending its surface fleet into the Gulf to confront a (still prostrate) Iraq, it would have more concerns if it had to do so against Iran. Unless the United States develops new weapons made possible by the revolution in military affairs, these concerns and inhibitions will grow.
Developing these new weapons requires a willingness to experiment with a wide range of systems, expecting some to fail. Risks could be reduced by limiting the full production runs of new weapons in some cases, as was done by the U.S. Navy between the two world wars, when it launched several classes of carriers in small numbers. This approach permitted the Navy to use its limited resources to keep up with changing technologies. When Japan emerged as a clear threat in the late 1930s, the Navy was able to go into full production with the latest technology. Today, too, the United States needs to develop an agile procurement system, one which does not lock itself into expensive weapons systems that may be overtaken by technological advances.
Even if the United States does adopt such a policy, Americans should not delude themselves into thinking that the RMA will usher in an era of cheap, technocratic victories. Yes, it will help deter Iranian and Iraqi military threats, provide a lower peacetime profile, and crush any adversary in the event of hostilities. But it does not take the place of ground troops; presuming that American forces will never bomb civilians in an attempt to force a surrender, ground forces are needed to achieve the likely requirements of a total victory in the future: rooting out any weapons of mass destruction not destroyed by stand-off weapons and occupying an enemy capital until a friendlier regime can be installed. The RMA promises the continuation of U.S. military supremacy, but not a bloodless future. Yet, without its full development, U.S. ground forces will not necessarily be in a position to achieve the total victory on the ground that will remain America's ultimate challenge.
The future adversary is represented as much by American complacency as by hostile missiles, mines, and satellite intelligence. Typically, military establishments and states learn more from their defeats than from their triumphs. At a time when memories of Desert Storm are fresher than those of Vietnam, the U.S. military, the Congress, and the next administration face the challenge of proving that dictum wrong.
1 On previous revolutions in military affairs, see Andrew Krepinevich, "Cavalry to Computer: The Pattern of Military Revolutions," The National Interest, Fall 1994, pp. 30-42.
2 For more on military threats to the U.S. Navy in the Gulf, see Andrew Krepinevich, The Conflict Environment of 2016: A Scenario-Based Approach (Washington: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 1996), pp. 11-15.
3 Michael Vickers and Robert Martinage, The Military Revolution and Intrastate Conflict (Washington: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 1997), pp. 15-17.
4 For the Navy's reluctance to convert submarines because of resistance from the surface Navy, see The Washington Post, Jan. 29, 1999.
5 The New York Times, Apr. 6, 1999.
6 Michael Eizenstat, "The U.S. Bombing Campaign Against Iraq," presentation at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Dec. 21, 1998.
7 The New York Times, Apr. 6, 1999.
8 For an excellent analysis of possible future weapons systems, see Michael Vickers, Warfare in 2020: A Primer (Washington: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, Oct. 1996), pp. 1-16.
9 The Washington Post, Feb. 12, 1998.
10 Ibid., Feb. 18, 1998.
11 Transforming Defense: National Security in the 21st Century (Washington: National Defense Panel, Dec. 1997). For excellent discussions by reformers, see Zalmay Khalilzad, "An Affordable Two-War Strategy," The Wall Street Journal, Mar. 13, 1997; Eliot Cohen, "Come The Revolution," The National Review, July 31, 1995, p. 26; "The Future of Warfare," The Economist, Mar. 8, 1997, pp. 21-24.
12 For Marshall's impact on the RMA debate, see The Wall Street Journal, July 15, 1994.
13 For a critique of these two reports, see Eliot Cohen, "Calling Mr. X," The New Republic, Jan. 19, 1998, pp. , 17-19; Andrew Krepinevich, The Bottom-Up Review: An Assessment (Washington: Defense Budget Project, Feb. 1994); Michael Vickers and Steven Kosiak, The Quadrennial Defense Review: An Assessment (Washington: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, Dec. 1997).
14 The New York Times, Dec. 12, 1994.
15 Eliot Cohen, "American Views of the Revolution in Military Affairs," Zev Bonen and Eliot Cohen, eds., Advanced Technology and Future Warfare (Ramat Gan, Israel: The BESA Center, Bar Ilan University, Nov. 1996), pp. 1-17.
16 Joseph Lieberman, "The National Defense Panel-Key Issues: The Congressional Perspective," speech at the Association of the U.S. Army Symposium, Feb. 26, 1997.
17 Mike Worden, Rise of the Fighter Generals: The Problem of Air Force Leadership, 1945-82 (Maxwell Air Force Base: Air University Press, 1998) shows why the Air Force is enamored of fighter aircraft (not bombers); fighter pilots have supplanted bomber pilots as the key leadership in the Air Force. Also, the rise of the intercontinental ballistic missile, with its competition for bombers, furthered this change.