Forcing Defense Innovation Through Budget Constraints

With the recent bombings in Madrid and President Bush’s warning that terrorists will “never be appeased because death is their banner,” it might seem odd to argue for cutting the defense budget. That is, until one listens to John Arquilla, professor of defense information sciences at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey.

At a recent meeting of the legendary Silicon Forum, technology executives listened as Arquilla explained why the U.S. military needs to “move in a different direction.” The nature of war has changed, and America’s greatest enemies, such as Al-Qaida, have dispersed into small groups that will use all the new technologies they can acquire. Winners will be decided by who is best able to adapt, and America is in danger of falling behind.

Just as the traditional cavalry was replaced by “mass warfare” such as machine guns and tanks, targeted, smarter, information-based warfare is the next step. “The world should take note of Afghanistan,” Arquilla said. That war is “the model for the future.”

In case anyone wonders what happens when defense doesn’t keep up with new materials and techniques, it’s instructive to note that only four of the British Cavalry’s 150 horses survived machine-gun fire when they charged the Germans in 1918. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that major shifts in technological capabilities change a lot of things, including winning military strategies.

Using New Technologies

Of course, some will argue that because enemies like North Korea still use industrial-age, heavy-hardware methods of fighting, America should maintain its legacy systems to counter them, such as the U.S. Army’s 2,000 main battle tanks.

On the surface, that argument might persuade. But after serious thought, it’s more likely that the old industrial types would fall even harder when subjected to a properly waged “cyberwar.” As Arquilla succinctly put it, their “mass is grass.”

Using new technologies like orbital information-gathering tools, night-vision equipment and unmanned sensors, the United States can successfully win a battle with many small, dispersed, networked units that coordinate, coalesce and then separate in repeated swarming attacks. Other things can be changed, too.

American forces could use smaller bombs that are more targeted. For instance, it’s unnecessary to use a 200-pound bomb that will take out an entire football field when all you’re trying to do is get the bad guy in the truck. In that case, Arquilla says a 50- to 100-pound bomb would be smarter and cheaper. It also would be better received by the international community.

Giving the Troops Better Tools

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld appears to understand these concepts well, but the entrenched bureaucracy in the U.S. military is resistant to change and is costing too much money. According to Arquilla, only a nickel of every defense dollar spent goes toward what the country actually needs. That means Americans not only are wasting a lot of money during a time of huge deficits and economic stress, but also are not well protected.

The argument that America needs to spend less and give its troops more appropriate tools becomes ever more urgent when one considers CIA director George Tenet’s recent comments that “what we’ve learned continues to validate my deepest concern — that this enemy remains intent on obtaining and using catastrophic weapons.”

If Al-Qaida wanted to blow up a couple of more buildings, it could have done it already. After all, it didn’t take much for Timothy McVeigh to do it in Okalahoma. That nothing has happened since September 11, 2001, makes one suspect that Tenet is right, and there’s a much more pernicious plot in the works.

Government failure in most cases only costs the nation money, but failure in defense can cost many innocent lives. Arquilla’s solution is to cut the defense budget by 10 percent a year over the next several years, which he believes will force the mammoth organization to innovate and redirect funds to the most important places. A decent idea, but he also advocates increased and aggressive information gathering both inside and outside of the country.

Information-Age Bletchley Park

In short, Arquilla is hoping to see an information-age Bletchley Park, the place where “unbreakable” enemy codes were decrypted. But this part of his plan may be more difficult to realize than modernizing attack strategies.

Programs such as Echelon, Terrorist Information Awareness, MATRIX, Magic Lantern, Carnivore and Semantic Forests are fighting words in civil libertarian circles, and unfortunately there are many legitimate reasons to worry about government snoops. Until professor Arquilla or someone else comes up with an acceptable way to properly balance privacy with security, this imbalance also puts the nation at risk.

It’s never been easy to fix failing bureaucracies, but for the sake of safety, it needs to be done. Naval professor John Arquilla’s budget-cutting suggestions might shock and awe, but it’s a good place to start.

Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is director of Technology Studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.

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