the future of war
homeexperts' analysesinterviewschronologydiscussion

interview: ralph peters


A former Army Lt. Colonel and author of several books on the military, he initially was a skeptic of General Shinseki's efforts to change the Army. He is the author of Fighting for the Future: Will America Triumph?
The House Appropriations Committee awarded the army transformation a billion dollars. But at the same time, they kept the new air force fighter program, the F-22, alive. Do you think that it was a good idea to continue funding the F-22?

At present, the F-22 is far and away the most wasteful system we're funding. It is a legacy system. If you look at the things we're doing, like Kosovo for instance, the F-22 would have made zero contribution. It wouldn't have improved our effort in any regard. It's essentially meant to be used in dogfights, and nobody is coming up to dogfight us. No air force is preparing for that. The airframes we already have, such as the F-15 and the F-14, are vastly superior to anything out there that's being built or has been built. The F-22 is a shameful, disgraceful boondoggle and it revolts me.

The army traditionally claims less for itself than the other services. But is the army hanging onto legacy systems that it shouldn't keep?

Oh yes, indeed. Now, I do see the army at present as underfunded. But that being said, the army, because of institutional inertia and horse-trading within the organization, is still buying the Crusader, the heavy howitzer system. They are supposedly going to reduce its weight from 100 tons for the pair of vehicles down to perhaps 70-odd tons. That's still vastly too heavy.

At the end of the day, we're paying the penalty for the excesses of the Cold War. During the Cold War, the army was faced with fighting the Soviet hordes in Europe. The equipment was pre-positioned. The army didn't have to worry about weight when shipping the stuff over there. It was in climatized warehouses in Germany. The army didn't have to worry about fuel. There was plenty in western Europe. The army didn't have to worry about weight on bridges and roads. West Germany and western Europe in general had a tremendously sound road network. The troops would just theoretically fly in across the Atlantic, fall in on the equipment, and roll out to fight.

Desert Storm was one of the worst things that ever happened to the U.S. Army. Well we still have that mentality. But the army has to be able to get there. Today, we need expeditionary forces in all of the services, and the army is belatedly waking up to that. But no matter how theoretically effective it may be, an army that cannot get to the war or conflict is useless to the American people.

Talk about Task Force Hawk, the army Apache helicopter mission in Kosovo.

Task Force Hawk has certainly been bisected and dissected endlessly. But the basic lesson is the army could not get even helicopters to the conflict zone in time. There were some factors that usually aren't discussed. The Italians didn't want us coming through Italian territory and basing out of there. There were problems on the ground with the French in Pristina, in Albania. But all that said, we found that the army's attack helicopters, the premiere weapons system, couldn't get there, couldn't be sustained, and couldn't protect itself and, oh, by the way, the aviators weren't properly trained for that kind of fight. It was a sad day for the army.

Andy Krepinevich from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments says that the medium force is, for the most part, a short- term response--that they'll solve the Task Force Hawk problem, and that's primarily what they're designed for.

I have tremendous respect for Andy Krepinevich, and I think he's right, in the sense that it's not a permanent solution. But I see it as a critical transition to the force of the future. The medium-weight brigades that General Shinseki is trying so hard to convince Congress, the army, and the administration to build are essential for the present, just so the army can get there.

But they're not going to be a static organization. The medium brigades, while they'll be immediately useful, will also be test beds, in the sense that they will teach us what we really need, what we really can do and where the gaps are. If the money's there, they'll drive research and development for better systems. The problem today is that the U.S. Army's heavy divisions are easily the most lethal ground force organizations on the planet. But they can't get there in time.

And when they do get there, they need tremendous support in terms of fuel, spare parts, and ammunition. The medium brigades will get there faster, although still not quite as fast as we'd like, but it'll get there faster, use less fuel, less moving parts, and require less support troops. So the footprint, as you say in the military, will be much smaller. Yet the medium brigade will not be as lethal as a heavy division. It will not have the protective armor of a heavy division, true. But it's an interim step as we develop true twenty-first century systems that will be lighter, and yet through innovative technologies, will have equivalent or better armor protection than today's Abrams tanks. They will have greater lethality than today's artillery or armor systems with lower calipers or innovative sorts of guns. . . . So I really see this very much in Silicon Valley terms. It's not going to hold still. You're not going to build the computer and have it be the perfect model that sits on the shelf and satisfies everybody for a generation.

The medium brigades, as all military organizations will have to do in today's environment, will evolve and continue to evolve. It will be a self-correcting system, where we'll learn from our mistakes. And that's how a military gets better. You will never design a perfect military organization in a lab or with smart people sitting together in a room. You do the best you can. You design it, you build it, and then you let the troops break it.

What about this whole wheels-tracks debate? There's a focus on equipment, maybe an excessive focus on equipment. Some people argue that that's because there really is no overall vision or doctrine to support it. . . .

The debate about wheeled vehicles versus track vehicles would be useful if it were honest. But the voices I hear insisting that we must have track vehicles are simply contractors and their paid spokesmen trying to sell systems. I've been to many countries and watched a number of conflicts or their residue, and I've served in the military. I've served in heavy divisions. And I can tell you that if I had to make the choice today, I would go with a preponderance of wheeled vehicles in those medium brigades. You might be able to make a case for some tracks, but if it were an either-or, it would be wheels for me.

Why?

For a variety of reasons. One, they're faster. Two, they don't break down as much. They don't require as many replacement parts. Three, they consume less fuel. Look at what the Russians did in the closing phases of the Kosovo conflict, when they did their dash from Bosnia through Serbia down to the Pristina airfield. We, the U.S. Army, could not have done that. Track vehicles could not have done that. They don't go fast enough. They break down, and it takes longer to fix them.

I think track vehicles certainly have their place. And nobody's talking about getting rid of the heavy force. General Shinseki is talking about a balanced force, with the heavy forces in reserve for when we need them, if we have to do Desert Storm Part XII. The medium forces should be the workhorses for the kind of actions in which we are increasingly and frequently involved today. And we still need some light forces, because they get there very fast and can do some things.

But we're looking at a force that's just balanced across the spectrum. So the debate of tracked versus wheels? We've got tracks in the heavy divisions and we're going to have them for the indefinite future. Right now we need a lighter, quicker, more mechanically robust force that can get there and do something. And I have found the debate simply disingenuous based upon greed, not national security interests.

Do you have the same conclusion about calling it a peacekeeping force?

It is absolute and utter nonsense to insist that, because we're going to a preponderance of wheeled vehicles in the medium brigades, it is only a peacekeeping force. It is dishonest, and really it angers me as a citizen, as well as a former soldier. Certainly the Russian military is very oriented to war fighting and always had a heavy proportion of wheeled vehicles. And they have been the most robust and effective in the Russian motorized or mechanized infantry arsenals--a force that can get there and move fast and outshoot the enemy is going to be very lethal.

In the Gulf War, U.S. Marine Corps wheeled vehicles were killing Iraqi T-72 tanks. Now the people that sell us the heavy armor and heavy guns would have told you that was impossible. But the Marines did it. And again, you cannot look at only today's technology and look backward and say, "This is the history of wheels or tracks." You've got to look forward and see what's the potential of tracked or wheeled. We may learn eventually that, in fact, in a medium-weight division you will want one tracked brigade, or two wheeled brigades. Or in a brigade you may want a tracked battalion and two or three wheeled battalions.

I don't think you want to break it down to that point. But we have to try it and experiment in the field. It's a rather long-winded answer, but the debate has not been honest. A wheeled force does not automatically mean a peacekeeping force. Tell that to the Marines.

What about the notion of continuing today's force around the M-1 tank?

The M-1 is the best tank in the world, if you can get it to the war in time, if you have a Saddam Hussein who'll give you seven months to move your forces in. If the Mexicans ever cross the Rio Grande, Fort Hood is ready for them. It's a great tank. It's lethal. But clearly, velocity matters.

In military operations today, in the kind of things we're doing, speed matters. Nobody is talking about getting rid of the M-1. But we are talking about reducing the numbers somewhat, so that we have some forces that can actually get to the conflict in time to make a difference. All these charlatans, whether they're on Capitol Hill or they're the contractors' flacks or just the people who grew up in the armored community and love their tanks--some are true believers. Many are charlatans who don't understand or refuse to understand the fact that we've got to move this force forward. What the army has is an industrial age force. It's a fine industrial age force, but nonetheless, it's a twentieth-century army. We need to start building a twenty-first century army, and we are running late. General Shinseki's vision convinces me, and I'm hard to convince.

There's a criticism that there is a lack of vision, that it lacks a doctrinal underpinning. Unless you know the road along which you're going, and where you intend to go, are you starting too soon by just fiddling with equipment?

There's certainly a place for doctrine. But doctrine has to arise out of practical field experimentation and out of the world around us. I see much of our doctrine being used as a justification for yesterday's way of doing business. I think General Shinseki has a legitimate vision, and it is based upon the world reality. Not the war the army wants to fight, but the conflicts and wars with which we are actually faced. So you can't write the doctrine first and design tables or organization equipment and predict accurately we need this, this, and this. Those are five-year plans, ten-year plans. They don't work. They never did, never will. Get the force in the field. See what it can and cannot do. We cannot anticipate accurately.

It's just impossible to anticipate what the real problems and gaps and pitfalls and vulnerabilities will be. Field experimentation is the only practical way. And by the way, conflicts will tell us a lot about the force itself, too. So first get them out there. Then write the doctrine. See if it works. If it doesn't, adjust it, fine-tune it. But for God's sake, don't put American creativity in a doctrinal straightjacket unless you want to end up as the Marxist-Leninists did.

It's interesting you should say that. In last year's testimony in front of the Senate, Senator Lieberman said to General Shinseki, "So what you're saying here is a notion like blitzkrieg." And Shinseki replied, "I have a lot of other things on my plate that World War II German generals never had to worry about. I've got Haiti, Bosnia, Somalia. In other words, basically, I can't worry about a single doctrine in a single theater."

Shinseki has the great misfortune of being a man of great integrity in a town that doesn't value it very much. I don't know General Shinseki personally, but I'm always impressed when he goes to the Hill and tells the truth, which breaks a long-standing Army tradition of obfuscating, if not lying outright.

The blitzkrieg. Let's remember that the German Army fought the blitzkrieg with very few tanks, and with an army that was primary horse-drawn. At the same time the blitzkrieg was raging across Europe, the proudest division in the U.S. Army, the one you really wanted to belong to if you were an up-and-coming officer, was the First Horse Cavalry Division. In fact, were it not for World War II, instead of the Interstate Highway system we would have had the Interstate Bridal Path. Senator Leiberman is a wonderful man. I really think he's another man of great integrity, but he's not a military guy. And Shinseki just tells the truth.

General Shinseki has told us is that he really doesn't want this transformation to be identified with him. But it seems that it's almost a paradoxical situation that he's in. If he wants it to happen, he has to lead with his chin. At the same time, he knows that the lifetime of this change will be much longer than four years. . . .

My sense is that General Shinseki is a soldier we would all like to be--a genuine selfless man. It's amazing that he ever got four stars. That being said, of course a medium-weight force will be associated with him, as Normandy is associated with Eisenhower. And it also will be associated with him because he's very much a lone crusader. Now he's been garnering some support. But the institutional army is an extraordinarily conservative and often myopic organization that clings desperately to the past. And General Shinseki has had the courage, in the face of tremendous internal and external opposition from multiple sides to say, "This is right. This is what we need to do. Let's get moving."

The Ninth Division offers a sobering lesson in the power of the army branch units. The heavy armor guys basically killed an experiment at Fort Lewis in the 1980s for a rapidly deployable unit looking towards the future. Where will General Shinseki find the resistance to what he wants to do?

General Shinseki has several advantages today over those who tried to build the Ninth Division as a quickly deployable force. The Cold War is over. You can't argue that we need those heavy divisions to fight the Russian hordes on the plains of Germany. That being said, the institutional army, those who have their careers invested in heavy metal, will certainly fight him tooth and nail. But I think there's just a growing awareness, certainly in the middle ranks of the army where Shinseki has a lot of admirers, that the heavy divisions are eventually going to wither away.

We will need heavy divisions for the immediate future. But clearly the goal has to be medium-weight divisions--perhaps in 15 to 25 years. Through judicious investments in our research and development and wise purchases, you will get medium-weight divisions that will have the hitting power and the survivability of today's heavy divisions. The country that spawned Silicon Valley and put man on the moon can certainly design a lighter weight tank that can do the job of the behemoths of the twentieth century. What we lack is simply the institutional commitment, both within the army and on Capitol Hill, and certainly within the Department of Defense overall, to spend the money on R&D.

At a time like this, when technology is evolving so swiftly, as the world environment is evolving so swiftly, you should be pouring money into R&D, not buying legacy systems like the F-22 or the Crusader. But R&D budgets have actually been going down. And that really alarms me. The train wreck is down the road, where we haven't invested wisely, where we haven't invested in people, for that matter. We just keep clinging to the past.

We talked to General Paul Funk (retired), who serves on the Army Science Board. He said that, to his knowledge, General Shinseki was the first general to come out and actually talk to the study group on the Future Combat System. Is it unusual to find someone who's looking towards the development of the FCS like that?

The army in the 1990's went into shock, into virtual paralysis, when the Cold War ended. . . . We had a series of very well meaning, but frankly weak chiefs of staff, men who were trying to hold the past together, instead of jettisoning the deadwood and moving onto the future. And they were panicked by the army getting smaller.

And the response, instead of trying to be innovative, was to circle the wagons, to batten down the hatches, to pile on the clichés. General Shinseki profited by watching their errors. But at the end of the day, I think he's just a man of vision--not always supremely articulate about that vision--but he's got it. And he's very Reaganesque in that sense. He sees it even if he can't always tell you what it is, but you sense it from him. And also he's got backbone, he's got spine. So I was actually initially skeptical of General Shinseki, because he was the institutional choice and I didn't know him. But he is a blessing for the army, and I think for America.

What's ironic is that, when General Shinseki was first nominated, he was not seen as the transformer that he has now become.

General Shinseki, when he actually took the chair of chief of staff of the army, was a horrible surprise to mediocrities in uniform everywhere. People really didn't think he would be a revolutionary, and he is an innovator. He clearly bided his time, and kept his views to himself until the mantel fell upon him. And since then he has displayed vision and courage. We are truly so fortunate.

The general officer and admiral corps today who are our flag officers are perhaps the most mediocre in the past century. There are certainly some good ones. But we have really promoted organization men, people that don't know much out of their sandbox. When you talk to them, these are dull and often dull-witted people. And here comes Shinseki against all odds. What a treat.

Does Cold War thinking still dominate the military and, more particularly, the army?

Cold War thinking is not nearly so pervasive as it was even five years ago. The dinosaurs are going, but they're clinging to their jobs with the best spirit of Tyrannosaurus Rex. It's going to take a generational change. But that change has begun. We're in for another five-to-maybe-eight really rocky years until we get rid of the last twentieth-century thinkers. But the process has begun, and it is inexorable. You can only resist the thrust and the flow of history for so long.

Where this Cold War heavy metal mentality lingers most profoundly is in the armored community. I mean, this is their life. And it's sad to me that, instead of getting on board with lighter vehicles and a medium-weight force with the spirit of the cavalry, which is what the medium-weight force is . . . when faced with the chance to do it, to get there fastest with the mostest, we're clinging to these old twentieth-century behemoths. So I see the medium-weight force as innovative, certainly, in terms of what we have today. But it really is a return to the great traditions of the cavalry of getting there fast, hitting hard, doing the job, and being gone before the enemy knows what hit them.

Talk about the nature of the war that we're going to see. We've gone to JRTC, the Joint Readiness Training Center, at Fort Polk in Louisiana, and to NTC, the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California. Those are two very different kinds of preparations. They both use force on force, but there's a difference in the nature of those two scenarios for war fighting. Can you talk about that?

NTC is still preparing for the big war that may come, that was statistical in the frequency. The JRTC is preparing for the stuff we are definitely doing today and are unquestionably going to have to do tomorrow. That does not invalidate a National Training Center. The things that we do out in the Mojave Desert we must continue to do on some level, because we may have to go back to the Gulf or elsewhere. But statistically it's a no-brainer. Most of our conflicts and some of the smaller wars that we may face in the future, are going to be more Balkans and less Saddam Hussein. So you've got to do both. It's really not an either-or.

Hopefully the day will come when a future iteration of the medium-weight force will be able to go out to the National Training Center and destroy the opposition force. For now, of course, it can't. But that's the goal. We've got to move toward developing a medium-weight force that can do beat all others as well. I personally see a twenty-first century that's really split between marvelous success stories for states such as our own, America, and non-competitive loser states, regions, and peoples.

And when you're betting about the future, you've always got to be a bit cautious. But I'm as confident as one can be betting that we are going to see a lot more Sierra Leones, East Timors, Kosovos, Bosnias, Kashmirs, Chechnyas, and Colombias. That doesn't mean we're going to get involved in any or even most or a plurality of them. But inevitably for national interests, or because the genocide is so horrific we cannot stay out, we're going to get involved in some. It's not just the army, but our nation that needs these medium-weight forces.

The Marines do a terrific job. They're a small elite force. They're a bargain for the taxpayer. There are not enough of them. This medium-weight force is not a threat to the Marines. It doesn't even compete with the Marines. The army forces will always be heavier than the Marines, have more logistics, more tail. But the Marines and the army have to work together. We need to learn from what the Marines have done with medium-weight or quasi-medium-weight forces. At the same time, they have to be willing to work with us in good spirit, and not circle their own wagons and feel threatened.

The fact is our ground forces today, Marines and army, are very, very small numerically, and in terms of capability for our global responsibilities. Given the tremendous and potential requirements we face around the world, we have a miniature ground force military.

When we went to JRTC, the Eighty-second was just returning for its rotation. They tried to take the mock urban facility and had a really, really hard time with it until they got their tanks there. And their tanks were about six hours late, because they got caught in a minefield.

But it's an example of backward thinking to say that we have always needed tanks to do this, therefore we always will need tanks to do it. Okay, we need tanks today. But what can we get or build or design or buy for tomorrow that will reduce or obviate the need for tanks? I just hate the military's tendency to do a linear extrapolation. This worked in the past, it's working now, therefore it will always work. Well, that's what the French Army thought before the blitzkrieg ran all over them.

We've got to really stop clinging to this romanticized version of the past and start looking toward the future. Okay, the Eighty-second and NTC couldn't take the urban facility without tanks. All right. Tanks won't always be able to get there. What else can we design for or buy for the Eighty-second that will help them do it? Don't give me yesterday's solutions. Tell me what we're going to do tomorrow.

When you talk to a lot of retired military people, they say that the force is being stressed. They say that we're involved in so many small-scale contingency operations, peacekeeping operations, that we're downgrading the fighting ability of the force, and that we should just get out.

When I went through Officer Candidate School, one of the things the tactical officers, the black hats, were fondest of saying to us was, "Stop whining, candidate." It's always been an army tradition that you don't whine, you don't make excuses. And I hear active duty generals or retirees whining about having to do so much or about the quality of today's recruits, which by the way, is revolting nonsense. We may have the most talented generation coming up in history. But they're whining about having to do the things the country pays them to do. It's a very complex world out there. America has a wide range of interests. Some are vital, and some are not so vital, but are interests nonetheless. There are some humanitarian interests. Stop making excuses. Do what you need to do for our country, or else stop taking the taxpayer's money. We pride ourselves in the army on a can-do attitude. Always did.

At this point, it's a can't-do attitude. No matter what the president asks us to do, it's always too hard to do. We need this, this and this. And the army has lost its credibility, as the Department of Defense has overall, by always crying wolf. They say it's going to take 10,000 casualties, we need 10 divisions, blah, blah, blah. Then the president says, "Do it," and it turns out we did it with no casualties, and maybe did a half-baked job of it, but it wasn't as dire. The sky didn't fall.

And so the military has to begin with being honest with the president and with Capitol Hill. If you are honest and you tell them, "Well, we can do this, but this is what it will take," then you'll get it a lot more quickly, honestly. Then you'll have a lot more credibility when the bad one comes along that you really can't do and you're trying to explain it. But we've been such cowardly naysayers hoarding our parade ground military. I'm reminded of Lincoln's request for McClellan, where he said, "Dear General McClellan, if you're not going to use the army, may I borrow it for a while?" I think President Clinton's been wrong about many, many things. But frankly the Pentagon's been wrong about more. And they won't admit it. Stop whining, guys. Do what America pays you to do.

Last year there was a firestorm of controversy over the fact that two army units were downgraded, and given a C-4, the not-ready-for-war rating. There was talk of a readiness crisis. What about the readiness crisis?

There's been a readiness crisis in the military, and especially in the army, since the mid-1990s. The former army chief of staff, for whatever reason, went to the Hill and lied about readiness. I think what we've seen in the 1990s is a politicization of the service chiefs and the Joint Chiefs overall. The administration's done a good job of picking primarily weak men, which is why Shinseki's such a great surprise. But everybody in the army knew. The people down in the motor pools, at the training ranges, in the battalions and brigades and divisions knew there were shortages of ammunition, of spare parts, or training funds. And yet again and again, the chief and the deputies went to the Hill and said, "Well, everything's pretty good, we could use a little more of this, but we're doing fine, sir." It wasn't true.

And by the way, the great penalty was that junior officers lost trust in their leadership. They knew it wasn't true. Lies were being told. And then a few years ago, the administration gave chiefs permission to tell the truth, and they went to the Hill and said we have a readiness crisis. John McCain and others castigated them because the readiness crisis had been obvious to everybody, except these men who were saying it didn't exist, and now suddenly it did exist.

We do have a readiness crisis. Money has been misspent. We buy F-22s instead of taking care of the troops, buying spare parts, fuel, and training. And good training is what saves you, not the F-22. Yet we are still ready enough for most contingencies for now. But our readiness declines daily. And we're not as ready as we could be. It doesn't mean we can't do the job.

It means there are greater risks. It means that you have a greater risk of not being able to do the mission in a timely manner, of taking more casualties. There's this lust to buy twentieth-century legacy systems, gold-plated aircraft, artillery systems, ships that we absolutely do not need. That will cause casualties. And it's also stealing from the American taxpayer; there's no other word for it.

At the same time, there are Marines rummaging for free clothing on Saturdays and there are guys claiming that they have spare parts problems and units being stressed. Is there a trade-off on what we can do?

Increasingly, our national defense is a business, and its business is not primarily defense. There has always been corruption from the Revolutionary War forward in the US military. God knows, at the beginning of the Civil War, we were buying exploding cannons. Brooks Brothers sold the army 30,000 overcoats that gave rise to the term "shoddy," and they had to be discarded. So it's always been there.

But at this point there's so much lobbying power--PAC contributions, and revolving doors of generals and admirals getting out and getting these tremendously lucrative defense industry do-nothing jobs, which encouraged them to keep their mouth shut on active duty about whether or not we really need this system. The corruption at this point is horrendous. And it's not just the defense-industrial complex about which President Eisenhower warned. It's a defense-industrial-congressional complex. Congress buys ships even the navy doesn't want, and buys aircraft the air force doesn't want. It's really sad and really corrupt and it's a disservice to this nation.

But you have to accept the fact that in a market economy, there's always going to be some wastage. There's going to be some corruption. And frankly, the military won't always make good decisions. But we have come to a point where budget dollars are constrained, and we are wasting hundreds of billions of dollars on yesterday's aircraft, on utterly unnecessary ships, on artillery systems that are not deployable. We should be buying some new, essential things, like upgraded F-15s and F-14s--just enough to get us through to a true next-generation aircraft. And frankly, the JSX fighter might be it.

But we need to be just upgrading enough in the army to enable us to buy experimental systems and move to a medium-weight force. God knows the navy shamefully killed the arsenal ship because it wasn't glamorous. But boy, it had hitting power. Recently the air force disingenuously warned that, even if General Shinseki gets his medium-weight divisions, the air force doesn't have the airlift to fly them there, implying that the medium-weight divisions are a waste of time. My answer to the air force is, "Stop buying F-22s. Buy more airlift capability." It's just become really disgraceful and shameful, not simply because I'm a former army officer. I've criticized them powerfully. But really, they're trying to be relatively honest in all this.

And the price for honesty is that you lose budget dollars. The air force at this point in history is patently dishonest about what this country needs. We can beat the Russians, God knows. We can beat the Chinese. We sure could have beat the Serbs. We could go to Sierra Leone and a couple battalions of Rangers and a Special Forces contingent with some helicopters could rip apart the rough rebels. But we can't beat Lockheed Martin.

Is this a trade off between boys and girls and toys?

Certainly. When we have soldiers on food stamps . . . I just came back from Fort Leavenworth and was served in a restaurant by a moonlighting soldier trying to make ends meet. Certainly no soldier expects to be paid lavishly. But it would be nice if they could feed their families. When we signed up for a married military, we should have planned for this. The medical system for active duty and for retirees is certainly in disarray. People want to take away the commissaries, because here in the United States, the major food chains don't like the fact that military people are buying on base. The commissary is essential for junior enlisted personnel to buy the foodstuffs at slightly reduced rates. Others would like to take away the PXs. It's just shameful.

We want these young men and women to die for us if necessary, and then we expect them to live on food stamps? At the same time, we're going to spend $350 billion or $60 billion on new aircraft we don't need, we're going to buy more vessels we don't need. If that's not a national disgrace, what is?

Air power is thought of as a silver bullet. . . . Yet it is said that the army has the special responsibility to win the nation's wars.

When air force officers, active duty or retired, say we don't need ground forces, they're lying. They know better. They're fighting for budget share. It's that simple. We need the air force. We need the navy. We need the marines. And we need the army. They exist because they do different things.

The army does a few things for you. One, is it's ultimately the war fighter, the big force that goes and wins the big wars. The army is also the primary special operations force--the Green Berets, the Rangers--although other services certainly make their contributions. The army provides the raw manpower for the onerous missions, the janitorial work of foreign policy, the Kosovos, the Bosnias, etc. The army does a lot for you. In many ways, it's the least glamorous service, but it is ultimately the workhorse.

As far as silver bullets go, I love air power. As someone who's served in infantry and armored units, I want a lot of air power and I want it on time. But air power alone cannot do it all any more than the army alone could do it all. And in Kosovo we really saw the limits of air power. After all the ballyhoo, they couldn't even find the tanks, let alone kill them. They certainly couldn't stop massacres down in wooded ravines. You can't do police work or close-in combat from 15,000 feet. You can't stop genocide from 15,000 feet. You can't do urban warfare from 1,000 feet or even 500 feet, although once in a while a helicopter will help you out.

There are still many missions; in fact they're increasing. When you to do them right, you still need boots on the ground. Peacekeeping, peacemaking, and even war. So whenever you hear anybody in any uniform saying we don't need that other service, they're lying to you. They know better. They're fighting for dollars. You know they're dialing for dollars. They're not building a national defense.

We went up to West Point and interviewed Fred Kagan, who's coming out with a book called While America Sleeps. The bottom line in terms of national security strategy is that if you get rid of the two major theater war policy, you're courting disaster. . . . How should we approach the 2MTW policy?

Many of the arguments about one major theater of war versus two, and what we really need, become medieval theological arguments. I have read them so I know what I'm saying, both the medieval arguments and the contemporary ones. Some things are fundamental. We need a strong, robust, somewhat redundant defense. I've worked within the system. The way we split things out in the 1990s, we have never had a 2MTW capability. We simply couldn't have done it. It was all smoke and mirrors. We had, at best, a reasonable 1MTW capability. That's just reality.

My personal feeling is our forces, including the air force, are too small today. We need somewhat larger defense budgets. And yet I am loathe to increase them today, because you're giving Scotch to an alcoholic. You're throwing money at somebody you know who just maxes out their credit cards. The military services need to return to some notion of austerity, which is our tradition. Austere forces. That being said, they also do need more resources to slightly increase the size of the army and the Marine Corps. The air force, rather than the high tech gold-plated aircraft it's buying for many of our conflicts, needs more lower-tech aircraft. They certainly need more transport aircraft to do the job. But the A-10 for instance, the tank killer aircraft that they hate, is slow, and it's ugly. But boy, in Kosovo, had it been permitted to do its job, that would have been perfect. It's not about dogfighting anymore.

So I wish people would stop arguing about acronyms, 2MTW or anything else, and go back to fundamentals and look at what this country really needs. We need infantrymen. We need transport aircraft. We need military police. We need vehicles that can get there and roll fast when they do get there. We need a navy that can protect the sea lanes . . . but that can transport things safely and project power ashore. Our navy's requirements today are closer to those of gunboats on the Yangtze River in China in the1920s than the battle of Midway. So overall, we're often arguing about the wrong things and, by the way, arguing about them dishonesty. It's time to go back to fundamentals. First, throttle back the services. No more gold-plated twentieth-century legacy systems. And then let's judiciously increase budgets so that we can build the twenty-first century force.

Invest in transformation?

Yes. The basic rule is to fund the future, not the past. Fund transformation. Don't fund the latest slight improvement to the traditional way of doing business.

What do you say to the criticism of the medium brigades that it ignores the realities of an asymmetric theater, and denies the idea that airfield supports are going to be the canyons of the future? . . .

Again, these are arguments being made by people who have vested interests or who have never served and simply do not know. Certainly you need an airfield or a port to get ground forces there in sufficient numbers or sufficient weight to do much of anything. But a medium-weight force would be easier to fly into an adjoining nation. A wheeled force can drive there without consuming a world of fuel, without breaking down along the way.

The mobility of the wheeled force is both strategic in terms of less airlift required, and less sealift. But it's also operational in terms of being able to get across a border very fast or across a country or contested region very fast, and tactical in terms of how fast it can move around a battlefield. And the real key to mobility isn't just speed, although the wheeled vehicles have that. It's how much fuel consumption is required.

So I'm just saddened by what I see as a partisan, often naive, often dishonest debate. The medium-weight force is clearly the force of the future. . . . It can get there, it can go fast and it requires a far less logistics train. It's easier to sustain. Again, it's a cavalry-type force, and clearly the Indians are out there. That's politically incorrect. But we're dealing with cavalry and Indians again, and the cavalry is what we need. Why can't we simply be honest? Well, the answer is simple. Money.

It almost seems like you're saying . . . that it's the force that takes into account a denial of airfields and being able to gain access to theaters. . .

It's the force that makes it easier to work around denied airfields and ports.

. . . Sometimes we will face airfield denial or port denial, but so far it hasn't been a major problem for us. A medium-weight force can go into another country, and drive across the border very, very quickly. A medium-weight force by the way, is much lighter and easier to offload than a heavy-weight force. It doesn't require the weight of port facilities to offload it. If we designed the right kind of ships, you can roll it over the beach much more easily than a tracked force. You can make wheeled vehicles armored, yet still light enough to swim in low surf. You can't do that with heavy tanks. So the medium-weight force makes sense in virtually every respect.

Can it do everything? Certainly not. But neither can any aircraft. Neither can light or heavy forces. The medium-weight force is necessary for our strategic environment, hands down. It's necessary. And I feel we can argue that with anybody who is willing to argue honestly and not just use demagoguery.



When we were with General Scales and General Shinseki at Gettysburg, General Scales pointed out that no commander during the Civil War appreciated the technological revolution that had happened that made their operating doctrine outdated. They didn't realize that they were fighting the last war, at a huge loss of life.

. . . In hindsight, it's always easy to see the mistakes of yesterday's generals. And some of the criticism is justified. Certainly the western front in World War I was inexcusable. Those generals should have seen the lessons of the American Civil War half a century before. Yet you must be able to see some things, learn some things, and some things are patently obvious. And it's obvious that technology helps us. It doesn't solve all of the world's security problems. So I would fault today's generals and admirals for clinging passionately to a path they understand and they knew throughout their successful careers. But we need to start looking forward and not backward with longing.

General Shinseki sent a book, America's First Battles, up to Congress to try to say you need to prepare. We have had a terrible history of preparing for the first battle. Is the problem that he's trying to change a peacetime army? Is it simply a nearly impossible task?

Desert Storm was one of the worst things that ever happened to the U.S. Army. It was the last great twentieth-century war. The army performed superbly and convinced itself that it had all the answers. So we're still dealing with the legacy of success in Desert Storm, as well as the Cold War. Certainly in America's first battles, we traditionally have done rather poorly. Sometimes there were excuses, like starved armies. Today that's not an excuse We have huge military budgets, in historical terms. So if we fail in a first battle, you can blame the generals and admirals who failed to call it right and call it honestly. And you can blame Congress, because ultimately Congress determines the shape of the force. So I think General Shinseki is absolutely trying to do the right thing.

The other problem we face is that it's not only the first battle of the next war. We are in an age of conflict after conflict, intervention after intervention. And they're not going to stop. If you study the history of the nineteenth-century army fighting the Indians of the Southwest and the Northwest, read the War Department records in Washington. And every one of those was the last one. In other words, there would be no more Bosnias, no more Kosovos. They're all the last one.

The bad news is we are in for a nearly endless stream of these. The world is broken and desperate trying to right itself, to find a new balance after the dissolution of great bloc systems, great empires and dictatorships. It's going to be decades or longer before these conflicts all play out. So while preparing for the first battle of the big war, we've got to be able to do a wider variety than ever of lesser, but often dangerous, and sometimes bloody things as well. We are not only are not fully prepared for the next big one; we're not well prepared for many of the little ones.

Some people say the army is too top-heavy.

I'm not convinced by the argument that we have too many generals. I'm certainly easily convinced by the argument that we have mediocre generals and admirals. I'm familiar with the pundits and demigods who hold up the Wehrmacht, the German Army of World War II, and say, "Well, you had a sergeant leading 30 or 40 men. You didn't need these officers. They didn't have this many generals."

First of all, the German Army in World War II lost the war. Secondly, the nature of things has changed. The military force of today, like it or not, is infinitely more complex than the primitive armies of World War II. We have a much more sophisticated force technology, more complex in other respects as well from communications to intelligence. You do need a much greater tail. The other argument you'll hear is the logistics tail is too great, so let's just cut the tail. That's foolish. That's an armchair general's argument. The way you reduce the tail is by changing the combat force. If you arbitrarily cut tail, it means you can't support the combat force you've built.

So you've got to take an over-arching view of things. Could you do with fewer generals? Yes, probably somewhat fewer, if they were better. But these little arguments about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin just miss the boat. We need a quality, thinking army that can do pushups and shove in the bayonet as well. What we have, sadly, is a mediocre Department of Defense overall--from Secretary Cohen on down.

Can the transformation take place without really restructuring the army? . . .

There are always plenty of people in Washington and defense pundits willing to say you can't do this, you can't do that, you must buy this. If people are in love with the division, the way to deal with it is the way General Shinseki's dealing with it. Keep the division name, change the brigades. Change the army that way and let the brigade drive the division into its dotage.

Oftentimes people become so enamored of the name or the flag or the rank. But as long as let you let them keep the title, you can change the substance.

And I think that's what General Shinseki is doing brilliantly. Is the current division the structure for the future? Of course it's not. But why wage a quixotic tilt against windmills, a fight against division, when you can let the old boys have their division. Change its substance, change its guts. And make it go away more effectively that way.

Do you think that's what happening in the latest announcement about the brigades is that they're not pure units--they are combined now and being called combat teams?

General Shinseki, in my outsider's reading, is not only a good strategist, he's a brilliant tactician. He's letting the old boys have some of their toys and their ranks, their titles, their flags, but he is building the force of the future without telling them.

We've had a lot of defense reviews over national defense. We're going to have another one next year in 2001. What have they accomplished so far?

All these quadrennial reviews and national defense panels serve a very important function in Washington. They keep defense intellectuals off the welfare rolls. They don't do much else. First of all, I've dealt with some of them. Committees don't think innovatively. What you get time and again is dumbed-down insights, the consensus view. I'll trade you this for that. None of these studies are brave or bold or incisive or worth very much. The way you get innovation, frankly, is one or at most a handful of determined visionaries fight for something they believe in. Think tanks will not change the world, and they surely will not change the army.

What do you think about a proposal to change the army into smaller units?

Colonel Doug MacGregor's book, Breaking the Phalanx, was a brilliant attempt to innovate. Did MacGregor get it all right? Absolutely not. I think he's wrong about a lot of the details. But he had the basic vision. He had the substance. And he articulated it, and he wasn't the first. Others have said it. He just said it better and in book form. He articulated where we need to go, towards smaller, more mobile, more balanced forces. It's clearly the wave of the future to anyone who's served, who's been out there, and is thinking about these issues honestly and isn't in the pay of a defense contractor. Doug MacGregor was a hero. He didn't have all the answers, but boy, he fired up the right questions.

Do you think that the medium brigades are following that line, or are they departing from that line?

The medium brigades are indeed following the general thrust of Breaking the Phalanx. But no book, no initial blueprint for our organization will get it exactly right. We don't know how these medium brigades will ultimately look. In ten years they might not be called brigades at all. They might look radically different. That's the great thing about the medium brigades. First of all, we're starting to change. We're experimenting, we're trying. And at the same time they will be usable. You can use them in these contingencies. And we will learn a lot from the contingencies.

One of the problems with pundits is that they're very impatient. Now, the M-1 tank is still the greatest tank in the world. You remember in the late 1970s and early 1980s, everybody was saying, "Oh, it's a lemon. It's gold-plated, it's a turkey." These are complex systems, and certainly complex organizations like the medium brigade need time to develop. They won't get it right the first time. Let them experiment. Don't grab a headline by saying it's a failure because it went out to NTC and didn't beat the opposition forces. You've got to let them be defeated by the opposition forces a dozen times. Then, if the thirteenth time they hammer the opposition forces and rip it apart, you've got your money's worth. It just takes time. Let people experiment, as long as the experiments are obviously being done in a spirit of honesty. Don't expect perfection the first time. You won't get it. We cannot foresee the future well enough to say that the medium brigade's the ultimate answer. The medium brigade poses the right questions.

The war games of the Army War College at Carlyle were actually looking at a scenario in 2015 in which the medium brigades played a larger role. Do you have any views on that?

I have played in a lot of strategic operational and tactical war games over the years. My general experience is the higher the level, the less useful they are. And war games at the Carlyle level are about as useful as a raccoon tail on a Mercedes. . . . The problem with strategic level war games is they have such visibility. So many people are watching that they're never fully honest. They certainly do serve a purpose. They raise some good questions. They sometimes lead to an epiphany here and there. But we would need to conduct them in a no-holds barred spirit of honest brutality in order to get real mileage out of them.

What about the army's attempt to reach out to Hollywood to develop ideas about training films and the Future Combat System?

The current initiatives to reach out to Hollywood leave me skeptical. I think it's important to reach out, but I'm not sure the army has the sophistication to reach out intelligently and incisively. Recruiting some has-beens who are between projects for the next half-dozen years and imagining that they're going to you know tell you the shape of the future is probably pretty foolish.

The sad thing is that the real expertise, the knowledge, the insight about the future is in uniform. But I have found personally in my experiences that the generals and admirals don't want to hear good ideas from the experienced people beneath them. They cannot abide good ideas from their subordinates. So reach out to some screenwriter who has never served a day in uniform, who hasn't a clue, or some campus intellectual who's just looking for a grant and was just too good to tie on a combat boot, and they'll hang on every word.

You've got colonels and majors and even captains out there who have seen the future and they're fighting for it. Our military is a tin pot aristocracy. It's really, really sad. I personally had to leave the military to have my voice heard. The moment I took my uniform off, I had credibility. That's absolutely backward. I should have had more credibility when I was in uniform. The military needs to learn to exploit and respect the talent it has in the ranks before it reaches out to people who were never in a fistfight and have only seen them on screen.

Why do you think Shinseki will be successful in what he's trying to do?

I'm not convinced General Shinseki will be successful. I hope he will be successful. But the institutional resistance within the army, the contractors, the partisans on Capitol Hill who speak patriotism but are worried about PAC money, they're all stacked against him. He's fighting a courageous fight in the true American grain. I hope he wins. But at best I'd give him even odds. And I'd only give him even odds because the future is pressing us toward the vision and the reality General Shinseki has articulated.

What is the price of not changing it?

The price of not changing is we're less ready and take more casualties. And make no mistake--you can't wage casualty-free wars forever. Kosovo was a failure in many real terms. We will ultimately take casualties. It's not going to be a debacle that destroys America. What it will be is debacle on a lesser scale that kills a lot of those fine young men and women who are currently on food stamps while serving their country.

home ·  experts' analyses ·  interviews ·  army chronology ·  quiz ·  discussion
gore & bush's military agenda ·  readings ·  synopsis
credits ·  tapes & transcripts ·  pbs online ·  frontline

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation


SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

NEXT ON FRONTLINE

Solitary NationApril 22nd

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS