This article by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, from the May/June 2002 issue of Foreign Affairs, lays out his vision of the new kind of military that is needed to fight against "the unknown, the uncertain, the unseen and the unexpected" in a post 9/11 world. He argues for a flexible arsenal that exploits technological advances but emphasizes the core challenge is to change the way the Pentagon and the armed forces train, fight, and think. Rumsfeld outlines how the U.S.'s war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan is a good example of the new kind of fighting force needed for the 21st century.
RIDING INTO THE FUTURE
JUST BEFORE Christmas last year, I traveled to Afghanistan and the
neighboring countries, where I had the opportunity to spend time with
American troops in the field. Among the many I met was an extraordinary
group of men: the special forces who had been involved in the attack on
From the moment they landed in Afghanistan, these troops began
adapting to the circumstances on the ground. They sported beards and
traditional scarves and rode horses trained to run into machine gun
fire. They used pack mules to transport equipment across some of the
roughest terrain in the world, riding at night, in darkness, near
minefields and along narrow mountain trails with drops so sheer that, as
one soldier put it, "it took me a week to ease the death-grip on my
horse." Many had never been on horseback before.
As they linked up and trained with anti-Taliban forces, they learned
from their new allies about the realities of war on Afghan soil and
assisted them with weapons, food, supplies, tactics, and training. And
they planned the assault on Mazar-i-Sharif.
On the appointed day, one of the special forces teams slipped in and
hid well behind enemy lines, ready to call in the air strikes. The bomb
blasts would be the signal for the others to charge. When the moment
came, they signaled their targets to coalition aircraft and looked at
their watches. "Two minutes." "Thirty seconds." "Fifteen seconds." Then,
out of nowhere, a hail of precision-guided bombs began to land on
Taliban and al Qaeda positions. The explosions were deafening, and the
timing so precise that, as the soldiers described it, hundreds of Afghan
horsemen emerged, literally, out of the smoke, riding down on the enemy
through clouds of dust and flying shrapnel. A few of these Afghans
carried rocket-propelled grenades; some had fewer than ten rounds of
ammunition in their guns, but they rode boldly -- Afghans and Americans
together -- into tank, mortar, artillery, and sniper fire.
It was the first U.S. cavalry attack of the twenty-first century.
After the battle, one U.S. soldier described how an Afghan fighter
motioned for him come over and began to pull up the leg of his pants. "I
thought he was going to show me a wound," he said. Instead, the fighter
showed him a prosthetic limb -- he had ridden into battle with only one
What won the battle for Mazar-i-Sharif -- and set in motion the
Taliban's fall from power -- was a combination of the ingenuity of the
U.S. special forces; the most advanced, precision-guided munitions in
the U.S. arsenal, delivered by U.S. Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps
crews; and the courage of valiant, one-legged Afghan fighters on
That day, on the plains of Afghanistan, the nineteenth century met
the twenty-first century and defeated a dangerous and determined
adversary -- a remarkable achievement.
WHEN President George W. Bush called me back to the Pentagon after a
quarter-century away and asked me to come up with a new defense
strategy, he knew I was an old-timer. I doubt he imagined for a second
we would bring back the cavalry. But this is precisely what
transformation is all about.
Here we were, in 2002, fighting the first war of the twenty-first
century, and the horse cavalry was back -- and being used in previously
unimaginable ways. It shows that a revolution in military affairs is
about more than building new high-tech weapons -- although that is
certainly part of it. It is also about new ways of thinking and new ways
In World War II, the German blitzkrieg revolutionized warfare, but it
was accomplished by a German military that was only 10 to 15 percent
transformed. The Germans saw that the future of war lay not with massive
armies and protracted trench warfare, but in small, high-quality, mobile
shock forces, supported by airpower, and capable of pulling off
"lightning strikes" against the enemy. They developed the lethal
combination of fast-moving tanks, motorized infantry and artillery, and
dive-bombers, all concentrated on one part of the enemy line. The effect
What was revolutionary and unprecedented about the blitzkrieg was not
the new capabilities the Germans employed, but rather the unprecedented
ways in which they mixed new and existing technology. In a similar way,
the battle for Mazar-i-Sharif was transformational. Coalition forces
took existing military capabilities -- from the most advanced (such as
laser-guided weapons) to the antique (40-year-old B-52S updated with
modern electronics) to the most rudimentary (a man with a gun on a
horse) -- and used them together in unprecedented ways, with devastating
This is not to suggest that this same combination of tactics and
capabilities should be a model for future battles. The lesson from the
Afghan experience is not that the U.S. Army should start stockpiling
saddles. Rather, it is that preparing for the future will require new
ways of thinking, and the development of forces and capabilities that
can adapt quickly to new challenges and unexpected circumstances. The
ability to adapt will be critical in a world defined by surprise and
During the Cold War, we faced a fairly predictable set of threats. We
knew a good deal about our adversary and its capabilities, and we
fashioned the strategies and capabilities needed to deter them. And we
were successful. We built a nuclear arsenal and entered the jet age with
supersonic fighters. We built a nuclear-powered submarines and ships and
the first intercontinental-range bombers and missiles. We massed heavy
forces in Europe, ready to repel a Soviet tank invasion over the
northern German plain, and adopted a strategy of containment -- sending
military aid and advisers to destabilize Soviet puppet regimes and
support friendly nations threatened by Soviet expansion.
For almost half a century, that mix of strategy, forces, and
capabilities allowed us to keep the peace and defend freedom. But the
Cold War is now over and the Soviet Union is gone -- and with it the
familiar security environment to which our nation had grown accustomed.
As we painfully learned on September 11, the challenges of the new
century are not nearly as predictable as were those of the last. Who
would have imagined, only a few months ago, that terrorists would take
commercial airliners, turn them into missiles, and use them to strike
the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, killing thousands? In the years
ahead, we will probably be surprised again by new adversaries who may
also strike in unexpected ways. And as they gain access to weapons of
increasing range and power, the attacks could grow vastly more deadly
than those we suffered on September 11.
Our challenge in this new century is a difficult one: to defend our
nation against the unknown, the uncertain, the unseen, and the
unexpected. That may seem an impossible task. It is not. But to
accomplish it, we must put aside comfortable ways of thinking and
planning -- take risks and try new things -- so we can deter and defeat
adversaries that have not yet emerged to challenge us.
OUT WITH THE OLD
WELL BEFORE September 11, senior U.S. civilian and military leaders
of the Defense Department were already in the process of doing just
that. With the 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review, we took a long, hard
look at the emerging security environment -- and we came to the
conclusion that a new strategy was needed.
We decided to move away from the "two major-theater war" construct,
an approach that called for maintaining two massive occupation forces,
capable of marching on and occupying the capitals of two aggressors at
the same time and changing their regimes. This approach had served us
well in the immediate post -- Cold War period, but it now threatened to
leave us overprepared for two specific conflicts and underprepared for
unexpected contingencies and twenty-first-century challenges.
To ensure that we have the resources to prepare for the future, and
to address the emerging challenges to homeland security, we needed a
more realistic and balanced assessment of our near-term war-fighting
needs. Instead of maintaining two occupation forces, we decided to place
greater emphasis on deterrence in four critical theaters, backed by the
ability to swiftly defeat two aggressors at the same time, while
preserving the option for one massive counteroffensive to occupy an
aggressor's capital and replace its regime. Since neither aggressor
would know which one the president would choose for regime change, the
deterrent would be undiminished. But by removing the requirement to
maintain a second occupation force, we can free up new resources for the
future and for other, lesser contingencies that may now confront us.
We also decided to move away from the old "threat-based" strategy
that had dominated our country's defense planning for nearly half a
century and adopt a new "capabilities-based" approach -- one that
focuses less on who might threaten us, or where, and more on how we
might be threatened and what is needed to deter and defend against such
It's like dealing with burglars: You cannot possibly know who wants
to break into your home, or when. But you do know how they might try to
get in. You know they might try to pick your lock, so you need a good,
solid, dead bolt on your front door. You know they might try breaking
through a window, so you need a good alarm. You know it is better to
stop them before they get in, so you need a police force to patrol the
neighborhood and keep bad guys off the streets. And you know that a big
German Shepherd doesn't hurt, either.
The same logic holds true for national defense. Instead of building
our armed forces around plans to fight this or that country, we need to
examine our vulnerabilities -- asking ourselves, as Frederick the Great
did in his General Principles of War, "What design would I be
forming if I were the enemy?" -- and then fashion our forces as
necessary to deter and defeat that threat. For example, we know that
because the United States has unparalleled power on land, at sea, and in
the air, it makes little sense for potential adversaries to try to
compete with us directly. They learned in the Persian Gulf War that
challenging our armed forces head-on is foolhardy. So rather than
building up competing armies, navies, and air forces, they will likely
seek to challenge us asymmetrically by looking for vulnerabilities and
trying to exploit them.
Potential adversaries know, for example, that as an open society, the
United States is vulnerable to new forms of terrorism. They suspect that
U.S. space assets and information networks are vulnerable. They know
that America's ability to project force into distant corners of the
world depends, in some cases, on vulnerable foreign bases. And they know
that we have no defense against ballistic missile attack -- creating an
incentive to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and the means to
Our job is to close off as many of those avenues of attack as
possible. We must prepare for new forms of terrorism, to be sure, but
also for attacks on U.S. space assets, cyber-attacks on our information
networks, cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, and nuclear, chemical,
and biological weapons. At the same time, the United States must work to
build up its own areas of advantage, such as our ability to project
military power over long distances, our precision-strike weapons, and
our space, intelligence, and undersea warfare capabilities.
A SIX-STEP STRATEGY
BEFORE THE TERRORIST ATTACKS on New York and Washington, we had
already decided that to keep the peace and defend freedom in the
twenty-first century, the Defense Department must focus on achieving six
transformational goals: first, to protect the U.S. homeland and our
bases overseas; second, to project and sustain power in distant
theaters; third, to deny our enemies sanctuary, making sure they know
that no corner of the world is remote enough, no mountain high enough,
no cave or bunker deep enough, no SUV fast enough to protect them from
our reach; fourth, to protect our information networks from attack;
fifth, to use information technology to link up different kinds of U.S.
forces so they can fight jointly; and sixth, to maintain unhindered
access to space, and protect our space capabilities from enemy attack.
Our experiences on September 11 and in the subsequent Afghan campaign
have reinforced the need to move the U.S. defense posture in these
directions. That is why the 2003 defense budget has been designed to
advance each of these six goals with significant increases in funding.
We are increasing funding both for the development of transformational
programs that give us entirely new capabilities, and for modernization
programs that support transformation. Over the next five years, we will
increase funding for defense of the U.S. homeland and overseas bases by
47 percent; for programs to deny enemies sanctuary by 157 percent; for
programs to ensure long-distance power projection in hostile areas by 21
percent; for programs to harness information technology by 125 percent;
for programs to attack enemy information networks and defend our own by
28 percent; and for programs to strengthen U.S. space capabilities by
At the same time, we have proposed terminating a number of systems
not in line with the new defense strategy, or struggling, such as the
DD-21 destroyer, the Navy Area Missile Defense program, 18 Army Legacy
programs, and the Peacekeeper missile. We have also proposed retiring
again and expensive-to-maintain capabilities, such as the F-14 fighter
and 1,000 Vietnam-era helicopters.
The goal is not to transform the entire U.S. military in one year, or
even in one decade. That would be both unnecessary and unwise.
Transforming the military is not an event; it is an ongoing process.
There will be no point at which we can declare that U.S. forces have
Our challenge in the twenty-first century is to defend our cities,
friends, allies, and deployed forces -- as well as our space assets and
computer networks -- from new forms of attack, while projecting force
over long distances to fight new adversaries. This will require rapidly
deployable, fully integrated joint forces, capable of reaching distant
theaters quickly and working with our air and sea forces to strike
adversaries swiftly and with devastating effect. This will also take
improved intelligence, long-range precision strike capabilities, and
sea-based platforms to help counter the "access denial" capabilities of
Our goal is not simply to fight and win wars; it is to prevent them.
To do so, we must find ways to influence the decision-making of
potential adversaries, to deter them not only from using existing
weapons but also from building dangerous new ones in the first place.
Just as the existence of the U.S. Navy dissuades others from investing
in competing navies -- because it would cost them a fortune and would
not provide them a margin of military advantage -- we must develop new
assets, the mere possession of which discourages adversaries from
competing. For example, deployment of effective missile defenses may
dissuade others from spending to obtain ballistic missiles, because
missiles will not provide them what they want: the power to hold U.S.
and allied cities hostage to nuclear blackmail. Hardening U.S. space
systems and building the means to defend them could dissuade potential
adversaries from developing small "killer satellites" to attack U.S.
satellite networks. New earth-penetrating and thermobaric weapons (such
as those recently used against Taliban and al Qaeda forces hiding in the
mountains near Gardez, Afghanistan) could make obsolete the deep
underground facilities where terrorists hide and terrorist states
conceal their WMD capabilities.
In addition to building new capabilities, transforming the U.S.
military also requires rebalancing existing forces and capabilities, by
adding more of what the Pentagon calls "low density/high demand" assets
(a euphemism, in plain English, for "our priorities were wrong and we
didn't buy enough of the things we now find we need"). For example, the
experience in Afghanistan showed how effective unmanned aircraft could
be -- but it also revealed their weaknesses and how few of them we have.
The Department of Defense has known for some time that it does not have
enough manned aircraft for reconnaissance and surveillance or command
and control, enough air defense capabilities, enough chemical and
biological defense units, or enough of certain types of special
operations forces. But in spite of these shortages, the department
postponed the needed investments, while continuing to fund what were, in
retrospect, less valuable programs. That needs to change.
As we change investment priorities, we must begin shifting the
balance in our arsenal between manned and unmanned capabilities, between
short- and long-range systems, between stealthy and non-stealthy
systems, between shooters and sensors, and between vulnerable and
hardened systems. And we must make the leap into the information age,
which is the critical foundation of all our transformation efforts.
After September 11, we found that our new responsibilities in
homeland defense exacerbated these shortages. No U.S. president should
have to choose between protecting citizens at home and U.S. interests
and forces overseas. We must be able to do both. The notion that we
could transform while cutting the budget was seductive, but false.
Of course, although transformation requires building new capabilities
and expanding arsenals of existing ones, it also means reducing stocks
of unnecessary weapons. Just as the country no longer needs a massive,
heavy force to repel a Soviet tank invasion, it also no longer needs the
many thousands of offensive nuclear warheads amassed during the Cold War
to deter a Soviet nuclear attack. Back then, U.S. security depended on
having a nuclear force large enough, and diverse enough, to survive and
retaliate against a Soviet first strike. Today, our adversaries have
changed -- and so has the deterrence calculus. The terrorists who struck
on September 11 were clearly not deterred by the massive U.S. nuclear
arsenal. We need to find new ways to deter new adversaries. That is why
President Bush is taking a new approach to deterrence: one that combines
deep reductions in offensive nuclear forces with improved conventional
capabilities and missile defenses that can protect the United States and
its friends, forces, and allies from limited missile attack.
At the same time as we reduce the number of weapons in our nuclear
arsenal, we must also refashion it, developing new conventional
offensive and defensive systems more appropriate for deterring the
potential adversaries we face. And we must ensure the safety and
reliability of our nuclear weapons.
Taken together, this "new triad" of reduced offensive nuclear forces,
advanced conventional capabilities, and a range of new defenses
(ballistic missile defense, cruise missile defense, space defense, and
cyber-defense) supported by a revitalized defense infrastructure, will
form the basis of a new approach to deterrence.
But getting there will also require a new approach to balancing
risks. In the past, the threat-based approach focused attention on
near-term risks, crowding out investments in people, modernization, and
transformation. Building a twenty-first-century military means balancing
all of these risks, so that as we prepare for the nearer-term threats,
we do not cheat the future, or the people who risk their lives to secure
it for us.
We must transform not only our armed forces but also the Defense
Department that serves them -- by encouraging a culture of creativity
and intelligent risk-taking. We must promote a more entrepreneurial
approach: one that encourages people to be proactive, not reactive, and
to behave less like bureaucrats and more like venture capitalists; one
that does not wait for threats to emerge and be "validated" but rather
anticipates them before they appear and develops new capabilities to
dissuade and deter them.
Finally, we must change not only the capabilities at our disposal,
but also how we think about war. Imagine for a moment that you could go
back in time and give a knight in King Arthur's court an M-16. If he
takes that weapon, gets back on his horse, and uses the stock to knock
in his opponent's head, that is not transformation. Transformation
occurs when he gets behind a tree and starts shooting. All the high-tech
weapons in the world won't transform the U.S. armed forces unless we
also transform the way we think, train, exercise, and fight.
SHIFTING ON THE FLY
SOME BELIEVE THAT, with the United States in the midst of a difficult
and dangerous war on terrorism, now is not the time to transform the
U.S. armed forces. I believe the opposite is true: Now is precisely the
time to make changes. The events of September 11 powerfully make the
case for action.
Every day, the Department of Defense is faced with urgent near-term
requirements that create pressure to push the future off the table. But
September 11 taught us that the future holds many unknown dangers, and
that we fail to prepare for them at our peril. The challenge is to make
certain that, as time passes and the shock of what befell us that day
wears off, we do not simply go back to doing things the way they were
The Pentagon is up to the task. In just one year -- 2001 -- we
adopted a new defense strategy. We replaced the decade-old
two-major-theater-war construct with an approach more appropriate for
the twenty-first century. We adopted a new strategy for balancing risks
and reorganized and revitalized the missile defense research and testing
program, free of the constraints of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
We reorganized the department to better focus on space capabilities.
Through the Nuclear Posture Review, we adopted a new approach to
strategic deterrence that increases security while reducing our reliance
on strategic nuclear weapons. And we will soon announce a new unified
command structure. All this was done while fighting a war on terrorism
-- not a bad start for a department supposedly so resistant to change.
Of course, as the Pentagon transforms, we must not make the mistake
of assuming that the experience in Afghanistan is a model for the next
military campaign. Preparing to refight the last war is a mistake
repeated through much of military history and one that we must and will
avoid. But we can glean important lessons from recent experiences that
apply to the future. Here are a few worth considering.
First, wars in the twenty-first century will increasingly require all
elements of national power: economic, diplomatic, financial, law
enforcement, intelligence, and both overt and covert military
operations. Clausewitz said, "War is the continuation of politics by
other means." In this century, more of those means may not be military.
Second, the ability of forces to communicate and operate seamlessly
on the battlefield will be critical to success. In Afghanistan, we saw
composite teams of U.S. special forces on the ground, working with Navy,
Air Force, and Marine Corps pilots in the sky to identify targets and
coordinate the timing of air strikes -- with devastating consequences
for the enemy. The lesson of this war is that effectiveness in combat
will depend heavily on "jointness" -- that is, the ability of the
different branches of our military to communicate and coordinate their
efforts on the battlefield. But achieving jointness in wartime requires
building it in peacetime. We must train like we fight and fight like we
Third, our policy in this war of accepting help from any country, on
a basis comfortable for its government, and allowing that country to
characterize how it is helping (instead of our creating that
characterization for it), is enabling us to maximize both other
countries' cooperation and our effectiveness against the enemy.
Fourth, wars can benefit from coalitions of the willing, to be sure,
but they should not be fought by committee. The mission must determine
the coalition, the coalition must not determine the mission, or else the
mission will be dumbed down to the lowest common denominator.
Fifth, defending the United States requires prevention and sometimes
preemption. It is not possible to defend against every threat, in every
place, at every conceivable time. Defending against terrorism and other
emerging threats requires that we take the war to the enemy. The best --
and, in some cases, the only -- defense is a good offense.
Sixth, rule nothing out -- including ground forces. The enemy must
understand that we will use every means at our disposal to defeat them,
and that we are prepared to make whatever sacrifices are necessary to
Seventh, getting U.S. special forces on the ground early dramatically
increases the effectiveness of an air campaign. Afghanistan showed that
precision-guided bombs from the sky are much more effective if we get
boots and eyes on the ground to tell the bombers exactly where to aim.
And finally, be straight with the American people. Tell them the
truth -- and when you cannot tell them something, tell them you cannot
tell them. The American people understand what we are trying to
accomplish, what is needed to get the job done, that it will not be
easy, and that there will be casualties. And they must know that, good
news or bad, we will tell it straight. Broad bipartisan public support
must be rooted in a bond of trust, understanding, and common purpose.
Our men and women in uniform are doing a brilliant job in the war on
terrorism. We are grateful to them -- and proud. And the best way we can
show our appreciation is to make sure that they have the resources, the
capabilities, and the innovative culture not only to win today's war,
but to deter and, if necessary, defeat the aggressors we will surely
face in the dangerous century ahead.
Reprinted by permission from the May/June 2002 issue of Foreign Affairs. Copyright 2002 by the Council on Foreign Relations, Inc.