Proceedsby Austin Bay
May 15, 2002
You've heard the soundbite. America served as World War II's"arsenal of democracy." American industrial might and technology providedquality steel and wheels for Allied soldiers, sailors and airmen.
Two weeks ago, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld killed whathe's concluded is an outmoded battlefield technology, the Army's "Crusader"howitzer. The nation that brought you the jeep and pinpoint spy satellites(among other military innovations) now moves on to robots like the Predatorunmanned aircraft. Enemies beware, "transformation" of democracy's arsenalproceeds.
Of course, the first thing the wise should say is, "We'llbelieve it when we actually see it."
A fine place to get a feel for the enormous task of militarytransformation -- and also get a gritty appreciation of the risksinvolved -- is Dr. David Johnson's "Fast Tanks and Heavy Bombers: Innovationin the US Army 1917-1945" (Cornell University Press).
Though published four years ago, the War on Terror andaccelerating demands for change in the Pentagon (the Crusader cancellationbeing only one example) make this book extremely relevant. Every militarytransformer (from Rumsfeld on down) should read it -- and reckon with it.
Johnson, who is a senior policy analyst at RAND and a retiredArmy officer, has written a tough history. Events (in World War II) foiledinter-war "defense consensus" expectations. Technology failed to do whatconsensus opinion said it would do. But that "consensus" is one that bulliedits competitors. Embedded political interests and military "institutionalimperatives" stifled creativity. And America paid the price for these goofsin GI blood.
Chapter 13 of "Fast Tanks" makes savage fun of the "arsenal ofdemocracy" rah-rah. Titled "The Arsenal of Attrition," this bitter, shortchapter centers on two tables, one recording the jump in active-duty Armystrength from 1940 to 1945 (269,000 to 8,267,000) and one recording theincrease in tank and aircraft production. (Tanks jumped from 331 to 11,968per year, aircraft from 3,807 to 46,001.) Johnson's point is -- in the bigpicture -- America beat the Germans and the Japanese by mass, not maneuveror magic.
The "fast tanks," such as the Sherman and Stuart, were intendedto break through and rampage in the enemy rear -- tactical and operationalmaneuver that would produce decisive results (and fewer Americancasualties). "Heavy bombers," such as the B-17, were trumpeted (by theiradvocates) as war-winning magic. Destroy key industrial targets in daylightprecision raids conducted by these flying fortresses (no fighter escortrequired) and, voila, enemy productive capacity collapses along with enemycivilian morale. Strategic airpower (the advocates said) will win the war(and quickly). These heavy bomber advocates dismissed fighter development.Close air support of ground forces was anathema.
The American tanks met German Tigers, which turned theunder-gunned and under-armored (but fast) Yanks into burning junk. U.S.heavy bomber raids failed to destroy German industry and morale. The bombersalso needed long-range fighter escorts.
Johnson depicts the quashing of creative ideas and creativeofficers. Does that occur in today's Pentagon? You bet. "Entrenchedinterests" sink deep roots in the Beltway, as well as the military.
Johnson revisits that era's intra- and inter-service rivalries."Institutional imperatives" protecting turf and the ancient regime oftensuperceded common sense. The saddest example of embedded denial is a commentmade by the head of the Army (horse) cavalry after the Nazis blitzed Polandwith panzers. "Under no circumstances will I agree to any further depletionof my horse cavalry. To do so would be a betrayal of the national defense."
Loyalty glues organizations, and loyalty is especially crucialto creating effective military units. However, when loyalty to institutionstifles innovation, when protecting political turf trumps new technology,when organizations wedded to a theoretical "sure thing" deny empiricalreality (e.g., Nazi fighters slaughtering unescorted B-17s), crisis andcombat exact a stiff price.
It's 2002. The tech is higher, our embedded interests aren'tquite the same, and we're at war. Johnson's history is no perfect guide,just a serious, well-documented reminder that narrow imaginations, go-along,get-along leaders and self-centered politics can have terrible consequences.