Those who promote military innovation and Pentagon reform are right to do so. Bureaucratic inertia and political resistance often impede worthy efforts—and countries that do not innovate often wind up losing wars. But those who call for radical transformation of today’s American military often go too far. The reasons are partly strategic and partly technological.
Strategically, the United States must remain prepared to address numerous near-term challenges even as it innovates and modernizes. The risk of war is quite real in the Persian Gulf and on the Korean peninsula today. China could already pose certain types of threats against Taiwan. If the United States stepped back from its commitments to protect key allies and interests, adversaries might be emboldened to attack. Friends such as South Korea, Taiwan and Kuwait might feel the need to build up their militaries excessively or acquire nuclear weapons.
For these reasons, the Pentagon must retain some type of two-war capability. It need not assume simultaneous conflicts on the scale of Operation Desert Storm against both Iraq and North Korea. But we need the capacity for one all-out campaign together with more limited action elsewhere.
Moreover, the Pentagon has more to worry about than outright aggression by the likes of Saddam Hussein. Major countries could collapse, with strategic as well as humanitarian consequences. For example, if Pakistan descended into civil conflict—hardly a far-fetched proposition—the United States would have to worry about radical Islamic groups trying to get their hands on that country’s nuclear weapons. In such a situation, considerable numbers of old-fashioned U.S. ground forces might be needed to help stabilize the country and secure its weapons of mass destruction. Radical pursuit of military innovation could steal the resources needed to maintain such ground forces and keep them ready.
In terms of technology, those who advocate military innovation often overstate what is possible. It is true that the electronics and computer revolutions offer many new opportunities for the nation’s armed forces. But in most other areas of technology—land vehicles, aircraft, ships, rockets—current rates of progress are not revolutionary. That means the U.S. military should be selective about its modernization, focusing primary attention on electronics, computers and related capabilities, while taking a more patient and discriminating attitude toward other types of weapons acquisition.
Change is needed at the Pentagon, and we can probably make do with a slightly smaller force structure and fewer new weapons than now planned. But radical overhauls are neither necessary nor truly possible.