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interview: frederick w. kagan


He teaches military history at West Point and is the co-author of While America Sleeps--Self Delusion, Military Weakness, and the Threat to Peace Today. He believes the US military is being seriously underfunded and compares America today to England in the 1930s.
Is there a choice that has to be made between peacekeeping and war fighting?

You have to be prepared to do both. If you don't undertake peacekeeping operations in some of these places, conflict would spread and widen. More states would become involved. For example, in Bosnia, it would involve European states.

When you talk about these commitments, you use the phrase "pseudo engagement."

So far, going into Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Haiti, we have attempted to make the argument that it was going to be a limited, short engagement--that we were going to use the smallest force possible, and we were going to get them out as rapidly as possible. That's putting constraints on what you were going to accomplish, which may or may not suit what you need to do.

The time scale is in generations in the conflict in Bosnia. Our five-year involvement there is not likely to turn the tide if we pull out very soon. I'm also not sure that the 5,000 Americans there are enough. Obviously, we pulled out of Somalia far too soon, and that has degenerated again into chaos. It's looking like we pulled out of Haiti too soon. And that is also looking like it's going to cycle down. We're starting to get Haitian refugees coming across by boats again.

That's the sort of pseudo engagement that I mean--where you do just enough to make it unpopular. You do just enough to harm the combat efficiency of the organization. You do just enough to give all the critics of engagement ammunition, but you don't actually accomplish the mission.

Some people say if we get rid of the 2MTW strategy, we can get this force down to four or five divisions.

I don't really believe there is such a thing as a one MTW strategy. Think about what you're telling the president of the United States if you are the chief of staff of the army or the theater commander who says, "I need to use our MTW capability against this enemy over here." What you're telling him is now, "Mr. President, you need to understand that we have no capability to respond anywhere else in the world if anything bad should happen."

The reason to be doing peacekeeping is to prevent larger war.  And thats why you have to be prepared to do both. It's not that I think we would necessarily lose that one major theater of war; I think it's unlikely that we would even go. You are requiring the president of the United States to take a tremendous risk in not being able to protect our alliances around the world, not being able to fulfill our obligations, and not being able to respond to aggression. And I don't see a president taking that risk. So I would argue that a 2MTW strategy is really the minimum, and a "One MTW" strategy is really a "No MTW" strategy.

The National Defense Panel said that we should scrap 2MTW. More recently, the Hart-Rudman Commission said that 2MTW is getting in the way, and that we should get rid of it. You don't agree with that?

. . . The 2MTW strategy, the aggressive engagement, focuses on maintaining a peaceful world order, and avoiding the creation of power vacuums in important regions. We make it clear to potential aggressors that not only do we oppose them in spirit, but that we can and will oppose them with force if they try anything. As my father likes to say, the strategy needs to be not just "Don't park here," but "Don't even think of parking here." Don't even think of attacking us. Don't even think of attacking our allies. We'll be all over you.

If you do that, you can maintain the current period of peace and stability for a long time. The people who are saying, "Trash the 2MTW strategy," are really saying, "We'd like to draw the armed forces down to a minimum point . . . that we find pleasing, and we will simply wait until there's a threat out there. And then we'll respond to it." That's basically what the NDP says.

But critics like John Hillen say that 2MTW is not a true strategy--that it prevents modernization, and it prevents us from addressing the real needs of the army.

It seems to me that a modernized army of five divisions is fully as incapable of meeting a national military strategy as an unmodernized army of ten divisions is. You have to balance. It's hard for me to answer Hillen indirectly. I would ask him, "What's your strategy, John? How are going to keep the peace? How can we come up with an alternative proposal that sees America as central to maintaining peace and stability in the world, that sees the American armed forces as the decisive arbiter that will deter aggression?" Come up with a strategy that doesn't involve the capability to meet two major adversaries at the same time, and I'll sign onto it.

But when you look at those kinds of strategies, they all start off by saying we mustn't be the world's policeman, that mustn't be overly involved, that we must pick and choose our fights. And that misses the point of what our role in the world should be. Our role in the world should be to be the world's policeman--should be keeping conflict down and deterring conflict.

The other problem with it is that you can't decide what your national interests are. You can't set up a presidential panel and say, "Okay, tell me what our national interests are," because when an American student is ripped apart by a mob in some random country, oh my God. All of a sudden you've got a new national interest. When something really horrific goes down and CNN goes and starts reporting massacres in country X or country Y, and the American people start getting excited about why we aren't doing something about it, you suddenly have a new national interest.

You can't determine what your interests are. Your interests are what they are. And almost all of the discussions that I've seen that talk about downsizing and changing our strategy all presuppose that we can define a set of national interests, and then, that's it. And that's just not the way the world works. . . .

We almost have a topsy-turvy situation. We have the Democratic administration saying that we've got to keep up the defense spending, and the Republican candidate saying we can't afford to do that. Why not skip a generation of weapons? Where do you stand?

You need dramatically more defense money than anyone is even willing to talk about at this point. It's an increment that has to be measured in apercentage of GDP. We're not talking about $10 billion or $20 billion here. I figure that we're probably talking more on the order of $60 billion to $100 billion annually in an increase to the defense budget over what it currently is. That increase would bring it up to what was the historical average during the Cold War, in terms of four to four-and-a-half percent of the GDP. That's not an outrageous amount percentage of your national wealth to be spending on keeping the world safe and not having to fight wars in the future.

As far as why we can't skip a generation of weapons, well, you can go back and look. The British tried that, and it didn't work. The problem is that we don't have systems in existence that are those leap-ahead systems. We have to go build them. You can do one of two things. You can build them and not field them--build prototypes and be ready to field them when you're ready to go. Or you can just build the prototypes, decide that you like the way it looks, and field the whole force that way. The second way is the right way to go. The problem is that you're going to get it wrong, for sure. The history of the development of military technology tells you that the first generation of the leap-ahead system is not going to be the one that wins the next war. It's going to be the one that loses the next war, if somebody actually fields it in that war

Why do you think the US military is underfunded?

. . . I love the statistics about how much we spend compared to our other competitors. Again, that ignores the single most important thing that we're trying to get across. America is not just another state. America is a state with the capability and the interest in maintaining the current peaceful world order. France doesn't have that. Germany doesn't have that. Russia doesn't have that. Only we have that. And so it's really irrelevant how much we spent compared to this, that or the other state. The only thing that matters is, can we or can we not accomplish that mission? If we can't, then we're not spending enough. If we can, we are. It's that simple. . . .

But the military just got its biggest budget increase since the end of the Cold War.

It did. I haven't looked in tremendous detail at what that is. My understanding is that a lot of that was pay increase and addressing quality of life issues. I'm not aware that a lot of that was addressing force structure, or research and development, or fielding the new forces. And all of that just goes to support the thesis that, if you're thinking in terms of the numbers that were just passed, it's hopeless.

You really have to be talking about another $60 billion, another $100 billion. Of course, we need the pay increase. There are still soldiers living on food stamps. Of course, we need the quality of life improvements. The quality of life on a lot of army posts is unbearable. I can't imagine how the American people could think that it is reasonable to expect people to live that way. Of course it's a recruitment problem, and of course it's a retention problem. Those are critical issues. So you have to do what we did.

In addition to that, that the army needs to be bigger. We need to have a very, very aggressive research and development program. We need to think about fielding brand new forces, which are not off the lab shelf, are not off-the-shelf wheel vehicles, are not things that are slightly fixed; but brand-new armored vehicles that have the right characteristics. And this can't be in 20 years, but in 10 or 7 or 5 years, because that will be the first generation for that. We'll need to have another generation after that. That's the kind of generational cycle that you have to look at if you're going to transform the army.

If you don't have the equipment, everything is just a thought experiment. We can write arbitrarily wonderful doctrine and arbitrarily wonderful training procedures. But if nobody can actually take a unit out into the field and run it against a similarly equipped unit, then you don't know what's going to work and what's not going to work. Then you can't see what the revolution in military affairs is actually going to bring.

Is there a readiness crisis?

I can't give you a straight answer, since I don't have access to all of the reports. I can tell you that, anecdotally, there seems to be a readiness crisis. If you talk with soldiers, if you read the testimony before the congressional committee on readiness, there seems to be real readiness problem in the army.

Here's the problem with readiness. You only know that when you're not ready when soldiers start dying. For people to make light of the readiness issue is really rather callous, and it really misses the point. It's hard to tell whether you're ready when it's peacetime. A unit that looks real good in peacetime and has figured out the game at NTC and figured out how to go in there and do well can perform abysmally in wartime. You won't know until you try, which means that you have to try as hard as you possible can. Failure to do so is going to involve soldiers being killed who didn't need to be killed.

What do you think of the medium brigade . . . and of General Shinseki's efforts to change the army?

There is absolutely no doubt that the army has to be more deployable. And there is no doubt that it is a very, very urgent thing, so I'm very reluctant to criticize it.

There's been a lot of focus on the equipment issue.

It's got to focus on the equipment, because if you've identified the problem as deployability, what limits deployability is equipment. . . . General Shinseki has really identified that single thing--deployability--as the primary problem that he's going to solve. I think there's something to that.

It puts a whole host of other issues aside, such as the transformation to a digital force; the development of new doctrines for fighting; the development of new organizational structures to take care of information technology. All of that gets shoved aside in favor of this debate over deployability. I wish we could have a coherent package that really addressed all of these issues simultaneously, and could come to good answers about them. But if you're just going to talk about deployability, then you have to talk about the equipment.

What about the M-1 and the issues surrounding it?

In a certain sense, the M-1 is a metaphor for backwards thinking. It is very clear to me that in 2020, and probably as soon as 2015, war is not going to be fought with tanks like M-1s charging at each other across the open desert or across the European plains. That's not what it's going to be about. Increasingly, we're seeing battlefields that are dominated by precision-guided munitions. So the tank is going to have to change.

But you have to ask, "What are the fundamental characteristics of a tank, and are we still going to have to have them?" Its fundamental characteristics are that it is a weapons system with high mobility, a high degree of protection, and a high degree of firepower--all in one system. You have to look at that, if you're going to continue to need systems on the battlefield which fulfill those requirements. I don't know if there's a tank or a hovercraft or a motor scooter with missiles. But you need to have something that fulfills that role on the battlefield.

How do you get there? You can only get there by fielding successive generations of systems--seeing how they work with the other weapon systems of the time--with war as it is at the time. You just can't predict in advance what war is going to look like. You can't know. So if your time frame for replacing the M-1 is 20 or 25 years, I can virtually assure you now that you're going to get trumped. In a revolutionary period of change, if it's going to take you 25 years to replace a system, war will have changed unpredictably in that interim. But if that's how long your R&D and deployment cycle is going to be, there's no way you're going to keep up.

. . . But if you're going to go for a future system, go for it. Why do we have to keep recapitalizing the Cold War legacy weapons?

If I'm the president and the chiefs and congress all together, I don't do that. What I do is an aggressive R&D program. You've got five years. Give us the best you've got. We're going to start recapitalizing the force again. . . . So we continue the R&D program. And another five, ten years down the line we recapitalize it again. We keep doing that iteration. . . . It will require that you throw away and mothball a lot of the equipment that you never use, because it is superceded by the next generation. That is an unfortunate fact, but that is the way that military revolutions occur.

So, yes, if your time frame for replacing the M-1 is 20 or 25 years, you'd better upgrade the M-1, because it's not going to make it that long. But I would say that there's error in both directions here. You should be recapitalizing faster. That would save you the trouble of upgrading this legacy weapons system.

You've mentioned the lifespan of a tank, versus where the M-1 is today.

We've upgraded the gunnery, we've upgraded the navigation and we've upgraded a variety of other things in the M-1 system. But in terms of its main performance characteristics--armored protection, gun mounting, and radius of action--it's a 20-year-old system.

Historically, no tank has ever lasted for 20 years as a predominating system. Now the M-1 has lasted, which is a measure of how far ahead of its competition it was then. It's not that far ahead any more. . . . The Germans and the British have tanks that are close to being as good. The Russian tank is close. They're worryingly close. In other words, tank technology seems to be catching up with the main performance characteristics of the M-1 as a tank. It remains to be seen what advantages we have with our situational awareness and the digitization and all that stuff. But as a weapons system, the M-1's main performance characteristics are not that uncommon any more.

You're looking at maintaining that as your main force for another 10, 15 or maybe 20 years. You're going to be using the B-52--something that's 40 years old in terms of its main performance characteristics. The B-52 is fine as long as nobody's shooting at it. But it's no longer capable of really penetrating contested airspace. It's no longer capable of performing a lot of really important missions, because its performance characteristics just don't support that any more.

So what is your recommendation for the M-1?

My recommendation is to develop and field a successor for it as rapidly as we possibly can. . . . It is a wonderful weapons system today, and probably will continue to be a wonderful weapons system for the next five years. After that, it's very hard to tell what's actually going to become of it on the battlefield.

In your book, you draw a parallel in it between Britain in the 1920s and America today. Your remark about this was, "Strong nowhere, weak everywhere."

In 1919, Britain faced three theaters. The British had to be prepared to fight potentially major conflicts in Europe, the Middle East and East Asia. They did not have the forces to do any one of those very well, and they certainly did not have the forces to do all three of them.

Today, America faces major security obligations in Europe, in the Middle East and in East Asia. So I think the parallel is very strong. In Europe, if you actually look at what kind of forces are required to maintain peace in the Balkans--if that situation should begin to spiral seriously out of hand--you'll find that they add up to about another major regional conflict's worth of force structure. Not that it's high-intensity conflict--there's a big armored force out there. But you need that that type of force . . . to maintain the peace in that region. If things really start to go south, it's going to be a very, very heavy manpower requirement.

In the Middle East, the threats are there. They remain. Iraq is very weak now. If we open the spigot even more and let them sell all the oil they want to sell, Iraq will rapidly start acquiring serious capital. I doubt strongly that the Iraqis will attack us before they have fixed their forces. I'm not sure how prepared we are to meet an up gunned Iraq that is really gunning for us.

It's hard to tell how things play out in Korea. It is said that the North Koreans are so weak, that they're on the verge of internal collapse, and are incapable of conducting war. The fact that they're on the verge of internal collapse makes them dangerous. The woods are full of people who were wrong, thinking that their enemies on the verge of collapse were also incapable of fighting war effectively. We think we're ready to take them. . . .

The more pessimistic estimates show that we would have a pretty hard time actually defending that peninsula with the forces that we have today. So it looks to me as though we are also facing at least three visible theaters in which we have vital interests. We're going to have to be prepared to protect those interests. We probably can handle any one of them reasonably well, although it depends on the theater, and then on your assumptions. We certainly can't handle all three, and we would be hard-pressed to handle two.

That leaves aside other theaters, such as whatever the Chinese might choose to do in Taiwan or elsewhere. Any issue on the Indian subcontinent . . . could suddenly go nuclear. There is all the more reason for us to be actively engaged in seeing to it that major war doesn't break out. Latin America, South America, Africa . . . There are various other places where interests that we didn't even know we have suddenly pop up and bite us. We have no reserve for that. And so I think we are not as weak everywhere as the British were, but we are by no means strong everywhere. And we are really not adequate in terms of force structure to cover all of the visible obligations that I think we have.

So, in short, are we ready?

No, I don't think that we are ready to fight any war that's likely to come. We're ready if the Iraqis attack us as they are. We may be ready to destroy the North Koreans if they attack us as they are now. I don't understand why we assume so cavalierly that our enemies will be stupid. It's reasonable to believe that neither one of those states will attack us until they're ready to do so. I don't think we're ready to meet that challenge.

And the argument is made that, "Well, if the Iraqis start building up, we'll start building up, too." That's the most dangerous delusion. The event that convinces the strategic planner to start building up is so far away from anything that you could take to a liberal democratic public and say, "Now we need to start building up." It never happens that way.

What's the historical perspective that we're stuck with in this issue of military strategy and planning?

We're clearly stuck with the historical perspective of the Cold War, and we're having a very hard time ridding ourselves of that. That means that we can't really imagine that anyone can really hurt us, other than a state that looks like the Soviet Union. So, regardless of 2MTW, 1MTW, or whatever, let's take advantage of this window of opportunity. There's no peer competitor now. But we're forgetting that, in the grand sweep of history, there have been very small periods of time when we don't have a peer competitor.

We are in an unusual situation. We should not sit around and wait for a new peer competitor like the Soviet Union to emerge, so then we'll know what to do. We should be changing ourselves, breaking out of that Cold War mindset that looks for the big divisions, the big tanks, and asks where the enemy is coming at us. We shouldn't get bogged down in the details of the day-to-day operations, saying, "Well, the main mission of the day is counterterrorism, or peacekeeping operations," or any operations other than war. That's all we have to do now.

The mission of the United States armed forces is what it always has been: deterrence. We need to deter aggression around the world. We need to have a set of capabilities that make it possible to do that. We shouldn't be aimed at a peer competitor, or aimed at seeing to it that there will not be a peer competitor. When we put this out, people start talking about American hegemony, and then the Russians got all upset. Then congressmen start saying, "Well, why should we be (in that position)?" . . . And the answer is, "Because if we are hegemonic, the world will be peaceful, because that is what is in our interests." If other states are hegemonic, the world will not be peaceful, because it is in their interest to rip things up.

Why did you feel the need to write your book While America Sleeps?

History doesn't tell you what to do, but history can give you some very powerful insights into the present. . . . Churchill called the 1920s "the years the locusts ate." By that, he meant that was time when England missed an opportunity. If England had chosen to expend the resources that were necessary to maintain armed forces that could maintain the peace, all the tragedy of the 1930s and the 1940s could possibly have been avoided. But the costs fell upon England's head, the empire was lost, and millions of people were killed.

I'm afraid that we're living through locust years too. I'm afraid that this era of constrained military resources in a time of unprecedented prosperity is going to look very tragic when we look back on it. I'm hoping that we can change the direction of American policy sometime before the next major catastrophe befalls us. . . . A chapter in my book ends with London in flames. For the first time, England really is subjected to a determined, powerful, horrible air attack. They suffer horrible casualties, industry is disrupted, morale is almost broken, and there are images of London in flames.

In the world as it is, before the decade is out, the likelihood is that our enemies will be able to develop and field ballistic missiles that can reach the United States with both nuclear and precision-guided munitions warheads. I'm afraid that the immunity of the American homeland from the effects of our miscalculations may be over. And so I'm afraid that there may be a parallel between that scene of our book with London in flames. I'm afraid that situation may befall us, if we really allow things to get out of control and don't make proper preparations.

How likely is the book to reach the broader American public?

We're hoping that it starts a debate. We're hoping that the people who disagree with us will come out and shoot at us. Obviously, we would like to have our recommendations implemented. Most of all, we'd like to rejuvenate the discussion in this country about what our national strategy is--what kind of armed forces are appropriate, what our foreign policy should be, what our place in the world is. Most of all, we're distraught that these things seem to be being decided by default, with very little interest or input from the American public. That's very, very unfortunate. It's going to be impossible to do the right thing unless you can interest the American public, at least to the extent of getting them to support what must be supported.

. . . One of the dangers in an era of international peace and an inter-war period--which this surely is--is that the army will become fixated on the missions that it is currently performing, and decide that those are the be-all and end-all of its mission; that that's all that it has to do. I'm afraid that the army has done that, to the extent of identifying some peacekeeping operations, antiterrorism, cyber war, and a variety of other trendy issues right now as being all that we have to handle.

It's interesting that the British did the same thing in the inter-war years. They were performing peacekeeping operations all over the place, a brigade here, a brigade there, doing policing, doing peacekeeping and so forth, and they identified those missions as their biggest problem. And other issues were really shunted aside. You have a force that is inadequate--not large enough, not equipped, not trained--to perform those missions well enough, and those are the missions that it's performing.

. . . The danger is that you can focus so narrowly on those missions that you lose sight of the fact that those are only your missions now, because things are peaceful. But if things go down, you're going to have other missions that are much more important in terms of national priorities than these missions.

It is dangerous and wrong-headed to sacrifice your ability to fight a major theater war in favor of your ability to conduct peacekeeping operations, and that's what we're doing right now. If we lose a peacekeeping mission, the consequences of that are infinitely smaller than the consequences of losing or even not doing well in a major theater of war. You have to find some balance between the threat that's almost over the horizon--but that will be devastating if you don't meet it--and the threat that you're currently dealing with--that's really relatively small in terms of the consequences of defeat. I'm afraid the army doesn't have that balance right.

What's at stake to the country on the army transformation?

It is absolutely critical that we get this transformation right, that we do what we need to do in order to get it right--even if that means fielding successive generations of equipment and then throwing it away. We must field a ballistic missile defense system, whatever the cost may be. We must do what we need to do to defend ourselves.

This transformation is extremely important to the country, and the cost will be very high if it fails. We are undergoing a revolution in military affairs, which is going to change warfare fundamentally. Historically, there have been a number of revolutions in military affairs. The nations that have adapted the best have succeeded in the war to come. The nations that have adapted the worst have failed. The cost of failure is very high when you're talking about large-scale war. It is particularly high when you're talking about war in which it is likely that American cities and population centers will be targeted. The cost is very, very high indeed.

The consequence for getting it wrong is having American cities come under attack, or having American forces in the field who not able to respond to their enemies effectively, or losing vital American interests around the world. It is absolutely critically important to resolve this, whatever it takes to do that. The consequences for not doing it are absolutely ghastly.

What about our national military strategy as it stands now?

In terms of what's written down, our American national strategy is mostly pretty good. You will find in there the 2MTW requirement for national military strategy, plus peacekeeping and other things. You will find documents on engagement and enlargement, the need to continue to shape the international environment, the need to deter aggression and, and all of that stuff. I think you'll find it documents a pretty solid strategy for America. That's been pretty consistent since the Bush era.

The problem is, when you look at how the foreign policy implements that, and how the army is resourced, the foreign policy doesn't really do what we say we're going to do. We're not really being fully engaged, not really deterring aggression as thoroughly as we should, not being as forward-minded as we need to be. But most of all, you'll find that the armed forces are just totally not resourced to support the national military strategy that they've been given.

There's a lot of the strategic confusion. . . . The statements of strategy are so clearly beyond the bounds of what is feasible within the constraints of current budgets. The services are almost forced to define strategy that they can achieve, and to address issues that they can address. They simply don't have the resources to address the issues that the national strategy says that they should address, and that common sense says they should address. There is a critical disjunction between the nominal strategy and the resource allocation. That is far more a problem than the strategy itself.

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