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Technology No Substitute for Troops

I never thought I’d live to see a former New York Times editor praise Donald Rumsfeld. That day has now arrived–and it is hardly a cause for rejoicing.

Today Bill Keller writes in favor of defense cuts, as if the $487 billion that was lopped out of the Pentagon budget last summer were not enough. He thinks greater savings can be achieved by seeking “a significant cut in active-duty ground forces and the heavy vehicles and artillery that go with them,” as if the army and Marine Corps were not already set to lose roughly 100,000 troopers. He argues that we don’t need all those ground forces anyway–”Keeping America and its allies safe these days depends more on our formidable array of ships, aircraft and precision-guided munitions, plus small units of highly trained special ops and drones to combat terrorist cells.” He then goes on to advocate various other ideas, including reforming the procurement process and pushing for greater inter-service consolidation. The really priceless part comes when Keller concedes:

None of this is new thinking. The last secretary of defense who called for a postwar transformation of the military was Donald Rumsfeld. He arrived at the Pentagon in 2001 for his second tour with an insider’s understanding of the system, a C.E.O.’s impatience with inefficiency, and an awareness that the end of the cold war presented a different world of threats. He was not a budget-cutter, but he wanted the money spent well. Before his good intentions got lost in the slogs of Afghanistan and Iraq, he railed at the interservice rivalries, the waste, the reluctance to give up anything or think afresh.

What Keller seems to have missed is that Rumsfeld was wrong–profoundly and dangerously wrong. Not about cutting bureaucracy and improving contracting–that needs to be done, although the fact that Rumsfeld failed to make any progress on either front should lead one to question whether it’s in fact possible to cut the budget top-line while only excising unnecessary spending without sacrificing real military capabilities.

Where Rumsfeld was wrong was to think that advances in technology would make it possible to cut ground forces without any resulting loss of security. Before 9/11, Rumsfeld was actually planning to cut two divisions from an army which had already been cut by one-third since the end of the Cold War, leading then-Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki to issue a prophetic warning: “Beware a 12-division strategy for a 10-division army.” Rumsfeld did not heed that warning and therefore we went into the Iraq and Afghanistan wars with an army too small for the tasks it was assigned.

Now, proving that we have learned nothing from history, politicians and pundits appear eager to repeat Rumsfeld’s mistake. Slash ground forces to the bone, they argue–we’ll never need to fight another major ground war again. Haven’t we heard that before?


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