The United States is at a crossroads when it comes to developing defense technologies for a future that seems obscure at best. The U.S. military, the world’s most technologically advanced fighting force, is pouring billions of dollars into next-generation weapons systems in an effort to maintain its competitive edge. But at the same time, it is struggling in a prolonged war in which the adversary wields technologies most decidedly nonmilitary in nature.
Gazing into a murky crystal ball, defense officials are still having difficulty reconciling these two extremes. While some experts argue that conventional military forces will be needed again in the future, others point to the ongoing operations as evidence that the nature of warfare is evolving away from large scale battles.
Potential enemies are paying attention to the tactics that are being used in Iraq and Afghanistan to undermine the U.S. military, says Rear Adm. Michael Tillotson, deputy commander of the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command. In the future, would-be adversaries who have coffers to empty on expensive defense technologies may decide to employ the cheaper insurgent tactics to stymie the United States and its high-tech systems.
“Why spend the money on weapons systems if it is proven in current operations that you can get around those major combat capabilities?” he asks.
Insurgents in Iraq have circumvented the U.S. military’s technological prowess through the employment of civilian technology.
“The enemy has a very sophisticated command and control system called the cell phone. And the enemy uses the cell phone, not just to talk to the terrorist next door, but to talk to the node in some other country, to send pictures, to send information,” retired Army Gen. John Abizaid, former commander of Central Command, told reporters at a conference sponsored by the U.S. Naval Institute.
That exploitation of commercial technology has given the insurgents an advantage over U.S. troops who remain reliant upon systems that are caught in an inextricable web of proprietary restrictions.
“They have figured out how to enable these small cellular structures all around the world to be able to take the commanders’ intent and go forward with that in a decentralized fashion. What we need to figure out is how to enable our young soldiers out there fighting to have the tools necessary to take decentralized action on their own,” he adds.
As systems are developed to aid in that arena, government officials have voiced a need for stanching the flow of money to terrorists in an effort to dry them out, leaving them penniless to fight.
Al Qaida organizations and associates have been receiving monetary contributions through PayPal, a website that shuttles funds worldwide, says Abizaid.
As such, the military has shifted part of its attention to network warfare.
“Networks are, and will be, our battleground,” says Adm. Gary Roughead, commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command. “We must be ready to fight in that environment.”
But even as the Defense Department hones in on that new sector, some warn that turning backs upon the tried-and-true technologies of the 20th century could be a mistake.
The conventional military force is not obsolete, as the Hezbollah-Israeli conflict last year in Lebanon demonstrated, says Army Lt. Gen. John Wood, deputy commander of U.S. Joint Forces Command. Hezbollah fired rockets on Israeli border villages, which prompted Israel’s military to respond with air strikes.
“They did create a very potent threat to what could legitimately be described as a Western-based military,” says Wood.
Allowing the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to dominate our thinking in a way that prompts the belief that warfare has changed might put the nation on the wrong trajectory, says Lt. Gen. Keith Stalder, commanding general of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force.
“I think the fundamental nature is basically the same. And we, as military professionals and industry that supports us, have to be able to do it all,” he says.
The military needs to be ready for war across the full spectrum, from conventional combat to counterinsurgency operations, he says.
With budget cuts looming, the Defense Department will have to make some tough choices in prioritizing the technologies it needs to fight through the 21st century. Perhaps only then will the future for warfare systems crystallize.
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