Friday, September 22, 2006

Military Advances Hobbled

By Fred Reed
Washington Times
September 22, 2006

A question I often hear is: How is the most sophisticated, technologically advanced military that ever existed being fought to a standstill in Iraq by a small number of ragtag insurgents with light arms? What is going on? How did we get here?

The U.S. military of today was forged in World War ll, which was won by mass industrial production and technological superiority.

You don't have to be a specialized military historian to realize how much the outcome depended on radar, proximity fuses, sonar, electronic measures and countermeasures.

The Soviet Union, the follow-on enemy to Germany, had the same kind of military. That is, it used tanks, aircraft and submarines. So the U.S. military, until the collapse of the USSR, was essentially an updated World War II military.

Better technology was a crucial part of the mix. The Soviets could field larger numbers of tanks and troops, so the U.S. was going to have better -- more advanced -- tanks. And it did. Despite scare propaganda, U.S. equipment was always far better than the hardware fielded by the Soviets.

Then came Vietnam. From this, the military learned two things: First, Americans were not again going to accept high casualties in remote wars that really meant little to them. Second, young Americans weren't even going to fight wars that didn't matter to them. The draft ended.

Both of these discoveries forced the Pentagon into increasing reliance on technological solutions. It was better to lose machines, which wouldn't upset the public, than men, which would. Anyway, with the volunteer Army, the Pentagon no longer had many men. But cruise missiles would destroy targets without risking pilots. Anti-tank helicopters would eliminate tanks from a distance. This worked, if you wanted to blow up the right kind of targets.

The phrase "force multiplier" became popular in military circles. It meant things such as night-vision gear that let the army kill the enemy at night without being seen, thus reducing casualties. Technically, the equipment worked fine.

All of this aimed at substituting technology for manpower. We had the first but not the second. Around the E-Ring in the Pentagon you heard phrases like "a leaner, meaner, more agile force." This meant a higher-tech, more "Star-Wars"-type force with, crucially, fewer men.

It wasn't a stupid idea. Under the circumstances, it was probably the only idea. And, of course, you had a huge military industry, with factories and jobs in every state, earning lots of money by making higher- and higher-tech weapons. This added a lot of push for the technology approach.

Unfortunately enemies, not being stupid, figured out what a small extremely advanced military can do, and what it can't do. It can blow up conspicuous and expensive targets, such as tanks. By virtue of phenomenal and well-aimed firepower, it can capture any small place, such as a city or a hill.

But it cannot occupy territory, which takes men, lots of them. It cannot well destroy dispersed, low-value targets, such as men with rifles. In cities or broken territory, its pricey weapons, such as tanks, become vulnerable to fairly cheap commodity anti-tank missiles. Israel just learned this. The United States is still learning.

This is why a superbly equipped, almost magically technological American army struggles with a small number of primitively armed insurgents. The bad guys shoot and fade, plant bombs and fade.

The military does Vietnam style search-and-destroy missions but has nothing to destroy. It's designed for a war that the insurgents won't fight. We are fighting their kind of war, on their terms. That's the problem.

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