The Magazine

Transformation

The changing requirements for victory on the battlefield.

Jan 23, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 18 • By MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
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Military Power

Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle

by Stephen Biddle

Princeton, 312 pp., $37.50

THE LATE HARRY SUMMERS, author of On Strategy, an influential but controversial book about the Vietnam war, used to tell the following anecdote. When the Nixon administration assumed responsibility for the war in 1969, the analysts at the Pentagon fed all the available quantifiable data related to both the United States and North Vietnam into a powerful Cray computer. Then they asked the computer, "When will we win?" The computer whirred for about 30 seconds and spat out its answer: "You won in 1964."

Of course, Vietnam proved beyond a doubt that success in war depends upon more than economic power and an edge in technology. Clausewitz pointed to the importance of "moral factors"--fear, the impact of danger, and physical exhaustion--observing that "military activity is never directed against material forces alone; it is always aimed simultaneously at the moral forces which give it life, and the two cannot be separated."

While the United States has recovered from its defeat in Vietnam, and now sits at the pinnacle of world power, critics of U.S. defense policy suggest that we persist in favoring material over nonmaterial factors in preparing for our wars.

There is no question that Pentagon planners focus heavily on one material factor in particular: the role of technology. For the last decade, Department of Defense planning documents have advanced a vision of future war shaped by technological innovation, especially vast improvements in informational technologies. A decade ago, the term was "revolution in military affairs" (RMA). Today it is "transformation." A recent Pentagon publication, Transformation Planning Guidance (2003), provides a template for transforming current military forces, shaped by the demands of the Cold War, into:

information age military forces [that] will be less platform-centric and more network-centric. They will be able to distribute forces more widely by increasing information sharing via a secure network that provides actionable information at all levels of command. This, in turn, will create conditions for increased speed of command and opportunities for self-coordination across the battlespace.

Such writings reinforce the claim that technology is the central driver of the Defense Department's transformation strategy.

Stephen Biddle's Military Power calls the Pentagon's focus on technology into question, developing a theory of military power that stresses the importance of "force employment" as the key to success or failure in war, as opposed to such traditional factors as technology and preponderance.

I first became aware of Biddle's work when he published an important essay in a 1996 issue of International Security entitled "Victory Misunderstood: What the Gulf War Tells Us About the Future of Conflict." He argued that the main cause of the one-sided coalition triumph in the Gulf war was not, as the advocates of RMA claimed, technology per se but the skill differential between the coalition forces and those of Iraq. He demonstrated that the allies' technological edge served primarily to punish Iraqi operational and tactical errors, thereby magnifying the skill differential between the two sides.

Biddle's research led him to broaden and generalize the issues he had raised with regard to the Gulf war. What are the causes of victory and defeat? How does a state maximize its chances of victory while minimizing casualties? Is there something about modern war that has changed the answers to these questions? Such questions, Biddle observes, are matters of life and death affecting everyone "from infantrymen on the battlefield to office workers in the World Trade Center to entire nations and peoples."

Unfortunately, the answers to such questions have left much to be desired. In 1991, for instance, congressional debate about the use of force to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait hinged to a great extent on the likely casualties that the United States would suffer. Yet all the analyses used to ascertain U.S. losses radically overstated the numbers: The closest estimate was wrong by a factor of two; the majority of predictions were off by more than an order of magnitude.