The Clash of Visions

April 1, 1997

The Commission on Roles and Missions of the Armed Forces in 1995 called for a “joint warfighting vision” to stand above the doctrinal concepts of the individual services, which were presumed to be narrow and parochial. Responding to that call, the Joint Chiefs of Staff last summer put out “Joint Vision 2010.” It was a remarkable piece of work. It broke with tradition and said that information technology and precision strike have brought about a basic change in the ways that wars are fought.

“Instead of relying on massed forces and sequential operations, we will achieve massed effects in other ways,” it said. “With precision targeting and longer-range systems, commanders can achieve the necessary destruction or suppression of enemy forces with fewer systems, thereby reducing the need for time-consuming and risky massing of people and equipment.”

Joint Vision 2010 did not resolve the service differences. In fact, those differences have intensified in recent months as Joint Vision led into the Quadrennial Defense Review and a new round of financial pressures on the defense program.

At stake are force structure, personnel strength, system modernization, budget shares, and more. Among the potential losses rumored, for example, are two active Army divisions, at least one Navy carrier air wing, and two or three Air Force fighter wings. Much depends on the relative credibility of the service visions and how they are seen to square with the joint vision.

The Air Force made a strong case in its “Global Engagement” vision statement, published in November. Its air and space assets provide much of the information superiority on which Joint Vision 2010 was based. Long-range Air Force systems can rapidly find, fix, track, and target anything of consequence on the face of the Earth.

Thomas Ricks, writing for the Wall Street Journal, called it a “Federal Express approach to national strategy–when it absolutely, positively has to be destroyed overnight.” In many instances, the Air Force believes, an air campaign will be able to bring a regional invasion to a decisive halt in which the enemy no longer has the capability to advance and wherein his strategic options are exhausted.

Joint Vision 2010 also favors the Navy somewhat, but carrier air wings have neither the aircraft nor the striking weight to match what the Air Force can bring to bear in wartime. In fact, the Navy has scrapped an aggressive “2020 Vision” concept and has gone back to its 1994 doctrine, “Forward . . . From the Sea,” and its emphasis on the forward presence mission.

The main challenge comes from the Army, supported by the Marine Corps, arguing that it is “boots on the ground,” not aircraft and precision guided weapons, that matter most. The Army bills itself as “the force of decision” and says in “Army Vision 2010” that land power makes permanent “the otherwise transitory advantages achieved by air and naval forces.”

Furthermore, where Joint Vision 2010 prescribed “full spectrum dominance” in combat, current sentiment in the Department of Defense is slipping toward “SSCs” (small-scale contingencies) and Military Operations Other Than War. A senior Pentagon official is quoted as saying the military is “going to end up 40 to 60 percent committed to war and 40 percent committed to some type of peacekeeping missions.”

That theme resonates with Army leaders who contend that “increased demand for operations on the lower end of the spectrum of crisis” suggests “a redefinition of general missions for the military.” According to Army Vision 2010, both major and lesser regional conflicts will be the domain for “increased reliance on joint operations” while the “dominant roles for land forces” fall lower on the scale. These will include disaster relief, refugee protection, “reassurance,” Military Operations Other Than War, “conflict containment,” and “punitive intrusion” in counterdrug, counterterrorism, and counterproliferation missions.

It is too soon to say how this clash of visions will be decided or what the consequences will be for strategy and force structure, but several conclusions are difficult to escape.

  • The primary purpose of the armed forces is to fight and win wars. Lesser and collateral missions are important, but we must remember always that they are lesser and collateral.
  • Joint Vision 2010 got it right. The objective is full spectrum dominance, not marginal advantage or just enough capability to get by.
  • Former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry also got it right when he reminded us, during his last days in the Pentagon, that a strategy of force dominance–in which the United States can expect to win quickly, decisively, and with few casualties–is made possible largely by the combination of stealth, reconnaissance and intelligence systems, and precision strike.
  • Thanks to that combination of technologies, airpower can strike directly and with great accuracy at critical parts of the enemy’s infrastructure and order of battle. Military effectiveness is no longer measured by battle lines on the ground.
  • The nation needs a full range of military capabilities. That includes boots on the ground and ships at sea. However, and with all due respect, it seems reasonably obvious that the dominant elements of warfare in the future will be airpower and systems in space.