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Are we ready to rumble?

Because the aggressor always shows up, we'd better be: Three challenges the next president will face, and how he can use military might to keep the peace

In 1959, after retiring as Army chief of staff, Gen. Maxwell Taylor wrote The Uncertain Trumpet. In it he warned that defense policies based on nuclear deterrence and massive retaliation invited aggression from an unexpected quarter-from smaller, less conventional foes. Taylor contended that a defense establishment awesome in military power was also increasingly irrelevant in a world where wars of national liberation were erupting in Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia. His book fed the controversy over military preparedness during the 1960 presidential election and led to the strategic shift from massive retaliation to flexible response in the Kennedy administration. Forty years later the world is very different. In the current election, most Americans do not see national security as paramount, but whoever wins in November will face a big challenge: devising a vision for the future of U.S. national security relevant to the 21st century, a world vastly different from that for which the current defense organization and structure was devised by the National Security Act of 1947. In January 2001, while the armed forces of the United States will remain the world's preeminent military force, three immediate issues will confront the new administration: readiness, retention and recruitment, and the procurement of key weapons systems. These issues are all addressable and solvable and, because the defense bureaucracy is designed to handle immediate and urgent issues, it will be relatively easy to do so. Readiness has proven to be a campaign issue, if a minor one. Are the armed forces prepared to fulfill the National Military Strategy's primary goal of being able to fight and win two major theater wars (MTWs) while sustaining the current rate of deployments in support of peacekeeping operations? On any given day, routinely more than 140,000 Army personnel are stationed or deployed around the world, conducting an average of 300 separate missions in 70 countries. The Air Force and Navy are consumed with similar requirements as they enforce no-fly zones in Iraq and over the Balkans and maintain a blockade in the Persian Gulf. With resources and energies dedicated to peacekeeping, maintenance and training for combat operations have decreased. The issue of readiness raises the question, Ready for what? and points to a much larger question: Why do we raise and maintain military forces? For decades, the existence of the Soviet Union provided the answer to that question: We were ready to defend ourselves and the free world from communist aggression. No more; there are no Soviet juggernauts in today's world. Still, it is fair to ask whether current readiness levels are sufficient to fight and win a major theater war, such as the Persian Gulf War of 1991, or even a smaller conflict against an unexpected and unpredictable foe. It is tempting to address the question of readiness with ready money-and indeed, increases in spending and in personnel numbers may provide a short-term remedy. But more radical solutions, like establishing forces devoted to constabulary missions, deserve consideration. The next administration will have to deal with personnel issues, with recruitment and retention of paramount importance. Also of concern are issues like morale and training. Together these cannot be separated from readiness because wars are fought by people and not exclusively by machines and organizational structures. Recruitment and retention have been concerns since the mid-1990s. The increased pace of overseas deployments, the lack of an easily identifiable threat, and a strong economy have worked to the detriment of military services in search of the best possible recruits. In recent months, aggressive marketing campaigns by each of the services seemingly have turned the tide in recruitment, but retention remains a problem. In 1999, the Army fell 6,500 short of its recruiting goal of 75,000 soldiers. This year, it has met its goal of 80,000 by employing an aggressive advertising campaign and by offering more enticements aimed at higher-quality recruits. That's good news, but keeping these soldiers in uniform has become a problem, too. The exit of mid-level officers-Navy lieutenants, Army and Air Force captains, and mid-level noncommissioned officers-has been significant. In the Army, for example, the attrition rate for captains has gone from 7 percent (lost each year to the private sector) at the end of the Cold War to 11 percent today. This is worrisome because at the tactical and operational levels, bold, imaginative, and dedicated leaders win battles. No matter how motivated the troops or experienced the senior leadership, if the armed forces lack competent leadership at the company and squadron levels, the risk of defeat in battle is real. The hemorrhage has been among officers and noncoms with six to 12 years of experience-the people who translate war plans into operational and tactical success through combat leadership. They are the warriors who must outthink and outfight our enemies on the ground, at sea, and in the air. Their skill, judgment, and abilities are critical to victory. If our lieutenants, captains, majors, and noncommissioned officers are not better than the enemy's, we risk defeat in battle. The good economy, combined with the vastly increased pace of deployment, hit this group hard. These are men and women who, in their late 20s and early 30s, have families. That makes those extended tours overseas for open-ended peacekeeping missions much less attractive. Along with the problems of retention and recruitment are persistent morale issues brought about by the military's politically correct focus on training, gender, and sexual orientation. Many young people in uniform, particularly in line units, wonder why they spend more time in sensitivity sessions driven by multiculturalism and diversity than they do in training to sharpen combat skills. Recent high-profile cases of sexual harassment and acts of violence against homosexuals have forced military higher-ups to give extra attention to matters such as gender and sexual orientation. And there's no quick fix for this one; given the political sensitivities associated with gender equality and the "don't-ask-don't-tell" policy on homosexuals, it is unlikely that radical departures from the current emphasis on these initiatives will be forthcoming, no matter who takes office in January. But this is not as troubling to the military as one might think. While the homosexual lobby seems determined to advance its agenda, homosexuals are not clamoring to get into the armed forces in significant numbers. And because the military culture is still a part of the American culture, we cannot expect it to hold to Judeo-Christian concepts (such as sin and the need for redemption) long after society as a whole has abandoned them. What we can expect is that any change in the "don't ask, don't tell" policy will likely be in the direction of "don't ask, but tell if you feel so inclined." The third issue to capture the attention of any new administration will be procurement. The Army's M1 Abrams tank, the Bradley fighting vehicle, the AH-64 Apache helicopter, and the Multiple Launch Rocket System were designed in the 1970s and became operational in the 1980s. The Air Force's front-line fighters, the F-15 Eagle and the F-16 Falcon, were designed with lessons learned in the air war over Vietnam. The earlier models of those aircraft are reaching their silver anniversary in service. The same applies to the Navy's F-14 Tomcat and its F/A-18A Hornet fighter-bombers. A new administration will be faced with procurement decisions on weapons designed to replace these aging systems. The Air Force's F-22 Raptor, which goes for $100 million per copy, the Army's RAH-66 Comanche "stealth" helicopter, and the Navy's super-sophisticated Sea Wolf submarine program are all of critical importance-at least to the individual branches of our military, and to the industries that provide them. But some argue that however technologically advanced the weapons are, they are Cold War legacy systems irrelevant to a world where future enemies will use asymmetric tactics. Symmetric tactics are opposing a tank with a tank or an anti-tank missile, and aircraft with anti-aircraft batteries. But unconventional aggressors will find ways to avoid engaging our most sophisticated weapons, thus negating their usefulness. Perhaps the greater challenge will be to devise and articulate a strategic vision appropriate to the 21st century. America's role in the world has shifted dramatically since the National Security Act of 1947 established the Department of Defense in its current form. The great strategic task will be to transform DOD from service structures and doctrines focused on providing for national defense-deterring or defeating traditional forms of state-on-state aggression-to those that can provide for international security in a world of economic interdependence and strategic ambiguity. The current structure, organization, doctrines, and cultures within DOD are heavily laden with legacies from the Cold War era. As we enter the 21st century, the armed forces are still structured for a bipolar world where two armed camps jockeyed for strategic advantage. In today's world, polarities are economic and often ethnic or religious. Military power is not nearly so important as economic power. Today's primary sources of instability are imbedded in ethnic hatreds, religious conflict, and the competition for resources. The good news is that we have time to reshape our military strategy. While we do face the possibility of regional conflicts with nations like Iraq or North Korea, no "peer competitor" capable of threatening vital U.S. interests on a global scale or able to jeopardize our national existence and independence is likely to emerge for the next 20 years. The question is, with no easily identifiable enemies on the immediate horizon, do we have the will to move boldly to make our national defense structure capable of meeting a wide variety of threats, especially asymmetric ones posed by terrorists using weapons of mass destruction ranging from nuclear and chemical/biological weapons to cyber-terrorism? We had better. And we had better resist the temptation to feel that without a peer competitor to threaten us, there is no need to spend our resources on the military. When I was a doctoral student in the 1970s, I attended a seminar in Modern Military History. During class, one student intoned the old anti-war shibboleth, "What if they gave a war and nobody showed up?" The professor, a World War II veteran, replied, "Young man, the aggressor always shows up." If we fail over the next decade to meet the challenges of transformation and do not build the kind of military forces needed to deter aggression and support our vital national interests wherever threatened, you can be sure an aggressor will show up.

The opinions expressed by the author are his own and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Army, or the Army War College.

-Mr. Tilford is director of research at the Strategic Studies Institute of the Army War College in Carlisle Barracks, Pa.