Admirial William Owens
Admirial William Owens; drawing by David Levine


More than a decade after the cold war, America still spends more on defense than all of its NATO allies combined and five to six times more than its rivals. In the coming year, the American defense budget will be close to $300 billion, compared to between $40 and $64 billion for the Russians and $37 billion for China.1 No nation in history has ever outspent its rivals to this degree or done so at such low relative cost. For the truly astonishing feature of American defense expenditure is that it amounts to no more than 3 percent of gross domestic product. This is what Paul Bracken means when he talks about “superpower lite.”

The question about “superpower lite” is whether this expenditure actually buys military readiness or just waste and a false sense of security. A related question is whether the emerging American way of war—which emphasizes the avoidance of risk and casualties—is gradually making American power more and more vulnerable.

America owed its military renaissance in the 1980s and 1990s to Vietnam. Veterans like Norman Schwartzkopf, Colin Powell, Alfred Grey, Charles Krulak, and Wesley Clark returned home angry and ashamed at their defeat and rebuilt all-volunteer, professional armed forces from the ground up. Besides going back to basic military skills and trying to re-create the warrior ethos of their profession, the Vietnam generation embraced what became known as RMA, the revolution in military affairs: the use of computers and knowledge management systems to improve battlefield command and control; the development of precision-guided conventional weapons; and the deployment of stealth systems, new types of armor, and unmanned platforms, which reduced risk for American combatants.

The key element of the revolution in military affairs was not technological but political. By reducing risks to American personnel and reducing diplomatically costly forms of collateral damage to its enemies, RMA has made it much easier for an American president to use military force. This helps to explain why George Bush and Bill Clinton resorted to military force more frequently than any other commander in chief since Roosevelt and did so with relative impunity.

In Desert Storm in 1991, American technology gave a ruthless and stunning demonstration of how far RMA had transformed the American way of war. For the first time, cruise missiles made their appearance as an offen-sive weapon, and for the first time in twentieth-century combat, air power led and ground forces followed. Forty-two days of relentless aerial destruction made it possible for ground forces to win victory in less than one hundred hours. Indeed, so swift was the victory that some commanders, like General Barry McCaffrey, have been accused of firing on retreating or surrendering troops.2

Desert Storm was seen by the military establishment and by some politicians as avenging Vietnam, but it left behind dangerous illusions. The victory was so decisive, and information about it so carefully managed, that the American public was never clearly informed that it was purchased at the price of approximately 100,000 Iraqi lives. The use of precision-targeted cruise missiles allowed the public to believe that Allied bombing had been discriminate. In fact, cruise missiles amounted to no more than 8 percent of the ordnance dropped on Iraq, and while the Air Force claimed that the bombing minimized collateral damage, independent estimates have shown that the air campaign pulverized much of Iraq’s civilian economy.3 In Theodore Draper’s words, Desert Storm demonstrated that America dominates the world militarily but not politically.4 And it left the Iraqi people with the worst of all possible worlds, their country ruined and the power still in the hands of a criminal adventurer. Nine years later, Saddam Hussein is still in control, and his capacity to threaten Israel, Iran, and Turkey is still intact. As Williamson Murray, of the US Naval Academy, puts it in his contribution to Gulf War Air Power Survey, America assumed that “the weak link in Iraq’s armor was its political stability.” In fact, it was the military that collapsed, “while the political regime displayed an impressive capacity to absorb punishment and retain its hold on power.”

Does this sound familiar? In 1999, NATO pried Kosovo from Milosevic’s grip, but could not dislodge him from power. So even those enemies who have been subject to America’s wrath have survived and in some ways prospered. Kosovo and Desert Storm proved that air power cannot change enemy regimes: it can only damage their capacity to do harm.

Desert Storm created the pattern for the American way of war that eventually prevailed in Kosovo. America learned from Vietnam that unilateral use of force eventually forfeits international legitimacy and domestic support. Desert Storm demonstrated the political necessity of coalition warfare. Coalition partners do not add much firepower, but they provide essential political legitimacy. The second lesson of Desert Storm was that collateral damage can be costly. International reaction to the bombing of the Al-Firdos bunker in Baghdad, in which over two hundred civilians perished in an American strike in February 1991, effectively ended strikes on the city. In Kosovo, the proportion of attacks using precision-guided weaponry, both cruise and J-Dam missiles, rose from 8 percent in Desert Storm to 35 percent. Precision guidance, plus stealth bombers, allowed NATO to take the war “downtown” to Belgrade, in other words, to risk strikes at sensitive targets even in the presence of international TV crews.


The central difficulty of the American way of war in Kosovo was that avoiding “collateral damage” to civilians and to nonmilitary targets and avoiding pilot loss were conflicting objectives. If pilots fly high, they can’t identify targets accurately and the risks of horrifying accidents increase. Flying low improves accuracy but the risk to pilots is significantly increased. According to a careful study by William Arkin of Human Rights Watch, during the seventy-eight days of the Kosovo campaign, there was no loss of NATO lives, but the bombing claimed between 488 and 527 civilian lives. We can conclude from this that reducing risk to pilots ultimately mattered more than minimizing loss of civilian life. Still, the losses were significantly lower than the Serbs claimed, low enough in fact not to jeopardize political support for the war from the nineteen-nation alliance that endorsed it.

Yet the Kosovo war, like Desert Storm, has proved to be an ambiguous kind of victory. Since the Kosovo campaign was won entirely in the air without a ground component, it confirmed rather than allayed the suspicion of America’s allies and enemies alike that its technological superiority hides a crucial weakness: a refusal to risk American lives. There is of course no virtue in putting American lives at stake, and any military commander has a primary obligation to reduce risk to his forces wherever possible. The problem with the American way of war is whether such military strategy can work.

Relying exclusively on air power has limits: planes are effective against fixed strategic targets, like petroleum storage, bridges, and command bunkers; but even then air power rarely succeeds, by itself, in destroying a regime’s ability to command and control its forces. Against mobile targets and forces, its limitations are even more obvious. “Tank-plinking” did not destroy Serbian armor in the field, and NATO’s initial claims that it did so have been shown to have been exaggerated. Air power forced Milosevic’s army underground into shelters, but once the bombing stopped, the army rolled back into Serbia.

More important, air power alone cannot protect civilians at risk. You can’t stop ethnic cleansing from fifteen thousand feet.5 That Clinton ruled out the use of ground troops before combat commenced in Kosovo made it clear how political constraints actually work in “humanitarian” interventions: wherever a politician has to choose between air power, which involves low risks but low gains, and the use of ground troops, which entails high risks and may achieve high gains, he will choose air power, even if it can’t deliver him complete victory. All this reflects the American way of war in the post-Vietnam era: it is risk-free and casualty-averse war waged in the expectation of impunity. Elsewhere I have called this new style of intervention “virtual war.”6

The larger question raised by Kosovo is whether the American way of war is adapted to the new era of wars involving “humanitarian intervention” and protection of human rights. Instead of confirming American resolve to involve itself in these new wars, Kosovo raised the suspicion that America will only take part in such situations if risk to its own combatants is minimal. The question for the future of American strategy is whether it will ever allow Americans to engage in ground combat. In the new American way of war, the Air Force has the leading role as the high-altitude precision specialist; the Navy follows as a platform from which to launch planes and missiles; and the Marines can be used to secure beachheads and evacuate Americans at risk.

What function remains for the US Army? Its only foray into the tribal wars of the 1990s, the Somali operation of 1993, ended in humiliating withdrawal after eighteen soldiers were killed. Since Somalia, rule number one for Army deployments abroad has been “force protection.” But if your first job is protecting yourself, what other mission can you hope to accomplish? The Army’s problem, moreover, is not only one of risk aversion. It is also structural. The reality seems to be that the American Army is still organized as it was for the battles of World War II and the cold war rather than the kinds of intervention to secure peace and protect civilians that have been taking place since the end of the cold war. The US Army still relies on armored divisions, requiring huge logistical support, and it takes months to deploy ground forces in strength. It lacks either the strategy or the tactics for a rapid, mobile deployment to fight its way in to rescue civilians who are being subjected to genocide, ethnic cleansing, massacre, or eviction. American presidents choose air power because the Army has not been able to present low-risk plans for ground action. Until it can do so, it will be confined to a bystander role, peace-keeping in the streets of Kosovo and Bosnia, while the other services take the lead as well as the credit and blame.


America has been criticized for its aversion to military casualties, but it has taken just enough military action to dominate its alliances, and prevail against its enemies, without plunging the US into the kinds of divisions about the international use of military power that nearly wrecked the country in the 1960s. If all this is true, then why are admirals and generals bleakly warning the rival presidential contenders that defense spending will have to increase by more than $30 billion a year for the next decade?7 Why are so many defense specialists calling for a national missile defense system? Why are so-called experts inventing new and previously unimagined threats from starving dwarf nations like North Korea?

Some of this can be dismissed as “threat inflation,” the useful term of the journalist Ken Silverstein in his book Private Warriors for the way Washington defense intellectuals magnify dangers abroad in order to sus-tain unnecessary defense expenditure. Simon Pearson’s novel Total War 2006 —which begins with an Iranian midget submarine attack on US aircraft carriers off San Diego—is a lurid but farcically implausible example of such inflation. More plausible examples of threat inflation would include the warnings circulated by the Committee on the Present Danger, which was created in the 1970s by Eugene Rostow “over a couple of Bloody Marys” to warn Congress and the public about the Soviet missile threat. The committee may have exaggerated for effect, but the threats it publicized, especially after the heavy deployment of Soviet SS-20s in Europe, were not imaginary. Countering them effectively helped to bring the Soviet Union crashing down. Threat inflation can create paranoia, but even paranoids may turn out to have something real in mind.

Compared to the dangers of the 1980s, the current campaign to establish a US missile defense looks like a tendentious exercise designed to stampede Congress and the competing presidential candidates into systems the country doesn’t need. North Korea and China may have the technological capacity to strike the continental US, yet those who claim they pose a threat have not been able to produce a credible political analysis showing how that threat could be exercised. America’s existing retaliatory capacities, including its Asian fleet, should be capable of deterring even the most deluded “rogue state.” Even supposing a rogue state would risk annihilation by a pre-emptive launch on the continental United States, there is so far no reliable way such a missile could be shot down before impact, even though defense scientists have already spent $60 billion of public money trying.8 The New York Times has recently reported that in their haste to get national missile defense approved, the Pentagon experts have been rigging their own flight tests in order to hide a still-fundamental flaw: the system cannot adequately distinguish between enemy warheads and decoys.9

“National” missile defense may not make sense, but it is popular because it concentrates the defense debate on the continental United States and appeals to Americans who are irritated at having to defend everybody but themselves. As America’s allies never cease reminding US leaders, however, not all threats to American national security are national. There are potential threats to vital interests overseas—the protection of oil supplies in the Middle East and of Japan and Taiwan in Asia are prominent examples—and to the American forces deployed to protect these interests. Is America adequately prepared to meet such threats?

Paul Bracken’s Fire in the East argues vehemently that America is faced the wrong way, bogged down in the post-cold war transition in Central and Eastern Europe, when the real security threats are in Asia. Citing the emergence of Indian and Pakistani nuclear weapons and the developing missile capacities of China, Bracken writes:

The world is in a second nuclear age, an Asian nuclear age. It is a second age because it has nothing to do with the central fact of the first nuclear age, the cold war. For China, Israel, India and Pakistan, the cold war is an antiquated irrelevance. It is only in the notoriously provincial West that the collapse of international communism was seen as the great dividing line of history.

The chief long-term strategic challenge facing the United States, Bracken argues, is the decline of five centuries of North Atlantic military dominance over the world and the rise of Asian nationalist regimes, committed to extending their regional power through the acquisition of nuclear and chemical and biological weapons. Emerging Asian military power increases the vulnerability of US forward bases, which stretch from Turkey through the Persian Gulf to Korea and the Pacific. These forward bases have made America the dominant military power in Asia. But not for much longer, Bracken argues. These bases will soon be vulnerable to highly accurate conventional missile attacks from China and other countries.

This threat—to the hundreds of thousands of Americans deployed in forward bases abroad, whether in Turkey or Okinawa—will hardly be countered by a national missile defense shield for the continental United States. Nor, Bracken argues, can the threat be met by “theater missile defenses” in each of the Asian regions where America has bases, for such missile defenses are likely to be both expensive and ineffective. The right response, he argues, is to reorganize the American military so that it “can operate at greater distances from home and [be] less reliant on vulnerable forward bases.” This would be difficult to do. Bringing the boys home, or at least most of them, begs the question of whether America possesses the logistical ability to send them back into a theater of conflict quickly enough should the need arise. In 1991, it took America and its allies six long months to build up the force sufficient to defeat Iraq. No really astute enemy is going to allow America that kind of time in the future.

If, as Bracken argues, developing theater missile defense to protect its forward bases is ruinously expensive, then America’s only alternative is to manage its relations with the new Asian power brokers, India and China, in such a way that they do not challenge either its bases or its interests. Defenders of existing international agreements against nuclear proliferation will be unhappy at Bracken’s suggestion that America might in fact benefit from the emergence of nuclear powers in the region, since they could inhibit further spread of weapons to other states and might take over some of the American responsibility for regional security. On the contrary, if the current antiproliferation arrangements break down, America’s presence in the region will become even more essential: to prevent China from having a free hand to take Taiwan and intimidate Japan; to stop India from dominating Pakistan; and to keep North Korea from marching south, though that threat now seems momentarily to have receded.

In containing these threats, America ought not to succumb to the illusion of basing its power on military technology alone. The disturbing lesson of Anthony Cordesman’s Iraq and the War of Sanctions, an authoritative study of American bombing of Iraq’s chemical and biological and nuclear installations after 1991, is that using high-tech weaponry merely slows down, but cannot halt, a determined attempt by a rogue nation to create deadly arsenals. In December 1998, President Clinton ordered raids on Iraq after it refused to comply with UN weapons inspectors. Four hundred and fifteen cruise missiles were fired at Iraqi targets, together with raids by B-1 bombers, British Tornados, and American F-16s. Cordesman concludes that the raids did damage Iraqi command and control and antiaircraft systems, but they did not put Iraq’s chemical and nuclear warfare research establishments out of business. America’s military power can only reduce rather than eliminate new threats. Hence in the post-cold war era as in the cold war itself, the most that American military power can achieve is containment, and the human costs of such a military strategy to America’s enemies may be high.


Both Bracken’s and Cordesman’s books are about containing the threats that have emerged since the end of the cold war: new competitors in Asia, defiant states capable of making chemical and nuclear weapons. William Owens, in Lifting the Fog of War, addresses the vexed question of whether America’s huge defense establishment is actually up to the job.

His answer is a decisive and deeply alarming “No.” If the weapons systems purchased during the Reagan era build-up are not replaced, Owens warns, America faces “a total collapse of its military capability” within fifteen years. His devastating criticism of American military readiness gains persuasiveness from his record: he is a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, in effect, America’s second-highest military officer.

Owen concedes that America did much to rebuild the confidence of its military forces after Vietnam and that its leaders embraced the revolution in military technology. But from 1992 onward, he writes, with the cuts initiated by the Clinton administration, the defense system became weaker. As vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Owens struggled both to trim expenditure while also improving readiness through a determined use of new technology and the savings it made possible. But he was frustrated, he writes, by the resistance of the three services and he was passed over for the chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs. He is now a CEO of a high-tech company near Seattle.

One simple story helps to explain why Owens wants to sound an alarm. In 1991, when he was commander of the US Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean, he ordered a test of his ships’ capacity to communicate with Army combat units based in Europe. The Navy communicates with the Army all the time, but through a convoluted routing process, involving switchboards and operators. Owens wanted to prove that in an emergency the Navy could bypass this circuitous route and reach combat units directly.

We tried to do it. We tried—for six months—to make the connection. And we never could link up with the Army. There was always something wrong. The Army and Navy units used different frequencies. The communications protocols employed by the Army and Navy were different. The communications personnel had never been trained to do this. And so on.

This inability to communicate cost lives. In Desert Storm, friendly-fire incidents, in which US aircraft killed US and other allied ground forces, accounted for 24 percent of all allied casualties. Owens had to console families who had lost sons and daughters to friendly fire, and he found it hard to explain how the most powerful military machine in the world could make such mistakes. The authoritative Gulf War Air Power Survey confirms many of Owens’s criticisms. Even when the services did manage to run a joint air campaign over Iraq, communications problems hampered their operations. The Navy, for example, did not install terminals for the Air Force’s Computer Assisted Force Management System. This meant that the “air tasking orders” for naval operations had to be carried by hand to the aircraft carrier Blue Ridge. The joint air defense system was not as joint as it seemed: there were, in effect, holes between the zones protected by the Marines and the Navy, and an Iraqi jet made it through one of these holes into Saudi airspace.

In the Kosovo air war, the US military services continued to have problems working together. The Army sent an elite force of Apache helicopters to Albania and then refused to integrate them into the Air Force targeting system, which ran the air campaign. The Army objected to using its Apaches in an air campaign divorced from a ground operation. It wasn’t until the end of the war that these differences were resolved, but even then the helicopters never saw action. The only contribution of the Army task force in Albania turned out to be its radar systems, which earned their keep at the very end of the war only by locating Serb artillery locations for NATO pilots overhead.

Interservice rivalries and failures of coordination are always a standard source of recrimination in defense debates. In fact, competition between services has had a function: the rivalries create unit cohesion and boost morale. It’s not for nothing that “Beat Navy” is plastered over every flat surface at West Point. Owens argues that by now service rivalries are a luxury America can no longer afford, because they are standing in the way of achieving the efficiency and synergy made possible by the revolution in military affairs. As he puts it, “By failing to work jointly to apply the new technology, the four services are digging themselves four separate, low tech graves.”

Current service demands for huge new spending appropriations may only increase waste and reduce preparedness. Owens is particularly concerned with the “teeth to tail ratio,” the amount of logistics and civilian support required to back up each combat unit in the field. In World War II, each combat soldier required sixty pounds of food, water, fuel, and ammunition per day. By the time of Desert Storm, the “logistics tail” had soared to four hundred pounds. This is one reason why Eric Shinseki, the secretary of the Army, conceded after Kosovo that the Army requires excessively heavy support and is too slow in deploying its forces. Behind each warrior, there now stands logistical or civilian support staff of twelve people. A study for Business Executives for National Security argued in October 1999 that if the military used modern inventory management and delivery systems of the kind pioneered by companies like FedEx and Microsoft, it could divert between $20 billion and $30 billion a year—now used for salaries and warehouses—toward new weapons systems.10

Owens’s main concern is not just cutting waste but conserving America’s lead in military technology. New computer and communications technology, he argues, make it possible to lift “the fog of war,” Clausewitz’s famous phrase for the chaotic uncertainty of battle. Computerized systems, he argues, enable the US to link together all four services into a single combined fighting machine. While still in the Navy, Owens advocated a “system of systems,” which would integrate all battlefield and intelligence information so that the commander of the future would be able to achieve dominance of the battle space. Until his retirement, Owens was the most insistent and utopian advocate of RMA in the US military, and his views inevitably aroused fierce resistance.

The debate over RMA, which has been intense in military circles since the end of the cold war, is not between those in favor of technology and those against. Both sides accept that new technology can vastly improve communications, coordination, and logistics, and both sides believe that military institutions are excessively conservative and slow to reform. The real debate is between “historicists,” who believe that, as in the past, military conflict will be won by traditional warrior skills, and “technicists,” who believe that superior military technology is decisive. The Navy and Air Force have a high proportion of technicists, while the Marines and the Army have a high proportion of historicists. Flyers and sailors believe in the promise of their machines; soldiers necessarily believe that wars are won by blood and guts.

The historicists—Williamson Murray would be one such—evoke the battlefields of the past and conclude that Gettysburg, Antietam, and Omaha Beach were not won by technology but by impalpable factors like leadership and valor and were lost by chance, accident, and mistakes. Technicists—Owens would qualify as one—believe that warfare need not be constrained by these factors. It’s not that they ignore history: they concentrate instead on the history of decisive technical change—the introduction of gunpowder, the repeater rifle, the machine gun—and conclude that the nations that first made use of them gained mastery on the battlefield. At root, the RMA debate is between men like Owens, who believe that technology can take tragedy out of warfare, and those who believe that tragedy is intrinsic to the military art.

It is his adamant refusal to admit the presence of tragedy in warfare—the inevitability of mistakes, unintended consequences, and terrible accidents—which undermines the credibility of Owens’s belief in technology. America has the most advanced intelligence-gathering system in the world, yet was unable to predict Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. It was equally incapable of predicting that Milosevic would resist for months the limited bombing campaign initially planned. Some American leaders thought the war would be over within a week. Advanced intelligence technology did not even enable US intelligence to correctly identify the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Human fallibility will undermine any technological advantage, and where violence is used, what can go wrong usually does.

In an earlier book, High Seas: The Naval Passage to an Uncharted World,11 Owens gave a reassuring picture of the way the Navy managed both to make use of new technology and to scale down the fleet after the end of the cold war. His new book reflects the frustrations he encountered at the Joint Chiefs, trying to deal with competing claims for resources among the services at a time when Pentagon budgets were being cut by a quarter. In Lifting the Fog of War, his overall message is that America is frittering away its lead in the revolution in military affairs. Each armed service has used new technology to conserve its separate service identities, traditions, and ways of war. In reality, Owens argues, the technological revolution challenges the very identity of the separate services. It calls into question the rationale for the units into which military force has long been organized. For Owens, the army division—18,000 strong—no longer makes sense in an age of humanitarian interventions and peace enforcement operations. It no longer even makes sense for high-intensity combat, since battles have ceased to be encounters between massed fielded forces. They have become skirmishes between dispersed combat units that call in support from weapons platforms hundreds if not thousands of miles from the battlefield. Owens associates himself with Army reformers like Lieutenant Colonel Douglas Macgregor, whose book Breaking the Phalanx12 proposed a radical reform of the Army’s divisional structure in order to create smaller, combined units, capable of missions as various as humanitarian rescue and medium-scale combat.

Unless the separate services shed their conservatism, Owens asserts, America faces a “general collapse of its ability to execute the requirements of the current—or any future—national military strategy.” Most of the equipment the Army uses—the Abrams tank, for example—dates back to the 1960s. The bill for replacing all of the aging equipment in the armed forces might run as high as $100 billion a year for a decade, an amount that Congress would not appropriate. To keep costs down, Owens argues, the services will have to eliminate duplication—combining their medical services, logistics operations, and redundant bases. But combining facilities will not be enough. Each service will have to learn to train and fight with each other. At present, each service jealously guards its right to train its officer class separately.

If the future lies in joint operations, then each service will also have to surrender its chief prerogative, control over its own procurement budget. As Owens discovered to his astonishment, the Joint Chiefs lacked the power to impose rational standards on the procurement decisions made by the services. They could not order the Army and the Air Force to use compatible equipment. This sort of problem led the defense analyst Edward Luttwak to conclude that the American defense department was “quite incapable of reform.” Owens
wants to believe that reform is still possible; his main proposal is to centralize
procurement in a “joint requirements committee,” consisting of the secretary of
defense and the Joint Chiefs. The services would lose all their “existing power
to set military budget requirements independently.”

Lifting the Fog of War makes a brisk and convincing
case for this kind of radical reform; when a former admiral attacks the services
for promoting waste and duplication, his argument may have wide appeal. Owens’s
message is also seductive because it implies that, thanks to new technology, America
can maintain military strength without spending a high percentage of GDP. But Owens
doesn’t make specific estimates of the savings he proposes or the investments he
believes the military should make. As a result, he does not really prove his case
that America can contain the size of its military budget while simultaneously improving
its efficiency, all at the same percentage of national expenditure.

Owens wants a national debate on defense, particularly in
this election year. But in reality, public support for defense reform is weak. Whatever
the threat, and no matter how wasteful its military expenditure, America outspends
friend and foe alike, at relatively little sacrifice in national income. American
citizens barely feel the pinch of a huge defense budget, while millions of them
benefit directly from the jobs it provides. So the constituency for military reform
is always going to be small, while the constituencies against cutting back military
waste—defense contractors, lobbyists, and log-rolling congressmen—are
always going to be large. Getting the defense America needs is one of the toughest
challenges for American democracy, especially in an election year. In Owens’s view,
the first step will be the most difficult: to persuade the four services that they
will hang separately if they do not hang together. Even more difficult for Americans
will be recognizing that American power is deeply vulnerable because of the contradiction
between high moral goals—commitment to human rights and humanitarianism—and
military means that are concerned, above all, to avoid risk.

This Issue

July 20, 2000