The CSS Blog Network

The Great Paradigm Shift: Denial and then Acceptance I (Part 6/8)

Photo: UK Ministry of Defence/flickr

When confronted with the post-1945 diversification of hard power described in Friday’s blog, how did the national security establishments of the Euro-Atlantic zone react?  Well, you could say the response was problematic.  There is a reason that mischievous wags claim military intelligence is an oxymoron or that armies are synonymous with “tradition unhampered by progress.”  Change in security establishments can indeed be slow because experimenting with human lives is never an attractive idea, particularly if an official letter to about-to-be devastated loved ones is the end result.  For this reason and grubbier, less salutary ones, as the 20th century progressed and the fissures described Friday only grew, the most basic reaction of the greatest military power in the world and that of its most trusted allies was denial.  Yes, denial.  The United States refused to accept that limited wars by limited means for limited ends, nuclear warfare, insurgency-prone irregular warfare, and transnational terrorism represented “real” war.  They were dismissed as anomalies.  They were dismissed as abnormal.  They did not reflect what security elites had come to define as “genuine” state-directed violence.  These departures, taken as a whole, were given only limited conceptual space in a mental world still dominated by Jominian Napoleonic-Industrial Warfare.

Yes, American and its allies grudgingly fought limited wars by limited means for limited ends; and, yes, they grudgingly hacked their way through the maze-world of nuclear theory and strategy; and, yes, they tried to blunt insurgencies and then quickly deemphasized (if not outright tried to forget) the tactics, concepts and procedures they had developed to cope with them, but their hearts were never truly in any of these endeavors.  Not really.  Instead, they invariably defined the world in binary terms.  Not Sun Tzu’s pairing up of stability-instability, which reflects reality relatively well, but the more familiar division between war and peace.  However, the four hard power developments described on Friday put security establishments in an awkward position.  If analyzed dispassionately, the four developments were not part of peace nor were they “true” parts of war, and if war was actually limited to Napoleonic-Industrial Warfare, then the only alternative left when an “unrepresentative” conflict broke out was to seek the safe haven of “peace” as quickly as possible, as America and its allies traditionally defined it.

In short, the cliff was sliding into the ocean.  A massive paradigm shift in the use and potential abuse of hard power was underway and the reaction of Euro-Atlantic security establishments was, despite adaptations at the margins, to maintain a stubborn adherence to a fraying style of war.  There was, after all, the Fulda Gap always to worry about.  And when the Soviet Bear finally suffered a paper mache death, the United States security establishment and its allies were thrown a very helpful and convenient bone – i.e., the highly conventional, Persian Gulf War of 1990-1991.

Was this war the much-delayed beginning of the end?  Was it a near-last hurrah for Napoleonic-Industrial Warfare and the “scientific” intellectual scaffolding that supported it?  Well, not to those who saw an obvious opportunity to maintain the status quo, even if there were no credible first-tier conventional threats anywhere else in the world.  Instead of finally trying to reconcile their style of war and the massive military machines that supported it with at least three of the crosscurrents described in last Friday’s blog, The Gulf War was instrumentalized to maintain a back-to-the-past world.  (That this status quo’ism also maintained the national security state America had become since the 1950s, along with the military-industrial-congressional-media complex that supported it, goes without saying.)  Maintaining the status quo, however, required a narrative that appeared to be cutting edge and responsive to change, although not where it ultimately mattered – i.e., the reconceptualizing of a long-standing mode of war and the concepts that supported it.  Enter then the much-vaunted and heavily publicized concept of Military Transformation.

The Transformation narrative began in the early 1990s and claimed that 1) conventional military history is littered with decisive paradigm shifts in war, and 2) since the shifts had always featured order-of-magnitude improvements in military capabilities, those who precipitated them, or adapted to them the fastest, would always enjoy at least a short-term conventional advantage over their rivals. So, asked the seeming progressives in the U.S. military establishment, were these periodic shifts beyond their control or could they actually harness them in formal ways – i.e., could they both institutionalize Transformation and make it perpetual?  Their opponents, of course, believed otherwise.  (Notice, however, that it was a “family quarrel” that did not question the centrality of “scientific” large-scale conventional warfare.)  Formalized, day-in and day-out change, the doubters argued, regardless of how far reaching it might be, is just evolutionary change on steroids – there’s nothing revolutionary about it.  Nonsense, said the true believers.  By relying on the ongoing information and miniaturization revolutions, among other unprecedented developments, we can harness Transformation and make it a permanent feature of any military establishment’s life.  We’ll build Centers of Excellence, unrivaled simulation facilities and much more to precipitate and agitate order-of-magnitude improvements in the American Way of War.

Uh, O.K., said the doubters.  But why do you want to formalize Transformation, they asked?  Well, deliberately pursuing next-step Transformation would ensure permanently high levels of investment, which would then ensure perpetual military advantages for the U.S. and its NATO allies.  In other words, a commitment to Transformation could prevent the rise of peer or near-peer military competitors over the long-term, and therefore permit you to shape the international environment rather than merely react to it.  You could, in short, dictate the international rules of the road over the next 20-25 years.  (One of the hidden consequences of the Second Iraq War, for better or worse, was that the U.S. and some of its European allies quarreled so intensely about it that they let this opportunity slip through their fingers.)

Ah, so that’s why you want to institutionalize permanent Transformation, observed the doubters.  But how are you actually going to do that, they asked next?   When it comes to investing in Transformation, where’s the money going to go?  Well, here’s where manipulating the concept of Military Transformation as a way to maintain the status quo hit a BIG snag.  Many of its early advocates firmly believed that technology was the key to perpetual military advantage.  The tribe that did not agree (and vehemently, I might add) with this conclusion was the ground forces.  First, to members of this tribe, having faith in technologically-based Transformation was nothing less than a fundamental threat to their historical prominence, if not their very existence.  Second, such faith threatened their nonnegotiable view of war as a human activity that irreducibly involved close-in, “red zone” combat.  Third, such faith threatened their self-image as THE focal point of Joint warfare.  (Air and naval forces were primarily there to support them, or so they insisted then and now.)  Fourth, such faith threatened the land tribe’s preferred concept of Joint operations, which rejected democratic “right tool, right place, right time” arguments for a preferred “everyone must play” alternative.  Fifth, a faith in technology-driven Transformation was just conceptually wrong.  Military success is attributable to superior military training and leadership, not mere toys.  Finally, advocating technology-based transformation threaten the nay-sayer’s pocketbooks.  (People and their training are the most expensive things in professional militaries, not equipment.)

So, when you put all the above factors together, they added up to a compelling story.  The Cold War period did see a fraying of the dominant, “scientific” Napoleonic-Industrial model of war in the West.  However, the most common reaction by Western security establishments, especially the United States, was to deny that limited wars by limited means for limited ends, nuclear warfare, insurgency-prone irregular warfare, and transnational terrorism represented a next step beyond their cherished conception of “real” war.

These growing fissures in what had been a sturdy framework were, if anything, seen as peripheral to the multi-decade threat posed by the Warsaw Pact against Western Europe.  When the Soviet system visibly started to collapse, however, the Persian Gulf War in 1990-1991 provided the nay-sayers a convenient opportunity to push back against the idea that high-technology Napoleonic-Industrial Warfare was just a type of war rather than warfare itself, and that its utility as a political instrument was waning.  Those who argued this point cited the trailblazing technologies used in the Gulf to claim that the war was a signpost of the future rather than an at-core monument to a firepower-attrition past.  What we needed, therefore, was a greater investment in what we already had.  We needed to pursue Military Transformation.  That this transformation would merely update and recast a rationalist, strained and long-in-the-tooth concept of war was left unsaid.  Yes, one could invoke John Boyd’s OODA Loop, and one could invoke Decision-Cycle Dominance, or aerial decapitation or a slew of other approaches laced with the language of chaos and/or complexity theory, but they didn’t change the fundamentals.

It was only when the military services of the United States – i.e., the Army and the Air Force – subsequently began to quarrel with each other over the concept of Transformation, and how to characterize or populate it properly, that the naked institutional self-interest and conceptual back peddling associated with it became obvious.  Some of the U.S.’s NATO allies, in turn, eventually saw in their version of Transformation an attempt by the Americans to make them budding global policemen, which did not appeal to them at all.  (A sentiment, by the way, that was subsequently reinforced by their unhappy experience in Afghanistan.)

So, the Western military powers entered the 21st century increasingly aware that their long-standing and preferred paradigm of war was continuing to fray at the edges.  (The pesky and persistent intrusion of the alternative forms of war we’ve discussed saw to that.)  Having said this, however, the model remained stubbornly in place, or did it?  As tomorrow’s blog will show, 9-11 and the Second Iraq War were waiting just around the corner, as was a reluctant acceptance that Western security was indeed undergoing a paradigm shift of major proportions.