Stop the Revolution I Want to Get Off
William Toti
June 1, 2000
First published in US Naval Institute Proceedings in July 2000, this is the article that caused me to be seen as a Revolution in Military Affairs skeptic.
My favorite joke is one I learned from my grandfather. It goes like this:
A man walks into a market and inquires about the price of tomatoes. (Italian allegory usually has something to do with tomatoes.) The proprietor responds, “They’re seventy cents a pound.” The man scratches his chin and says, “But Joe’s price down the street is fifty cents a pound.” “Then why don’t you buy them from Joe?” asks the proprietor. “Because Joe is out of tomatoes.” “Well,” says the owner, “when I’m out of tomatoes, my price is twenty cents a pound.”

I found myself thinking of this joke as I read Admiral Bill Owens’s April 2000 Proceedings article, “It’s Time for the Revolution.” In this excerpt from his new book, Lifting the Fog of War (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000) Admiral Owens insists that the U.S. military is in serious trouble. He says that because we live in an era when the computer and new information and communications technologies have the potential to “liberate us from the past,” we must take immediate action to forestall disaster and enact “courageous” defense reform. His article is a call to action in evoking a revolution in military affairs. He insists that there is no time to waste, wants us to declare the military situation a “true national emergency,” and urges us to launch the debate on military reform. So, let the debate begin.

Because I am a mid-grade officer with no personal capital invested in today’s state of affairs, who while in command suffered the agony of watching my perfectly good ship get cut into razor blades during what should have been the middle of her life, you might expect me to agree with the admiral that we need to follow his advice to correct the deterioration of our force. And since my training in electrical engineering gives me a fairly good understanding of the potential of the technological advances on which the admiral pins his hopes, one might also expect me to agree with him that technology will set us free.

I don’t.

Let’s take Admiral Owens’s major points one at a time, starting with his initial premise: that because the United States spends more on defense than all our allies combined, we must be spending too much. I tried to dispense with this tired old argument in 1995, but it appears I was not very effective.

The Cost of the Oceans
As I wrote five years ago, any comparison of what we spend relative to what any other nation or collection of nations spends is immaterial for the following reasons:
  • To maintain our status as a superpower, the United States must pay the “cost of the oceans.” Unless we want to conduct our fights in our own backyard, we have to bear the burden of carrying the fight to the enemy across two vast oceans. Included in this cost is a power-projection and sea-control Navy, the entire U.S. Marine Corps, expeditionary elements of the Air Force, long-range bomber and tanker assets, and the sealift and airlift required to get our heavy forces to the fight.
  • We have to pay the cost of winning. Sun Tzu said more than 2,000 years ago that to ensure success you have to be able to overwhelm the enemy five-to-one, and little has changed since then to alter this truth. Because this level of superiority is not free, it follows that fielding five times the force will cost you at least five times as much as your adversary spends.
  • We have to pay the cost of protecting our force to the extent that we are able to engage our enemies while minimizing our own casualties. We rely on technology to provide this protection—mainly in the form of long-range targeting and standoff weapons.
  • We have to pay the cost of recruiting, providing medical coverage for, and retiring a high-quality force. This is a huge cost. Medical alone—which includes coverage for active duty, dependents, and retirees—will run more than $100 billion in the current six-year defense program, more than most nations pay for their entire defense. Because none of our potential adversaries include these costs in the equation of what they pay for their militaries, our costs look disproportionately high.
  • All these factors affect the price we must pay in a nonlinear fashion. Hence, acquiring 5 times as much protected power as your enemy has fielded may cost you 20 times as much.
  • Although we are paying more than all our allies combined, it is no small point that we do more than all our allies combined are called on to do.
It makes no sense to compare what we pay to what any other nation or group of nations on earth pays for military might. We should pay only what we need to pay to get the job done, no more and no less. It is particularly disheartening to learn that this argument has been advanced by a retired senior military officer. Let’s hope we never hear it again.
RMA: Revolution or Religion?
To the admiral’s next point: the need to initiate a revolution in military affairs (RMA). RMA is like the story of the three blind men and the elephant—your opinion of this concept is based on the position from which you view it. There are at least two common views regarding the value of an RMA. To the budgeteer, it is a device that finally will enable us to live within perceived fiscal constraints. To others, RMA is the entity that finally will provide us the degree of dominant battlefield knowledge that will allow us to distinguish friend from enemy, so that we can more quickly identify, target, and strike. There is no doubt that we absolutely need to continue to improve the use of technology in support of the war fighter. But of the two specific views of RMA described above, it is equally clear that:
  • We will never be able to balance the checkbook through RMA. Technology is incredibly expensive, and unless we drastically reduce our force structure and our ability to respond to crises, invoking RMA will require us to increase investment in defense. Most service and secretariat planners agree that the first phase of implementing an RMA—to improve our ability to task, process, exploit, and distribute imagery products—is likely to cost at least $7 billion more than we already are budgeting. And if we go beyond that, to field a real sensor-to-shooter capability, the required cost goes up further. If anyone has the notion that RMA will save us money, think again. And if we decide to cut force structure to pay for RMA, we will find ourselves doing nothing more than improving visibility into areas that we have less capability to reach.
  • Dominant battlefield knowledge did not begin with RMA, nor will pursuit of it end with an implementation of our current vision of RMA. Attaining dominant battlefield knowledge in Normandy and Midway was critical to our success in those battles, even though its attainment was tenuous and transitory. Our adversaries in Vietnam and Serbia learned how to defeat our high-tech approach to attaining dominant battlefield knowledge, contributing to our failures in those conflicts. In fact, recent history indicates that unless you are fighting an idiot in open terrain (both factors must be present), an enemy always will be able to deny advantage to the specific manifestation of technology that we refer to as RMA. In fact, the RMA vision we seek is useful only if the enemy is willing to fight our kind of war rather than the brutal, dirty wars on which they have insisted thus far. Technology certainly can provide sensor-fuzed weapons that seek and destroy certain kinds of machines, but until it can provide intent-fuzed weapons that kill only people with bad intentions, RMA will have little impact on the kind of wars we see today.
For example, RMA would have done nothing to help us prevent the slaughter of 800,000 people in 100 days in Rwanda. It would have done nothing to prevent a few thousand boys with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades from overwhelming our best troops—Rangers and Deltas—in Mogadishu. Nor would it have improved our capability to fight the kind of battle we saw in 1995 in Bosnia, where 7,000 men were killed in 48 hours. All our improved sensors would have allowed us to do there would have been to locate the gravesites more quickly. In fact, I can find no compelling evidence that an RMA as Admiral Owens envisions it is achievable, let alone affordable. That is why I believe the revolution in military affairs is better referred to as a religion in military affairs. You have to take much of what RMA promises to achieve on faith.
Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Titanic

Admiral Owens seems to believe that we can achieve through legislation what we cannot achieve through management and leadership—and he insists that a “Goldwater-Nichols II” is urgently needed. He blames interservice rivalry for causing the capability shortfalls that exist today, and he says that by relegating the service chiefs to the role of manpower administrators and establishing a supreme soviet-style civil-military committee, this structure somehow would be able to get blood out of a rock.

I see no evidence that this is the case. How would this central committee get beyond the challenges we face? What would it cut? The fact that the military is developing three separate tactical aircraft programs seems to generate the most heat these days, but it is worth noting that even during the cataclysmic Carter years we had four tactical air programs under development, then we ignored it for a generation. Is it unreasonable to think that we now have to catch up? But how can we catch up when we have allowed defense procurement funding to fall to about 17% of the total DoD budget—a condition that arose during Admiral Owens’s tenure as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and one from which we are only now beginning to recover?

This is not to say that as vice chairman Admiral Owens was in any way to blame for this condition, but neither were his subordinate chiefs. His cause cElEebre—interservice rivalry—is a satisfying enemy because it can’t fight back. But it is not the real culprit. Perhaps better management could do something about the ever-increasing migration of defense dollars from the “tooth” to the “tail,” to the extent that defense agencies, cottage-industry analytical shops, and other bureaucracies who both insist their stovepipe issue is the most important in the department and have prima notte privileges with our budget, continue to expand with no end in sight.

But even these modifications would be on the margins. Defense already consumes a lower percentage of the gross domestic product than at any time since the days of the feeble pre-World War II military. Considering the difference in capability our current force provides, it seems the nation is getting a pretty good bang for the buck.

The Emperor’s Clothes

So what is the culprit? Policy.

The fact is, today’s defense leaders have been put in a situation where they are required to maintain the military’s readiness to react at a moment’s notice to an ever-increasing number of hotspots around the world while at the same time recapitalizing an ever-aging force, fielding a capability to defend every inch of U.S. soil from missile attack, keeping key defense industries from failure by investing in selected technologies, protecting congressional interests by restricting the divestiture of capital-absorbing facilities and infrastructure, maintaining our manpower structure during a time of recruiting shortfalls and increasing housing and medical costs, and—oh—maintaining sufficient land forces to prevail in two simultaneous major wars with essentially zero casualties in an environment where expanding arms-control regimes virtually ensure that all wars fought against nonstate actors will be fought asymmetrically—and they have to do all this within a declining budget.

Or, in Italian allegory, we are being forced to wire every room in our house with internet-ready computers, satellite dishes, and wide-screen TVs and to keep two Mercedes in the garage on the off chance that the entire family might come to town at the same time, so we will be able to drive them around in the safest cars in the world—all while our walls are crumbling. We need a new house, but maintaining those cars and computers absorbs the capital we need to fix the roof, patch the walls, and rebuild the structure we use every day. The fact that people blame interservice rivalry for our inability to balance the checkbook under these conditions is simply Kafkaesque.

Our marketing has become so effective that we have placed more faith in glossy sales brochures than we have in our own military judgment. It is time for somebody to tell the emperor he has no clothes. The revolution in military affairs has become a panacea—more than that—a deus ex machina promising us salvation. But it ain’t gonna balance the checkbook, and it ain’t gonna save the world. Some may call this RMA talk harmless banter, but to the extent that we continue to be beguiled by the RMA siren song, we will delay dealing with the real problems that confront us. Worse, we will begin to lose those mid-grade officers we are counting on to lead us into tomorrow—officers who realize that as we try to do ever more with ever less, watching precious resources get poured down a dry well, they will be the ones left behind to pick up the pieces. The real problem we face cannot be managed or legislated away. It is an artifact of the current state of affairs: too much mission for the money.

Or as my grandfather would have said, when you’ve used up all your tomatoes, it’s too late to worry about what they cost.