RMA: Radical and Moderate

What I’m writing about in that last post without ever typing the words is Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). And I may read like an outright detractor, but I actually consider myself an RMA enthusiast. In any revolution you have the radicals and the moderates. The radicals want the revolution to sweep away all previously existing forms and practices. The moderates are more or less satisfied with the status quo, but advocate some non-routine revisions. I consider myself to be in the moderate camp. I don’t think things like heavy armor, large units, piloted planes, aircraft carriers and such are going to go away. I am in favor of RMA being bent towards the purpose of improving these weapons systems and adding capabilities around the margins. I think the U.S. has done a pretty good job pushing RMA so far, would be in favor of perhaps a more aggressive agenda in the near future, but would also advocate a critical examination of some of the recent advances in RMA with an eye to possibly bringing back some older practices. Perhaps I’m just in favor of Evolution in Military Affairs, or, to retain but overload the acronym, Reformation in Military Affairs.

My moderation in my enthusiasm for RMA comes from my sympathy for the sort of institutional conservatism that’s entirely appropriate to the special circumstances of the military. It’s a conservatism and a ponderousness born of some of the most gruesome experience in the human record and it should not be taken lightly.

In, say, the economy or a federal policy environment, experimentation can be freely encouraged and pursued. Owing to the redundancy and parallelism of market economies, one or even many suppliers or consumers can fail without much perturbation to the system as a whole. There is no single point of failure. Owing to the security monopoly of the state and the extremely high stakes, a similar experimentalism would be unwise in the extreme. Here there is but one point of success or failure: make a mistake of sufficient consequence and the security of the state is lost. Even in cases of less than catastrophic miscalculation, the lives of thousands of young people are at stake.

I think a NASA-like caution is warranted here, with modifications to tried and true systems only taking place in the tiniest, most sure-footed steps, each one of them being subjected to the most rigorous stress testing and a period of learning before proceeding to the next modification.

But to make perhaps a more trenchant critique of RMA, most RMA thinking comes out of the Air Force. Some comes out of the Navy as well, though many RMA proponents see a lot of the Navy’s heavy metal as ripe for the pruning too. But as often as not Navy heavy metal is viewed as a platform rather than a legacy system, e.g. submarines with their element of stealth are considered sexy platforms; aircraft carriers are more in the sitting duck category. The Army is often perceived as and feels itself the target of RMA. It’s heavy metal is in that sour spot of just the wrong size: too small to be platform, to big not to be target.

But arguably there is a service-parochialism to all RMA thinking to date.

The Air Force, and to a lesser extent the Navy, just work differently than the Army. They operate with much more narrow margins of error. A large air force might consist of only a few hundred planes and pilots. The U.S. only has 21 B-2 bombers. At the height of the Cold War it only planned to purchase 132 of them. Present plans only call for the purchase of 183 of the F-22. A lot of this is true of the Navy as well. A powerful navy in today’s world could be comprised of a few score blue water ships. In addition to the narrow margin for an air force overall, the individual units of an air force typically run on fairly narrow margins of error as well. Most planes are capable of sustaining only very little damage before they are totally inoperable — typically they sustain a little damage followed by total loss when they hit the ground or go down behind enemy lines. Under these pressures, when air forces operate, they execute a mission, then return to safety behind friendly lines or on an aircraft carrier, where they are closely monitored and restored to 100 percent functionality. When something breaks, that’s often the end of the line.

The Army is different. It operates in considerably more punishing circumstances and at much lower levels of function. The Army expects supply lines cut, radios to fail, communication cut off, equipment to be waterlogged and jammed with sand, mobility impeded by mud or weather. The Army is often expected to operate deep in hostile territory for months at a time (think counterinsurgency or Vietnam), with no option of a quick jaunt back across friendly lines to be restored to full capacity. As a result, it has built in considerably higher fault tolerance. In fact it is just these built-in margins of error that today make it a target for the RMA revolutionaries.

Another way to think about this is to say that RMA is heavily plan-oriented — though this is often invisible because in RMA-type systems the plans are ubiquitous owing to the intangibility of coordination and the instantaneousness of computation. The plans are invented on the fly for actually existent situations, rather than plotted well in advance for situations projected a priori. But this is not the Army way. As the maxim goes, even the best plans never survive the first encounter with the enemy. Too much goes wrong on the battlefield for anything but the most improvisational micro-strategies to be workable (on the other hand, maybe the best of RMA is just the systemization of improvisation).

An example RMA proposal that I think founders on this Army-Air Force distinction is Future Combat Systems (Wikipedia | Global Security.org): the idea that the Army trade in its heavy tanks for lighter, faster vehicles. They would rely on surveillance, communication and maneuver instead of armor to avoid losses: a military doctrine version of “best block no be there.” The idea is that in essence, the information technology becomes the armor. To the extent that enemy forces needed to be destroyed, that would be handled by air power, long range munitions and stand-off weapons.

To some extent this tactic was employed in Iraq using existing vehicles. The invasion could happen so fast because U.S. forces deliberately avoided time consuming confrontations with Iraqi forces and simply drove around them to make hast for the (perceived) more important objectives of the command, control and communication nerve centers of the regime. As was pointed out at the time, the logistics tail couldn’t keep up with the invasion force.

As altogether too many a Humvee convoy in Iraq has found, dispersal, concealment, surveillance and stand-off attack are not tactics exclusively available to the U.S. And when these tactics fail, a lot of metal is plan B. In the Air Force a few square yards of nylon, namely a parachute, is plan B. In the Army, plan B doesn’t fit in a knapsack.

To criticize the Army on the basis of the standards of the Air Force and the Navy is to make an operating environment-category error. The Army faces its own set of problems, has identified its own relevant learning experiences and brings to bare its own set of institutional methods. It should not be immune to criticism in these — fresh thinking and an outside perspective are often useful. But for the Air Force to criticize the Army for employing too much heavy armor and relying too much on mass would be like the Army criticizing the Air Force for constructing their planes out of excessively light weight materials.

The Army needs to develop its own version of RMA. Obviously it has done some of that to date. It recognizes that every pair of boots on the ground is also a pair of eyes on the ground. It long ago adopted a doctrine of maneuver and plans to get much more aggressive in this regard: through heads-up displays on soldiers and in vehicles it is building a sort of military surge-mob model. With a renewed emphasis on counterinsurgency and perhaps a new found enthusiasm for state building it will end up with a skill set more relevant to the foreign policy problems of the next century than that of the Air Force.