The turbulent noughties finally are drawing to a close.
For the U.S. military and its supporting industrial base, it was a decade of sweeping, profound and, often, excruciating change. Sept.11 will always be remembered as the day that “changed everything.” But other, much less horrific, events make the past 10 years a landmark period of commotion in the business of defense. Here's a look back at 10 key moments that defined the decade for the military and the defense industry:
2000 - Terrorists Hit the USS Cole
The Oct. 12 suicide attack against the Navy destroyer, USS Cole, while it was harbored in the Yemeni port of Aden, stunned the nation. Seventeen U.S. sailors were killed. Although the attack was later overshadowed by 9/11, the Cole bombing sparked a debate that continues to this day about what constitutes an act of terrorism, as opposed to an act of war.
For the Navy, it was a wake-up call. It also presaged the era of “asymmetric warfare” as a gang of al-Qaida operatives aboard a small craft was able to successfully hit a heavily armed warship. The event prompted widespread changes in security operations, intelligence, training and equipment choices, particularly after the Navy judge advocate general concluded that the commanding officer of the Cole did not have the necessary intelligence, training, appropriate equipment or on-scene security support to effectively prevent or deter such a determined assault on his ship.
2001 - The 9/11 Attacks
The Sept. 11 suicide attacks by 19 al-Qaida terrorists killed 2,976 people. They also dramatically altered the course of the nation’s defense posture and foreign policy, and set in motion the planning for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. By the afternoon of Sept. 11, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld already was asking his aides to search for evidence of Iraqi involvement in the attacks.
In the immediate aftermath, the Bush administration announced it was launching a “war on terrorism” against Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida, and also to prevent the emergence of other terrorist networks. Later that year, a U.S. military-led coalition overthrew the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
The attacks also had a major effect on U.S. domestic and financial affairs. They led to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. The extended wars following the attacks have cost the U.S. treasury trillions of dollars, and have resulted in increasing war fatigue among the general public.
2002 - Pentagon Embraces Military ‘Transformation’
Following the successful overthrow of the Taliban, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld typecast the operation as a new way of conducting wars. The toppling of the Afghan foe, executed mostly by U.S. special operations forces, reinforced Rumsfeld’s belief that the military needed to “transform.”
Under Rumsfeld’s transformation doctrine, the military did not necessarily require massive ground forces to win, but instead should focus on innovative ways to employ technology. U.S. special forces in Afghanistan used laptops and ground-laser target designators to pinpoint enemy forces, and signaled the information to loitering B-52s brimming with precision guided munitions. “It showed that a revolution in military affairs is about more than building new high-tech weapons,” said Rumsfeld in a January speech.
Critics at the time questioned the wisdom of trying to transform the U.S. military in the midst of a war on terrorism. “I believe that quite the opposite is true. Now is precisely the time to make changes,” said Rumsfeld.
His worldview ultimately was discredited after the U.S. military invaded Iraq with a force that, although technologically superior to any other, was too small to occupy and stabilize the country.2003 - IEDs Become Enemy #1
By the summer of 2003, the Iraqi insurgency fundamentally was changing the course of the war when it started using improvised explosive devices to target U.S. supply convoys, military vehicles and police. The progressively bolder and deadlier attacks caught U.S. commanders off guard and exposed the vulnerability of American forces.
Bombs were made from artillery or mortar shells, buried alongside roads and detonated by remote control. They also were hidden inside animal carcasses and other seemingly innocuous objects. After the Pentagon started fielding more heavily armored vehicles, insurgents began placing IEDs in elevated positions such as road signs, utility poles or trees.
IEDs killed thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. In a broader sense, they became a propaganda tool for al-Qaida, which videotaped IED attacks and distributed clips on the Internet to help recruit terrorists.
The horrific number of casualties caused by IEDs led to major efforts by the Pentagon to acquire bomb jammers, armored trucks and other counter-IED systems. The death toll also came to symbolize a new reality of war: Technologically weaker enemies can find the Achilles’ heel of the best army in the world.
2004 - Troops Confront Rumsfeld Over Lack of Armor
At a December town hall meeting in Kuwait, a soldier put Secretary Rumsfeld on the spot when he asked why troops had to dig through local landfills for pieces of rusted scrap metal to up-armor their vehicles. “Why don’t we have those resources readily available to us?” the soldier asked amid raucous applause from the crowd.
The secretary’s reply was memorable, and spoke volumes about the Pentagon’s dysfunctional ways of procuring equipment. “As you know, you go to war with the army you have,” Rumsfeld said.
Adding insult to injury, Rumsfeld reminded the soldier of the cruel facts of war. “You can have all the armor in the world on a tank and a tank can be blown up. And you can have an up-armored humvee and it can be blown up.”
Subsequent to that exchange, outrage about the lack of armor set off a furious scramble in the Army to ramp up production. The episode also came to epitomize the disconnect between the weapons-acquisition process at the Pentagon and the real needs of troops in the field — an issue that still is being debated.2005 - War Costs Soar; Weapons Targeted for Cuts
An October memo by Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England rattled the defense industry as it revealed the Pentagon was weighing cuts of up to $32 billion to major weapon systems. The memo warned the military services to brace themselves for significant cuts that would be demanded from the Pentagon as a result of rising federal budget deficits and the huge bill for Hurricane Katrina relief.
At the time, the memo struck the defense establishment as disconcerting because the Pentagon budgets had been on an upward curve since 2001. Despite increased spending, however, the Pentagon already was seeing the writing on the wall: War costs and personnel expenses were gradually going to be crowding into weapons modernization accounts, and the services needed to start making tough decisions. It’s worth noting that it was the Bush administration that in December 2004 had called for the termination of F-22 production.2006 - ‘Anything Goes’ Spending Comes to an End
Yet another landmark memo by Deputy Secretary England permanently altered the debate on defense spending. The controversial October missive gave the military services a green light to seek funds for new weapons systems in the “war emergency” budget. The memo exposed a helter-skelter budget process and confirmed that the Pentagon was seeking to take advantage of the relatively unhindered war appropriations process to buy equipment that critics said should have been included in the regular budget.
In November, the Defense Department hinted it would request up to $150 billion in emergency war funding — the largest-ever “supplemental” measure. The controversy brought to light the budgetary dilemmas the Pentagon faced: War expenditures were putting growing pressure on weapons accounts, and the only way to avoid cutting modernization programs was to insert weapons-acquisition programs into the war budget. England’s memo said the military services could justify those requests if they could prove that they are associated with the “larger war on terrorism.”
Much of the dream wish list never made it into the war budget but the fact that it existed somewhere in the Pentagon was seized as proof that defense spending was out of control and that the Bush administration was kicking tough spending choices to the next president.2007 - Gates Shames the Acquisition Bureaucracy
Defense Secretary Robert Gates asked Congress in July for approval to transfer funds from other accounts to the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle program. The MRAP V-hulled vehicles deflect underbelly blasts and were urgently needed in Iraq. The Pentagon’s acquisition bureaucracy had been too slow to react to commanders’ requests, so Gates personally had to get involved and set up a special shop at the Pentagon to make sure that MRAPs were being funded, produced and delivered quickly. “Every month troops go without MRAPs could indeed cost lives,” Gates said at the time.
The secretary also had to intervene to expedite the deployment of surveillance aircraft, which were in great demand but were sluggish coming off the assembly lines. Gates specifically wanted more Reaper unmanned aircraft, which are larger than the Predators and carry more heavy-duty weapons. In September, the Reaper was deployed to Iraq. In October it had achieved its first “kill” against Afghanistan insurgents.
Both the MRAP and UAV efforts embodied what Gates characterized as a failure of the Pentagon’s acquisition operation to mobilize for war.2008 - GAO Publishes Scathing Report on Weapons Costs
The Government Accountability Office dropped a bombshell in April when it reported that the Pentagon’s 95 top weapons programs had exceeded their original budgets by nearly $300 billion, and were on average two years behind schedule.
GAO cast a spotlight on problems that already were well known at the Pentagon and in industry: it takes too long to design and develop systems, too many programs were chasing too few dollars, and immature technologies were going into production.
The report unleashed a firestorm in Washington and was brandished as the final piece of evidence that Congress needed to begin cracking down on wasteful defense spending. GAO’s assessment ultimately led to the passage of the Weapons Systems Acquisition Reform Act of 2009, a significant piece of legislation that mandates increased oversight and modifications in the way programs are managed. It also calls for more government in-house expertise in weapons acquisitions and imposes new rules that prevent contractors from overseeing programs.2009 - Gates’ Budget Shakeup Shocks the Beltway
After two years in office, it was expected that Secretary Gates eventually would have to start making the budgetary “tough choices” that had been avoided by previous administrations. Still, his April announcement came like a thunderbolt from a clear sky. Gates was ending production of the F-22 fighter jet, canceling the Army’s biggest modernization program — the $160 billion Future Combat Systems — as well as the presidential helicopter, an Air Force search-and-rescue helicopter and a communications satellite system. At the same time, he was shifting billions of dollars to more urgently needed weapons such as unmanned spy aircraft and cargo helicopters.
Pentagon brass and industry were stunned. Programs that were regarded as “too big to fail” got the axe. Gates’ decisions marked a critical turning point. They signaled that the Pentagon could no longer afford to fund expensive hardware that was not relevant to the crises the military now faces.
Achieving sweeping change may be hard even for Gates. Despite his budgetary shakeup, most of the Pentagon’s weapons procurement still is dominated by traditional big-ticket weapons systems.
Forecast for the Coming Decade: Stormy
The next decade is shaping up for even more turbulence that could be caused by both known and unknown factors. The United States still will be involved in two major wars, neither of which is likely to culminate in victory parades. In the coming years, the pressures on the defense budget will be severe as the national debt continues to balloon. The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review will be setting the tone for the next several budget cycles, but ultimately what will drive spending decisions will be real or perceived threats to U.S. security — whether Iran or North Korea end up unleashing nukes and setting off a major war, or whether Pakistan implodes. The next 10 years also may see the emergence of climate change as a national security concern, or may witness another financial meltdown. Who knows? The only certainty is that nobody can predict the next crisis.