The NDP and the Transformation Strategy

March 1, 1998
Nothing less than a “transformation” of the US military into a radically different force is needed if it is to be ready for a slew of nasty new threats that will materialize around the turn of the century, according to the National Defense Panel, a blue-ribbon commission chartered by Congress. The NDP’s findings, released in December, paint a disquietingly vague picture of what the military is supposed to look like when the transformation is complete, offering little in the way of a clearly defined end state strategy and failing to deliver on Congress’ request for alternative force structures. Nevertheless, the panel’s work figures to have an impact–possibly a significant impact–on this year’s defense budget deliberations on Capitol Hill.

The NDP was created by Congress in 1996 to give a second opinion on the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review, itself an update of the 1993 Bottom-Up Review. Worried that the Pentagon–with its long traditions and vested interests–might not be up to taking a fresh, imaginative look at itself, Congress set up the NDP to provide counterpoint. The panel, comprising retired flag officers and representatives of industry, the diplomatic corps, and academia, took a year to make its own assessment of America’s military future, even as it looked over the shoulder of those conducting the QDR.

In its report, “Transforming Defense: National Security in the 21st Century,” the panel asserted that the US “must begin now” to makes its defense establishment proactive rather than reactive–able to stifle emerging threats before they become uncontrollable crises. It prescribed intense experimentation with new military concepts and technologies and called for much more coordination and togetherness in all aspects of US security, from border patrols to space surveillance, the better to spot and defuse problems before they get out of hand.

The NDP warned that the United States, though a superpower surrounded by broad oceans and docile neighbors, must worry about a host of serious security problems–terrorism, rogue states armed with weapons of mass destruction, and new dangers such as cyber attacks. Ordinary citizens are at peril in their own front yards, the group said, and it advocated a renewed emphasis on homeland defense, with focus on repelling ballistic missile attack, thwarting saboteurs, and protecting the nation’s infrastructure.

How Many Wars

In some key areas, the conclusions of the NDP and QDR overlapped. Like the QDR, the NDP sounded the now-familiar call for a drastic cut in the size of the military’s support infrastructure, rejecting the current system as being far too large and cumbersome. Moreover, the panel urged that US forces adopt a lighter, more mobile, and more lethal posture, one that would be expeditionary in nature. It even produced a template of critical capabilities to be desired and pursued–among them, mobility, stealth, speed, increased range, precision strike, and a small logistics footprint–that is remarkably similar to those identified in the earlier study.

However, when it came to a central premise of the national military strategy, the NDP and Pentagon were sharply at odds.

The Defense Department has held the view since 1993–reaffirmed last year in the QDR–that the nation must maintain sufficient forces and capabilities to be able to fight and win two Major Theater Wars even if they occurred more or less at the same time and in widely separated regions of the world.

The NDP disagreed. The panel’s final report belittled the two-war concept as “a force-sizing function and not a strategy” and dismissed it as little more than a “means of justifying the current force structure.” Continuing with its critique, the NDP claimed that the two-war construct serves as a psychological security blanket “for those searching for the certainties of the Cold War era.” The panel found that no such certainties exist or are likely to.

“The two-theater construct has been a useful mechanism for determining what forces to retain as the Cold War came to a close,” the NDP allowed in its report. However, it went on, this element of US national strategy “is fast becoming an inhibitor to reaching the capabilities we will need in the 201020 time frame.”

In his response–required by Congress–to the NDP’s report, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen found something complimentary or conciliatory to say about almost all the NDP’s findings, but he firmly rejected its take on the two-war requirement. He said the size of the force is intended not only to handle two wars but also to maintain forward presence and carry out peacetime or humanitarian operations. He said the strategy is key to “credibly deterring opportunism and aggression.”

Quick, Find an Extra $5 Billion to $10 Billion

The NDP declared that the current US force, “with the support of allies,” should be able to win nearly simultaneous wars in the Persian Gulf and the Korean peninsula, hot spots the US “cannot ignore,” the panel reported. However, the panel thought that DoD could make do with a bit less expenditure on these forces, stating explicitly that the US could afford to accept more risk in the near term. The NDP called for diverting $5 billion$10 billion a year from existing accounts–which pay for today’s forces and their immediate successors–in order to give more to new “initiatives in intelligence, space, urban warfare, Joint experimentation, and information operations.”

This money stream supposedly would come from cutting unneeded military bases and streamlining DoD’s way of buying things. The NDP conceded that closing more facilities could be politically impossible, though, as Congress has suggested it may be. If so, said the NDP, then operating tempo, personnel, and force structure will have to be cut and major programs canceled. “Difficult choices must be made,” the NDP intoned.

In almost the same breath, however, the NDP acknowledged that the range of near-future scenarios is wide and the specifics “impossible to predict,” with the possible scenarios ranging from an era of almost uninterrupted warring over resources and ethnic differences to an unprecedented spell of peaceful prosperity. In such a situation, said the NDP, it would be foolhardy to dump too much of the existing force in order to accelerate the nation’s reach for a more futuristic one.

This circumstance “strongly suggests a hedging approach to preparing for the future,” the panel said. “We must maintain current capability as we adapt.”

The proper route, according to the NDP, is to “shift the emphasis of our forces” as events unfold, while at the same time “curtailing outdated or less useful forces and operational concepts.” DoD must not be held hostage to “legacy systems” just because it has invested a lot in them, if they are no longer relevant, the NDP said.

The panelists argued that any potential US adversary will have “learned from the Gulf War” and won’t try to take on American forces where they are clearly dominant. Instead, future enemies will try “asymmetrical” means of attack, to “disable the underlying structures that enable our military operations.” For example, a theater opponent may try to coerce an ally to withdraw aid or basing rights by threatening or making missile attacks with weapons of mass destruction. Such scenarios will require the US to quickly develop a more effective means to protect not only itself but its Allies from theater ballistic missiles, said the commission.

The US can also expect attacks on its communication nodes, staging areas, and overseas ports and terrorist attacks at home in an attempt to keep America from getting into or staying involved in a regional war.

The NDP forecast that “increasing commercialization of space” will make it possible for “state and nonstate actors” to obtain satellite reconnaissance and surveillance information, which could erode US dominance in this area. Additionally, such space assets mean adversaries will have the precision targeting capability that for a decade has been almost the exclusive province of the United States.

Power Projection a New Way

The panel warned that, because of the uncertainty that overseas bases will be available in a crisis, the military must not count on using such facilities in the future–at least not to the extent to which the US military is accustomed. American units will have to operate in small groups on the move, scattered and relying on “numerous small, dispersed supply points” rather than large, fixed bases.

“We must be able to project military power and conduct combat operations into areas where we may not have forward-deployed forces or forward bases,” the NDP said. The nation must be able to put “capable, agile, and highly effective shore-based land and air forces in place with a vastly decreased logistics footprint.” The NDP forecast is that small forces will be “the norm” with “regular deployments to far-flung areas of the globe” viewed not as “a detraction from our traditional missions, but as a central element of the responsibilities of the future.”

The need to acquire a capability to project power without forward bases was a note sounded frequently in the NDP’s report, which said that priority will have to be given to “enhanced military responsiveness distinguished by its increased range of employment and resulting in reduced exposure of our forces.” In the panel’s view, speed of deployment, the ability to seize the initiative and achieve objectives quickly “with minimal risk of heavy casualties” will be of primary concern.

With respect to military airpower, the Air Force, and the aviation branches of the other services, the NDP maintained that the nation should also be placing “greater emphasis on operating at extended ranges, relying heavily on long-range aircraft and extended-range unmanned systems, employing advanced precision and brilliant munitions, and [basing] outside the theater of operations.”

US military aviation units will have to be positioned well away from the danger posed by weapons of mass destruction, said the NDP report, and could operate from mobile offshore bases or aircraft carriers, but these too would have to operate “outside enemy missile range.”

Moreover, it argued that a “great reliance” will have to be placed on aerial refueling to extend the range of aircraft, as well as on multiple, austere bases for touch-and-go arming and refueling. Today, the Air Force has a monopoly on forces able to carry out such long-range refueling.

Land forces of the future will rely heavily on speed and “seeing deep” with the help of reconnaissance helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles. Combat UAVs, attack helicopters, and rocket artillery will have to perform extended-range precision strikes, and all land forces will act as eyes and ears for similar strikes by air and sea forces.

Trouble for Tanks

The NDP warned that attempting to either seize or to control certain kinds of terrain with large concentrations of troops and armored vehicles would be “exceedingly challenging” in the emerging combat environment.

The group’s observation is particularly true in urban operations, where it will be extremely difficult to distinguish combatants from noncombatants, yet where avoiding civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure will be a top priority. The panel recommended virtually a crash program in developing urban warfare techniques and technologies but seemed to have no idea of what they might be.

Naval forces would also be required to do more long-range precision strike, adopting a “distributed and networked” operational concept among ships, submarines, and, again, UAVs, to efficiently direct attacks at coastal territory.

The NDP came out in favor of the arsenal ship concept, as well as land-attack destroyers but emphasized that the carriers should be outfitted with short-range aircraft for strikes against points on the littorals of the world’s oceans.

Amphibious forces will need to focus on forces to quickly seize objectives “while avoiding an enemy’s defenses”–presumably a reference to the murderous fortifications and mining of beaches like those around Kuwait City during the Gulf War.

In forecasting future trouble spots, the panel noted that the landlocked Caspian Sea area of Central Asia, with its largely untapped oil and other resources, may become a central focus of contingency planning in the future, but the region would be well out of the range of naval and amphibious forces.

Some observers wondered why the NDP didn’t suggest the termination of a few “traditional” service missions that have not been performed in war for half a century–for example, large combat drops of US Army paratroopers or amphibious landings by US Marines. To this question, panel chairman Philip Odeen replied that the NDP preferred to leave such choices to the Pentagon once battlelab experimentation defines new tactics and capabilities more relevant to emerging threats.

Odeen did note, however, that the group was especially intent on pushing the Army to obtain “dramatically more lethality” for its light forces. “The old joke about the 82d Airborne being a ‘speed bump’ during [the early days of] the Gulf War is largely true,” said the chairman. The NDP chastised the Army for pursuing a new main battle tank when it should be developing a new “very light” armored vehicle of “half the weight” of the M1 Abrams.

In addition, the group lectured all of the services about the need to become fully Joint, knitted together by “a global distributed reconnaissance and intelligence architecture composed of satellites, unmanned aerial vehicles, sensors, and infiltration forces.”

Critical Qualities

In defining what the term “power projection” will mean in the early 21st century, the NDP sounded remarkably like the Air Force describing its approach to the Gulf War. The panel construed future power projection as “disabling the enemy’s strategic center of gravity (including his warmaking potential and military forces) and occupying key terrain.” It went on to say that “in general, we must be able to rapidly target and access whatever an adversary values most, the loss of which would render him either unable or unwilling to continue his hostilities.” To do it, “we should try … to stop aggression through our own strategic initiative and control of the battlespace.” This will mean simultaneously “conducting extended-range precision strikes, seizing control of space and information superiority, exercising ground and sea control, and providing missile defense.”

The NDP set forth a number of basic qualities, capabilities, and characteristics which it thinks will distinguish successful forces of the future. These included integrated, networked system architectures, defensive and offensive information warfare, extensive automation, small logistics footprint, mobility, speed, stealth, increased operational and strike ranges, and precision strike capabilities.

The NDP report noted that the armed services already have codified many of these concepts in individual service “visions”–USAF’s “Global Engagement,” the Army’s “Army After Next” and the Navy’s “Forward … From the Sea”–and that the concepts are well understood. However, it pointed out, “the procurement budgets of the services do not adequately reflect the central thrust of their visions.” It suggested major changes in the way the armed services are allocating funds so as to acquire vitally needed capabilities for the next 20 or 30 years.

For instance, the NDP recommended that the Army and the Marine Corps stop continually extending the service lives of their existing helicopter fleet and move on to advanced vertical lift systems. In addition, the NDP said, the Army should move toward lighter weight and more lethality in all of its platforms and go to smaller units. It should seek to acquire a lighter combat vehicle in the 30- to 35-ton range and a hypervelocity gun. The Army generally should become “more expeditionary” with “fast, shock-exploiting forces.” The Navy should invest in stealthier ships with more–and more sustainable–firepower. The Navy should also proceed with a new generation of aircraft carriers that are smaller and “capitalize on short takeoff, vertical landing,” or STOVL, aircraft technologies.

The panel also recommended a somewhat different thrust investment in aviation forces and space forces. It called for the United States to “move toward fewer numbers of short-range aircraft providing increased delivery capacity with smaller, but more accurate, weapons.” It prescribed exploration of “new approaches to long-range, precision-delivery vehicles” and STOVL operations “on a wide array of airfields, ships, and sea-based platforms.”

With respect to intelligence and surveillance systems, the NDP recommended more satellites to provide redundancy and survivability of command and control, as well as “increased ground surveillance capability.” It chided the Pentagon for reducing the planned procurement of Joint STARS surveillance airplanes from 19 to 13. It urged the Pentagon to restore funding for the full fleet.

Legacy Systems Under Fire

The NDP struck a nerve with many in DoD and the armed services with its call to shift spending sharply away from so-called “legacy systems”–that is, those growing out of the Cold War face off with the Soviet Union–to new systems focused on new missions. With respect to fighter aircraft programs, the panel’s report lumped together the Air Force F-22, the Navy’s F/A-18E/F, and the multiservice Joint Strike Fighter as if they did not have different capabilities, purposes, and importance. However, Odeen was at pains to point out that the NDP did not consider all extant platforms to be “legacies.”

The Air Force’s F-22 stealth fighter, in particular, “is a very advanced system,” he said, and should not be regarded as an out-of-date weapon. “It has strong stealth characteristics,” said Odeen. “I don’t think any of us [NDP members] felt the F-22 shouldn’t go ahead.”

However, the NDP did question the validity of the planned numbers of F-22s, Navy F/A-18E/Fs, and multiservice Joint Strike Fighters, and challenged the Defense Department to show how each of these aircraft “can operate effectively” in the period 201020.

With that remark, Odeen explained later, the panel was trying to highlight the disputed issue of forward bases, inasmuch as the F/A-18 and JSF, particularly, would need to be deployed close to a combat zone. “How can you demonstrate” an ability to operate these new aircraft from “really austere airfields” far from the front lines, Odeen asked. Without the forward bases, the planned numbers of airplanes might be open to question. He also cautioned that the NDP’s remarks on tactical aircraft shouldn’t be read as a call for program terminations but simply a request to “show us the logic” of the missions of the airplanes and why the stated numbers are required.

Ignoring the Halt Phase

Air Force officers and their supporters also felt uneasy about the NDP’s deliberate failure to emphasize–or even mention–the halt phase of conventional theater conflict, an issue of prime importance to the Air Force. Like the Air Force itself, the QDR stated unequivocally that a prime operational requirement for US forces of the future will be to halt an enemy force rapidly, short of its objective, so as to prevent or greatly minimize the need to mount a large ground campaign to reclaim territory seized by an enemy ground force. It is a task for which the Air Force is ideally prepared. However, the final NDP report contained not a single sentence about the whole issue.

Odeen explained that the panel “didn’t feel [it] could endorse that particular approach because we don’t think it has been demonstrated yet.” The concept received “a good bit” of consideration by the group, and “it may well work … and ought to be explored, but we just weren’t comfortable in saying that ought to be our new approach.”

He added that possible US exploitation of its airpower supremacy in the halt phase of theater war is “exactly the kind of issue this Joint experimentation effort ought to look at.” It is one of “a number of operational concepts we think make a good bit of sense,” he added.

When they appeared at a Washington press conference to release their report, panel members shied away from linking their advocacy of long-range, stealthy, precision strike platforms in the abstract with the B-2 bomber specifically. Retired Air Force Gen. James P. McCarthy, a panel member, explained that the NDP is indeed pushing for longer-range aircraft rather than the larger numbers of shorter-range aircraft, but he was quick to add that this statement was “not specifically meant” to be an endorsement of buying more B-2 bombers. The B-2 bomber purchase has been capped at 21 aircraft.

“We … looked out to 2020 and saw that there is no planned longer-range aircraft by any of the services,” McCarthy said. “We don’t have a long-range aircraft on the drawing boards that follows or replaces the existing systems,” and such an absence worries the panel.

NDP members largely agreed with the Pentagon that current levels of nuclear weapons aren’t necessary. It advocated reaching a “strategic equilibrium” between the US, China, and Russia that works to deter nuclear attacks and isn’t sized to “win” a nuclear war with overwhelming firepower.

Retaining the existing force “for an extended period is not in the US interest,” the NDP found, arguing that the weapons will be “expensive to maintain and do not facilitate the transformation process essential to respond to future threats.” The panel urged getting START II ratified quickly and making haste in getting down to START III nuclear levels “and beyond” to save money.

The panel suggested creating a new “Joint Forces Command” to take charge of CONUSbased forces of all services and be responsible for training them, indoctrinating them with “Jointness,” experimentation with operational concepts, providing forces to regional commanders in chief, and to play the role of “driver” of the transformation.

The NDP also advised that Space Command take over information warfare responsibilities and advised realignments of other areas of responsibility to better cover contingencies in the former Soviet republics and the Middle East.

As for the industrial base, the NDP said that maintaining a mobilization capability has dubious value in an era when wars will have to be fought so swiftly and decisively that surge production would never play a role. The group prescribed a “scrub” of any programs aimed at maintaining a defense-specific industrial base “to eliminate unnecessary cost associated with obsolete mobilization concepts.” Commercial, off-the-shelf buying will have to become the rule wherever possible, the NDP determined.

The NDP further suggested that, in order to live within available funds, the services will have to adapt to smaller force structures of fewer, but more capable, machines. It acknowledged that the unit price “sticker shock” of building smaller lots of new systems will be a problem with Congress but insisted that ways can be found to reduce development time and thus cost. The Pentagon “must work with Congress to devise new rules and policies that emphasize technology development and de-emphasize the need for large production quantities in order to recover cost and profit,” it said.

Force Characteristics

The panel believes that relative to today’s forces, the US military of 2010­20 should place far greater emphasis on the following characteristics;

Systems Architectures. Information technologies could dramatically enhance the ability to integrate the actions of widely dispersed and dissimilar units. Such systems architectures would enable highly distributed, network-based operations.

Information System Protection. The defense of our commercial and military information architecture will be critical and will allow us to protect our forces and our platforms from the enemy’s reconnaissance efforts, New means to protect information systems and identify the origin of cyber attacks must be the highest priority. Today, we are vulnerable.

Information Operations. Significant improvements in the application of military force will be achieved by electronic strike capability. We need to develop the ability to insert viruses, implant “logic bombs,” conduct electromagnetic pulse and directed energy strikes, and conduct other offensive electronic operations.

Automation (to include the migration into space and unmanned platforms). The major advantage automation gives us is speed. Given that time will be an increasingly scarce resource in future warfare, automation-aided operations can temporarily compress operations.

Small Logistics Footprint. Not only do we require lighter, more mobile forces, but we also require lean logistics. There may be no secure rear areas. A smaller logistics footprint will represent less of a target and, at the same time, less of a strain on indigenous infrastructures and our own strategic air- and sealift.

Mobility. The ability to move our forces rapidly and in the right configuration is key to their effectiveness. Most importantly, the greater their mobility, the greater their protection.

Stealth. Increasingly, any force that can be seen is likely to be hit. The best protection, therefore, is not to be seen. At the same time, the ability to avoid detection affords the opportunity for tactical surprise–which in turn can allow for strategic and operational surprise. The stealth embodied in our planes and submarines today will be increasingly important for our air, sea, and ground forces tomorrow.

Speed. Given advances in the speed of information flow and communications, the unfolding and duration of critical engagements–indeed the tempo of war itself–have shrunk dramatically. The rate at which we can mobilize, deploy, set, act, and reset any action–preemptive or reactive–will likely be fundamental to success.

Increased Operational and Strike Ranges. We will need increased ranges to ensure the safety of our forces and their ability to achieve desired effects from disparate locations. Greater ranges will also offset the growing vulnerability of forward forces.

Precision Strike. Precision weapons will enable the use of far fewer platforms, with no loss in force capabilities. Precision and the ability to discriminate among targets near each other will limit collateral damage.