All the Wrong Reasons

Secretary of Defense Gates wants to cut back or even end a mildly controversial Army project called the Future Combat System, a fundamentally flawed program that I believe I’ve written about before. The idea basically was to, in the future, fight “smarter”, rather than “harder”, with all kinds of neat toys like lightly-armored but high-speed fighting vehicles and a fully-computerized, fully-networked command, control, and intelligence (C2I) system – “network-centric warfare”, in particular, was promised to be the Next Big Thing.

It was a boondoggle, and a gratuitous waste of taxpayers’ money, and I for one am glad it’s facing the (long-overdue) axe.

The thing is, I think Gates is killing the program for all the wrong reasons.

The main criticism he seems to be leveling at FCS is that it is incompatible with (some of) the (cherry-picked) lessons learned fighting against insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, and this is reasonably true. FCS was quite unabashedly designed around a cold-war era conventional force-on-force war, where it was – and is – theorized that a lot of small, fast units with good situational awareness will triumph over a larger, slower, “dumber” force in an old-school territorial war. Whether or not you’re an adherent of Better Living and Fighting Through Technology, it’s not hard to see that this has little applicability to a low-intensity asymmetrical conflict like we continue to see in Afghanistan.

Gates could say that the program is way overbudget, has had no real oversight, and that there are serious concerns that the whole thing will ever work as intended, and use those reasons to kill off the program. He didn’t, though, and that’s what irritates and upsets me.

What he said, in essence, is that the FCS – the Army of Tomorrow, designed to go head-to-head with a large conventional army – should be shitcanned because it doesn’t bear enough resemblance to the “Army of Today”, which is increasingly becoming a one-trick, counterinsurgency force. In other words, it needs to go, because it doesn’t fit with the Pentagon’s old “Team America: World Police Force” mentality.

That bothers me, and I think it should bother you, too. It’s not (just) that I’m slightly appalled by the thought that the U.S. might spend the next fifty years expanding its empire and engaging in third-world “nation building”, but that the U.S. military has already lost much of – and is poised to lose much more of – its capability to do anything else.

We have basically zero ability to fight in a winter, arctic war of any sort whatsoever. We’re rapidly losing our ability to fight in swampy/marshy/watery terrain, as amphibious and semi-amphibious vehicles get retired in favor of big heavy lumbering monstrosities like the MRAP. We are barely able to fight a low-intensity counterinsurgency in mountainous terrain. Defensively, I have some pretty serious doubts about the Army’s anti-aircraft and anti-helicopter capabilities, which it seems have been allowed to atrophy after a decade of disuse, and it seems the only things our tactics and equipment are now designed to protect against are snipers and IEDs. Camouflage? Decoys? Defense against airborne surveillance? Useless against urban insurgencies, so left unfunded, undeveloped, and largely untaught.

The Future Combat System is bad, but the Secretary of Defense isn’t really doing the military any favors by getting rid of it for the wrong reasons. The military exists to defend the U.S. against hostile foreign interests. They’re doing okay in Iraq and Afghanistan – but thanks to short-sighted guys like Robert Gates, they’re quite frankly going to be fucked if they have to fight against a conventional army, and/or anyplace cold, steep, or wet. That needs to change, but Gates – and the rest of the Pentagon – seem to be in no hurry to do so…

Published in: General | on April 6th, 2009| Comments Off on All the Wrong Reasons

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