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September 10, 2004

Thinking Ahead

By

Transforming the U.S. military at a time when the United States is engaged in major operations overseas is no small undertaking. Yet, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is not a man easily deterred. Even while we have been engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Pentagon has pushed forward with the transformation agenda embraced by Mr. Rumsfeld when he took office. According to a report in The Washington Post last week, the defense secretary has recently been briefed on an extensive set of ambitious plans with far reaching implications for the way the United States will fight in the future. It represents the critically important thinking ahead needed in an age of unconventional threats, and is clearly a step in the right direction.

Given U.S. global military superiority, there's little chance that any rival state would be able to challenge the United States in conventional or nuclear warfare -- not declining Russia, nor yet ambitious, rising China. In the near future we are likely to confront more of the same threats that we are currently facing: Islamic terrorism, low-tech Iraqi-style guerrilla warfare, difficult post-conflict operations, and the proliferation of ballistic missile technology and weapons of mass destruction.

These are known in current jargon as "irregular challenges" or "asymmetric threats," and our needs in response are untraditional as well. Although some members of Congress, as well as Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, have been clamoring for significant increases in the total size of the army, Mr. Rumsfeld is set against it. Instead, according to Pentagon plans, future combat is much more likely to involve highly trained expeditionary forces, improved intelligence gathering, skilled troops and special operations forces.

The August announcement by President Bush - discussed recently in this space - that U.S. forces in Asia and Europe will be redeployed is part of this new line of thinking. Gen. James Jones, Supreme Allied Commander Europe, has described the emerging, more flexible base structure as one of "warm lily pads," a chain of ready-for-action, lightly-manned facilities that U.S. forces could use as jumping-off points around the world.

One question that still needs to be answered is how defense transformation will affect our alliances. Urgent thought should be given to how to prevent the yawning capabilities gap with European allies old and new from creating irreparable fissure in the alliance. The means we have traditionally used to ensure technical compatibility within NATO - common standards, common equipment and munitions, joint exercises- have proven woefully inadequate in the new environment. Declining European defense budgets have contributed to this trend.

Another equally important issue is how to maximize the assets of the seven new members from Eastern and Central Europe that joined NATO this spring, to meet the new challenges. Addressing the technological gap between the United States and its new allies will be one of the most important strategic challenges in the years ahead.

In this context, the eastward and southward-facing bases in the new NATO members will be important logistical assets. And so will the determination of these countries to be valuable partners in the alliance they have worked so hard to join.

NATO's new members have contributed significant amounts to the Global War on Terrorism, and their participation is extremely valuable. Both in Afghanistan and in Iraq, we have been able to draw on their support. For instance, the Poles today have 2,600 troops in Iraq and lead the multinational stabilization force in Southern Iraq; Hungary has equipped three Afghan National Army battalions; and the Czech Republic is contributing to the training of Iraqi police in Jordan, to name just a few examples.

All this experience has taught us a great deal about our new allies. They have useful expertise in areas like urban operations, training security forces, and anti-terrorism. On the other hand, like us, they have had to learn as they fight - developing new capabilities to conduct post-conflict operations and counterinsurgency warfare with forces largely designed for conventional combat on European battlefields. While the new allies have done a lot, with the right technologies they could have done much, much more.

One route that is clearly the wrong answer for the future of NATO is for Europe to develop its own force and command structure independently from the United States, as some EU governments would like. This would not in itself be a security risk for the United States, but it seems likely that it would be little more than a paper tiger. It would not produce significant new capabilities or free up resources to pursue transformational strategies, or help new NATO members quickly close the technology gap.
 
Helle Dale is director of Foreign Policy and Defense Studies at the Heritage Foundation. E-mail: helle.dale@heritage.org.

First appeared in The Washington Times

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