War in the 21st Century
by Donald Rumsfeld
During my travels as Defense Secretary, I often traveled to Afghanistan and the neighboring countries, where I had an opportunity to spend time with our troops in the field. They are remarkable. They're brave, they're dedicated, they voluntarily risk their lives in a dangerous corner of the world to defend our freedom and our way of life, and I was grateful to be able to personally tell them that. Among the many I met was an extraordinary group of men: the Special Forces who had been involved in the attack on Mazar-i-Sharif.
From the moment they landed in Afghanistan, these troops began adapting to the circumstances on the ground. They sported beards and traditional scarves and rode horses trained to run into machine gun fire. They used pack mules to transport equipment across some of the roughest terrain in the world, riding at night, in the darkness, near minefields and along narrow mountain trails with drops so sheer that, as one solider put it, “it took me a week to ease the death-grip on my horse.” Many had never been on horseback before.
As they linked up and trained with anti-Taliban forces, they learned from their new allies about the realities of war on Afghan soil and assisted them with weapons, food, supplies, tactics, and training. And they planned the assault on Mazar-i-Sharif.
On the appointed day, one of their teams slipped in and hid well behind the lines, ready to call in airstrikes. The bomb blasts would be the signal for others to charge. When the moment came, they signaled their targets to the coalition aircraft and looked at their watches. Two minutes and 15 seconds, 10 seconds – and then, out of nowhere, precision-guided bombs began to land on Taliban and al-Qaeda positions. The explosions were deafening, and the timing so precise that, as the soldiers described it, hundreds of Afghan horsemen literally came riding out of the smoke, coming down on the enemy in clouds of dust and flying shrapnel. A few of these Afghans carried rocket-propelled grenades; some had fewer than 10 rounds for their weapons, but they rode boldly – Americans, Afghans, towards the Taliban and al Qaeda fighters. It was the first cavalry attack of the 21st century.
After the battle one American soldier described how an Afghan fighter motioned for him to come over and began to pull up the leg of his pants. He thought he was going to see a wound. Instead, he looked down and saw a prosthetic limb. The Afghan had ridden into battle with only one good leg.
Now, what won the battle for Mazar-i-Sharif and set in motion the Taliban's fall from power was a combination of the ingenuity of the Special Forces; the most advanced, precision-guided munitions in the U.S. arsenal delivered by U.S. Navy, Air Force and Marine crews; and the courage of one-legged Afghan fighters. That day on the plains of Afghanistan, the 19th century met the 21st century, and they defeated a dangerous and determined adversary—a remarkable achievement.
When President George W. Bush called me back to the Pentagon after a quarter-century and asked me to come up with a new defense strategy, he knew I was an old-timer; though, I doubt he ever imagined that we would bring back the cavalry. But this is precisely what the 21st century operating environment is about.
Here we are in the year 2012, having fought two 21st century wars. We used the horse cavalry, yes, but in previously unimaginable ways. These conflicts display that a revolution in military affairs is about more than building new high-tech weapons, though that is certainly part of it. Foremost, they showed the importance of new ways of thinking and new ways of fighting.
In World War II, the German blitzkrieg revolutionized warfare, but it was accomplished by a German military that was really only about 10 or 15 percent transformed. The Germans saw that the future of war lay not with massive armies and protracted trench warfare, but rather with its small, high-quality, mobile shock forces supported by air power, and capable of pulling off “lightning strikes” against the enemy. They developed the lethal combination of fast-moving tanks, motorized infantry and artillery, and dive-bombers all concentrated on one part of the enemy line. The effect was devastating.
What was revolutionary and unprecedented about the blitzkrieg was not the new capabilities the Germans employed, but rather the unprecedented and revolutionary way that they mixed new and existing capabilities. In a similar way, the battle for Mazar-i-Sharif was transformational. Coalition forces took existing military capabilities—from the most advanced laser-guided weapons to the antique, 40-year-old B-52s updated with modern electronics to the most rudimentary, a man on horseback—and used them together in unprecedented ways, with devastating effects.
I say all of this not to suggest that the U.S. Army should start stockpiling saddles. Rather only to point out that today’s warfare requires us to think differently and develop the kinds of forces and capabilities that can adapt quickly to new challenges and to unexpected circumstances. The ability to adapt is critical in a world where surprise and uncertainty are the defining characteristics of our new security environment.
During the Cold War, we faced a fairly predictable set of threats. We knew a great deal about our adversary and its capabilities, and we fashioned the strategies and capabilities we needed to deter them. And we were successful. We built a nuclear arsenal and entered the jet age with supersonic fighters. We built nuclear-powered submarines and shops and the first intercontinental-rage bombers and missiles. We massed heavy forces in Europe, ready to repel a Soviet tank invasion over the northern German plain, and adopted a strategy of containment—sending military aid and advisers to destabilize Soviet puppet regimes and support friendly nations threatened by Soviet expansion.
For almost a half a century, that mix of strategy, forces and capabilities allowed us to keep the peace and to defend freedom. But the Cold War is over and the Soviet Union is gone—and with it, the familiar security environment to which our nation had grown accustomed. As we painfully learned on September 11th, the challenges of a new century are not nearly as predictable as they were during the Cold War. Who would have imagined in the year 2000 that terrorists would take commercial airliners, turn them into missiles, and use them to strike the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, killing thousands?
September 11, 2001 was a wake up call. We realized that not only were we dealing with the armies, navies and air forces of other countries, but we were also dealing with networks of people that were operating in ungoverned areas in countries we weren’t at war with. We were dealing with people who didn’t wear uniforms and who didn’t have a command structure. We were dealing with people who were able to take advantage of all the technological advances of other countries and increasingly able to use those lethal weapons in a way that could kill innocent men, women and children instead of uniformed military personnel. 9/11 represented a new and different threat that required new and different strategies to counter it.
As a country we had historically pared back our capabilities after every major conflict. We reduced defense and intelligence budgets after World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the Cold War. And while it’s fairly easy to cut back—you can do that in a day a week or a month—it takes years to build back up. So one could look back and say we pared down after every conflict and did well as a society. But the problem today is that the lethality and availability of weapons has gone up dramatically.
Realizing this, the Bush administration reassessed with Congress how our country should handle the threat. Since a terrorist can attack at any time, any place, using any technique, it’s physically impossible to defend everything, everywhere, all the time. Consequently, the president concluded properly along with Congress, that we would have to put pressure on terrorists around the world rather just defending against them. We ought to defend against them, to be sure, but we would have to also put pressure on terrorist organizations around the world and treat countries that knowingly harbored terrorist organizations as complicit with terrorists. And that shift in approach was significant. I don’t think anyone at the time would have dreamed that a decade later there wouldn’t be another major attack in America. But a lot of attacks have been deterred and dissuaded in the United States since then.
Even so, the challenge in this new century remains a difficult one: to prepare to defend our nation against the unknown, the unseen, and the unexpected. To accomplish it, we have to continue to put aside comfortable ways of thinking and planning—take risks and try new things—so that we deter and defeat adversaries that have not yet emerged to challenge us.
Even before September 11th, the senior civilian and military leaders of the Department of Defense were in the process of doing just that. With the Quadrennial Defense Review, we took a long, hard look at the emerging security environment, and we came to the conclusion that a new defense strategy was needed. We decided to move away from the "two major-theater war" construct for sizing our forces, an approach that called for maintaining two massive occupation forces, capable of marching on and occupying the capitals of two aggressors at the same time and changing their regimes. This approach served us well in the immediate post-Cold War period, but it threatened to leave us over-prepared for two specific conflicts and under-prepared for the unexpected contingencies of the 21st century.
To ensure we had the resources to prepare for the future, and to address the emerging challenges to homeland security, we needed a more realistic and balanced assessment of our near-term war-fighting needs. Instead of maintaining two occupation forces, we placed greater emphasis on deterrence in four critical theaters, backed by the ability to swiftly defeat two aggressors at the same time, while preserving the option for one massive counteroffensive to occupy an aggressor's capital and replace its regime. Since neither aggressor would know which one the president would choose for a regime change, the deterrent would be undiminished. But by removing the requirement to maintain a second occupation force, we have freed up resources for the future and for other, lesser contingencies that now confront us.
We have also moved away from the old “threat-based” strategy that had dominated our country's defense planning for nearly a half-century and adopt a new “capability-based” strategy. This strategy focuses less on who might threaten us or where we might be threatened, and more on how we might be threatened and what we need to do to deter and defend against such threats. So instead of building our armed forces around plans to fight this or that country, we examine our vulnerabilities, asking ourselves, as Frederick the Great did in his great General Principles of War, what design would I form if I were the enemy? We then fashion our forces as necessary to deter and defeat those threats.
We know that because the U.S. has unparalleled land, sea and air power, it makes little sense for potential adversaries to try to build up forces to compete with those strengths. They learned from the Gulf War that challenging our armed forces head-on is foolhardy. So rather than building competing armies, navies and air forces, adversaries will likely seek to challenge us asymmetrically, by looking at our vulnerabilities and building capabilities with which they can, or at least hope, to exploit.
For example, they know that an open society is vulnerable to new forms of terrorism. They suspect that U.S. space assets and information networks are vulnerable. They know that America’s ability to project force into the distant corners of the world where they live depends, in some cases, on vulnerable foreign bases. And they know we have no defense against ballistic missiles attacks—creating an incentive to develop weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them.
Our job is to close off as many of those avenues of potential attack as is possible. We need to prepare for new forms of terrorism, to be sure, but also attacks on U.S. space assets, cyber-attacks on our information networks, cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. At the same time, we must work to build up our own areas of advantage, such as our ability to project military power over long distances, precision-strike weapons, and our space, intelligence and undersea warfare capabilities.
Before the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington we had decided that to keep the peace and defend freedom in the 21st century our defense strategy and force structure must be focused on achieving six transformational goals:
Our goal is not simply to fight and win wars; it is to try to prevent them. We need to find ways to influence the decision-making of potential adversaries, to deter them not only from using existing weapons, but also from building dangerous new capabilities in the first place. Just as the existence of the U.S. Navy dissuades others from investing in competing navies – because it would truly cost a fortune and would not succeed in providing a margin of military advantage – we must develop new assets, the mere possession of which discourages adversaries from competing.
In addition to new capabilities, the U.S. military also requires rebalancing existing forces and capabilities by adding more of what the Pentagon calls “low-density, high-demand assets,” (In plain English that means: "our priorities were wrong, and we didn't buy enough of what we needed.") For example, the experience in Afghanistan showed how effective unmanned aerial systems could be, but it also revealed their weaknesses.
That being said, as the DoD changes investment priorities, we have to continue shifting the balance in our arsenal between manned and unmanned capabilities, between short- and long-range systems, between stealthy and non-stealthy systems, between shooters and sensors, and between vulnerable and hardened systems. And we must dig deeper into the information age, which is the critical foundation of our efforts.
We need to change not only the capabilities at our disposal, but also how we think about war. All the high-tech weapons in the world will not transform U.S. armed forces unless we also transform the way we think and train—the way we exercise and the way we fight. Every day, we are faced with urgent near-term requirements that create pressure to push the future off the table. But September 11th taught us that the future holds many unknown dangers, and that we fail to prepare for them at our peril. Our challenge is to make certain that, as time passes and the shock of what befell us that day wears off, we do not simply go back to doing things the way we did them before. The war on terrorism has been an event that cries out for us to rethink our activities and put that new thinking into action.
Of course, we must not make the mistake of assuming that our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan presents us with a model for the next military campaign. Preparing to re-fight the last war is a mistake repeated throughout much of military history, and one we must avoid, even as glean important lessons from recent experiences that can apply to the future. Here are a few worth considering:
First, wars in the 21st century will increasingly require all elements of national power: economic, diplomatic, financial, legal, law enforcement, intelligence, as well as overt and covert military operations. Clausewitz said "war is the continuation of politics by other means." In this new century, many of those means may not be military.
Second, the ability of forces to communicate and operate seamlessly on the battlefield is critical to our success. In Afghanistan, we saw composite teams of U.S. Special Forces on the ground, working with Navy, Air Force and Marine pilots in the sky to identify targets, communicate targeting information, and coordinate the timing of strikes with devastating consequences for the enemy. The change between what we were able to do before U.S. Special Forces were on the ground and after they were on the ground was absolutely dramatic. In other words, effectiveness in combat will depend heavily on "jointness," that is, how well the different branches of our military can communicate and coordinate their efforts on the battlefield. And achieving jointness in wartime requires building that jointness in peacetime. We need to train like we fight and fight like we train.
Third, accepting help from any country on a basis that is comfortable for them and allowing them to characterize what it is they do to help us instead of our characterizing if for them, enables us to maximize both their cooperation and our effectiveness against the enemy. Fourth, wars can benefit from coalitions of the willing, to be sure; however, they should not be fought by committees. The mission must determine the coalition, and the coalition must not determine the mission. If it does, the mission will be “dumbed down” to the lowest common denominator, and we can't afford that.
Fifth, defending the U.S. requires prevention, self-defense and sometimes preemption. It is not possible to defend against every conceivable kind of attack in every conceivable location at every minute of the day or night. Defending against terrorism and other emerging 21st century threats may well require that we take the war to the enemy. The best, and in some cases, the only defense, is a good offense. Sixth, rule out nothing, including ground forces. The enemy must understand that we will use every means at our disposal to defeat them, and that we are prepared to make whatever sacrifices are necessary to achieve victory. To the extent the United States is seen as leaning back, we weaken the deterrent, we encourage people to engage in acts to our detriment. We need to be leaning forward as a country. Seventh, getting U.S. Special Forces on the ground early dramatically increases the effectiveness of air campaigns. In Afghanistan, precision-guided bombs from the sky were not optimally effective until we had boots and eyes on the ground to tell the bombers exactly where to aim.
And finally, we need to be straight with the American people. We need to tell them the truth. And when we can't tell them something, we need to tell them that we can't tell them something. The American people understand what is needed to get the job done, that war is not easy and that there will be casualties. And they must know that—good news or bad—we will tell it to them straight. Broad bipartisan public support must be rooted in a bond of trust, of understanding and of common purpose.
There is a great deal we can learn from our first wars of the 21st century. But we cannot, and must not, make the mistake of assuming that terrorism is the only threat. The threats we face may indeed come from terrorists, but there are also cyber-wars and traditional, state-on-state conflicts that can threaten the United States.
Even with such an unpredictable operating environment, there are some things that will remain ever the same through the course of this century and beyond. In 1962, during a similar time of upheaval and transformation, as our forces prepared to meet the new challenges of the Cold War, General MacArthur addressed the cadets at West Point, and he said, "Through all this welter of change, your mission remains fixed, determined, inviolable: It is to win wars." The mission of the armed forces remains equally fixed, determined and inviolable today. But we must recognize, as the earlier generation did, that we will accomplish our objectives only if we have the wisdom, the courage and the will to adjust to the needs of our 21st century military.
Donald H. Rumsfeld served as the United States Secretary of Defense from 1975-77 and from 2001-06.
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