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War and Transformation: The U.S. Military's Story

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 14, 2003 – Transformation of the U.S. armed forces is at the heart of the president's fiscal 2004 defense budget request. Yet at the same time, America must fight a global war on terrorism.

Many pundits question whether the United States military can do both at once. They argue that resources used to transform the military are best used fighting the war.

But history shows they are wrong: The United States military has had long experience in transforming the military at the same time fighting a war.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Air Force Gen. Richard Myers said during a January briefing that not only should transformation continue as the United States fights the war on terror, "but it's absolutely imperative that we do this."

Myers pointed out that the U.S. military has done this in the past. "We did the same thing in World War II; we transformed while we were fighting a global war," the chairman said.

The World War II example is illustrative. Gen. George C. Marshall became the Army's chief of staff on Sept. 1, 1939 the day Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Under his command he had roughly 227,000 soldiers but only enough equipment to arm 75,000.

Further, the Nazi Blitzkrieg exposed shortcomings in strategy, tactics and doctrine that made obsolete much of what the U.S. military thought.

And it wasn't just the Army. The Navy had been wed to the idea that battleships would be the decisive factor in any war in the Pacific. The Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and the sinking of the British battleships Prince of Wales and Repulse on Dec. 10 put that idea to rest.

So the American military in World War II had to not only grow in size, but change in thinking. The Army and the Army Air Forces had to devise ways to fight together. The Navy had to devise battle plans around aircraft carriers, because military planners had taken notice of Japan's effectiveness with these platforms. And the Army and Marine Corps worked with the idea of amphibious warfare on a grand scale.

By 1945, the Army and Army Air Forces had 10 million soldiers. It was, without a doubt, the best fighting force on Earth. The U.S. Navy dwarfed all other navies in the world. The services had indeed fought a global war and transformed themselves at the same time.

World War II was not the only instance of this transformation. The American Civil War was an example of what happens when technology changes, but thinking does not.

Union and Confederate soldiers were armed with rifled muskets. That, plus advances in artillery, made a frontal attack suicidal. Yet military thinking was based on Napoleonic era tactics where soldiers were armed with unrifled muskets that were complicated to load and not very accurate the effective range was about 50 meters. The tactics then were to march shoulder- to-shoulder to within 50 to 75 meters, fire two or three massed rounds, then charge with the bayonet.

In 1860, a trained soldier using a rifled musket could fire three aimed rounds per minute. These weapons were far more accurate and the killing distance was increased to about 300 meters. Add in the destruction that 1860-era artillery could inflict and one has to wonder how any frontal attack ever succeeded.

Yet the Napoleonic tactics remained intact: March shoulder-to-shoulder, then charge.

The enlisted men saw the futility of these tactics before the generals did. By the mid-point of the war, the battalion fronts had expanded to where there was more space between soldiers. They also saw the necessity of earthworks and, if ordered into an area, would dig what a later generation called foxholes and expand those into trenches. Yet in 1864, long after the futility of these attacks was apparent, Union Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant ordered a Napoleonic charge at Cold Harbor, Va., as did Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman at Kenesaw Mountain, Ga., and Confederate Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood at Franklin, Tenn.

The change in thinking was tough to overcome. On the equipment side, the Union could have outfitted its troops with breach-loading repeating rifles early in the war. Senior officers ignored this advantage.

But still the U.S. military fought a major war and transformed at the same time. The Union Army grew from a small frontier-based fighting force to the best on Earth by 1865. The riverine wars on the Mississippi and operations on the South's seacoast forced the Union's Army and Navy to cooperate in ways no other nation on the globe could duplicate.

But perhaps the most impressive example of transformation while fighting a war occurred during the Revolutionary War. When the Continental Congress formed the Army in 1775, Gen. George Washington took over a motley band of militiamen and then proceeded to challenge the greatest empire in the world. Great Britain's army was well-equipped, well-trained and well- led. The Continental Army was truly, in the words of then-British Prime Minister Lord North, a "rabble in arms." Washington had to train the men, arm them and build the whole logistics base while fighting a war.

It was further complicated by the fact that a sizable American minority was still loyal to the crown. This was transformation by necessity, and the fact that Washington succeeded is a testament to his qualities as a leader and manager.

And today the military is transforming once again. "We came into this century not particularly well-prepared for the security environment that we found ourselves in," said Myers. "We kind of knew that; September 11th told us for sure we knew that, and that there was a sense of urgency that we had not had before regarding that."

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has made military transformation a priority. "Current and future enemies will seek to strike the United States and U.S. forces in novel and surprising ways," Rumsfeld said in a report on the issue. "Now is precisely the time to make changes. The attacks on Sept. 11 lent urgency to this endeavor."

The secretary has six overall transformation areas that the military must address:

  • Protect the U.S. homeland and defeat weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery;
  • Project and sustain power in distant environments;
  • Deny enemies sanctuary by developing capabilities for persistent surveillance, tracking and rapid engagement;
  • Leverage information technology to link up joint forces;
  • Protect information systems from attack; and
  • Maintain unhindered access to space and protect U.S. space capabilities from enemy attack.
On this two-pronged approach of fighting the global war on terrorism and transforming at the same time, Myers said, "Nobody said it's going to be easy, but that's what we've got to do.".
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