Sun Tzu and the revolution in military affairs

Aug. 1, 2001
That equation requires military leaders to eliminate something ... the capability to fight two major regional conflicts simultaneously

That equation requires military leaders to eliminate something ... the capability to fight two major regional conflicts simultaneously

John Rhea

WASHINGTON — "Therefore those who win every battle are not really skillful — those who render others' armies helpless without fighting are the best of all," wrote the Chinese scholar Sun Tzu more than 2,000 years ago during the Warring States period of internal turmoil between dynasties.

"Therefore one who is good at martial arts overcomes others' forces without battle, conquers others' cities without siege, destroys others' nations without taking a long time," he adds in his classic The Art of War.

The current turmoil inside the Pentagon bears an eery resemblance to Sun Tzu's ideas. In short, the issue today is whether to maintain the military posture of the past, which focused on Navy battle groups, Air Force tactical fighter wings, and Army divisions — in what has come to be known as platform-centric warfare — or to readjust the force structure to the post-Cold War realities.

This transition process is called the revolution in military affairs, or RIMA, and it has emerged from an obscure Pentagon organization known as the Office of Net Assessment, headed by veteran military analyst Andrew Marshall. The name accurately describes the office's function: its analysts evaluate the capabilities of potential adversaries and compare their capabilities to those of this country. The difference, or net, is what United States forces need before they can counter the threat.

Other analysts, such as Edward Luttwak, senior fellow at Georgetown University's Center for Strategic and International Studies, agree that the platform-centric posture so favored by admirals and generals is more attuned to maintaining the existing bureaucratic structure than to responding to new threats. The platforms represent job security for what he calls the "officer surplus."

Luttwak has been at this for a long time. In his 1984 book, The Pentagon and the Art of War, the Question of Military Reform, he attacks not only the platform-centric approach to procurement, but also what he calls the "research merry-go-round," in which the goal is to develop weapons forever and never put them into operation.

A prime example of the latter is the attempt to defend against missiles carrying nuclear warheads. That got started on Dec. 30, 1958, under the original name Project Defender, and there is no end in sight. The latest twist is a $600 million down payment that President Bush is requesting next year for the $60 billion National Missile Defense system.

The Bush administration, with the release of the new Defense Department budget in June, is trying at least to make a start on RIMA while correcting the longstanding deficiencies in the pay and benefits of military personnel. The defense budget calls for increasing outlays from this year's $296 billion to $329 billion in 2002, which begins Oct. 1.

That equation requires military leaders to eliminate something, and that something is the capability to fight two major regional conflicts simultaneously — read North Korea and some Middle East hot spot — known as "2MRC."

In its place, under RIMA, will be a flexible capability to counter a wide variety of threats such as information warfare, or "cyberterrorism," as well as chemical and biological warfare from a variety of sources. This means fewer big platforms (such as the mothballed B-1 bomber) and more inter-service cooperation under the new goal of network-centric warfare.

This is going to be bitter pill for the admirals and generals to swallow; guerilla warfare has already broken out in the corridors of the Pentagon between the Joint Chiefs of Staff and returning Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. White House leadership will be essential in implementing RIMA. Rumsfeld is fortunate to have in his corner Vice President Dick Cheney, another former defense secretary, who masterminded the successful Persian Gulf War 10 years ago.

The electronics industry does have a dog in this fight. Electronics companies don't make platforms, but they do make the essential subsystems that during the Cold War gave the U.S. the qualitative edge and negated the quantitative superiority of the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies.

RIMA represents for the industry an opportunity to apply advanced electronics technologies to such new military strategies as naval operations in the littoral, or coastal, regions, improved tactical communications, precision-guided munitions, and greater use of unmanned aerial vehicles for delivering ordnance as well as performing reconnaissance and damage assessment missions.

Put simply, dollars spent on big platforms are dollars that otherwise would not be available for these qualitative improvements necessary to respond to new, dispersed threats. The huge military outlays of the Reagan years, such as the questionable drive to create a 600-ship Navy, are over. Since the end of the Cold War there has been a bipartisan consensus to cut defense spending from the 6 percent of gross domestic product of that era to the traditional 3 percent during the interim between the two world wars. The new defense budget does just that.

Military commanders who have experienced shots fired in anger understandably are reluctant to revamp their forces on the advice of analysts who sit behind desks in air-conditioned offices. Warfare is an inherently dangerous business, and the commanders' first priority is the survival of their personnel. But warfare changes; it's only a slight exaggeration to charge the generals with always wanting to fight the last war.

That particular dog won't hunt. The American Civil War was simultaneously the last of the old wars and the first of the new wars — with the Confederacy fighting brilliantly with small, mobile, tactical units in the traditional style and the Union relying on massed firepower and economic warfare. The result was predictable. The Persian Gulf War also represented a transition. It proved the value of electronic warfare in all its facets, including command and control. Yet it's unlikely that any future engagement will be able to tolerate a six-month staging period in order to win a decisive battle in 100 hours.

Maybe The Art of War should be must reading during coffee breaks in the Pentagon guerilla war. "The general rule for military operations is that the military leadership receives the order from the civilian leadership to gather armies," Sun Tzu writes.

"A government should not mobilize an army out of anger, military leaders should not provoke war out of wrath. Act when it is beneficial, desist if it is not. Anger can revert to joy, wrath can revert to delight, but a nation destroyed cannot be restored to existence, and the dead cannot be restored to life."

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Military Aerospace, create an account today!