On Point

Enemies Beware, "Transformation" of Democracy's Arsenal


May 15, 2002

You've heard the soundbite. America served as World War II's "arsenal of democracy." American industrial might and technology provided quality steel and wheels for Allied soldiers, sailors and airmen.

Two weeks ago, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld killed what he's concluded is an outmoded battlefield technology, the Army's "Crusader" howitzer. The nation that brought you the jeep and pinpoint spy satellites (among other military innovations) now moves on to robots like the Predator unmanned aircraft. Enemies beware, "transformation" of democracy's arsenal proceeds.

Of course, the first thing the wise should say is, "We'll believe it when we actually see it."

A fine place to get a feel for the enormous task of military transformation -- and also get a gritty appreciation of the risks involved -- is Dr. David Johnson's "Fast Tanks and Heavy Bombers: Innovation in the US Army 1917-1945" (Cornell University Press).

Though published four years ago, the War on Terror and accelerating demands for change in the Pentagon (the Crusader cancellation being only one example) make this book extremely relevant. Every military transformer (from Rumsfeld on down) should read it -- and reckon with it.

Johnson, who is a senior policy analyst at RAND and a retired Army officer, has written a tough history. Events (in World War II) foiled inter-war "defense consensus" expectations. Technology failed to do what consensus opinion said it would do. But that "consensus" is one that bullied its competitors. Embedded political interests and military "institutional imperatives" stifled creativity. And America paid the price for these goofs in GI blood.

Chapter 13 of "Fast Tanks" makes savage fun of the "arsenal of democracy" rah-rah. Titled "The Arsenal of Attrition," this bitter, short chapter centers on two tables, one recording the jump in active-duty Army strength from 1940 to 1945 (269,000 to 8,267,000) and one recording the increase in tank and aircraft production. (Tanks jumped from 331 to 11,968 per year, aircraft from 3,807 to 46,001.) Johnson's point is -- in the big picture -- America beat the Germans and the Japanese by mass, not maneuver or magic.

The "fast tanks," such as the Sherman and Stuart, were intended to break through and rampage in the enemy rear -- tactical and operational maneuver that would produce decisive results (and fewer American casualties). "Heavy bombers," such as the B-17, were trumpeted (by their advocates) as war-winning magic. Destroy key industrial targets in daylight precision raids conducted by these flying fortresses (no fighter escort required) and, voila, enemy productive capacity collapses along with enemy civilian morale. Strategic airpower (the advocates said) will win the war (and quickly). These heavy bomber advocates dismissed fighter development. Close air support of ground forces was anathema.

The American tanks met German Tigers, which turned the under-gunned and under-armored (but fast) Yanks into burning junk. U.S. heavy bomber raids failed to destroy German industry and morale. The bombers also needed long-range fighter escorts.

Johnson depicts the quashing of creative ideas and creative officers. Does that occur in today's Pentagon? You bet. "Entrenched interests" sink deep roots in the Beltway, as well as the military.

Johnson revisits that era's intra- and inter-service rivalries. "Institutional imperatives" protecting turf and the ancient regime often superceded common sense. The saddest example of embedded denial is a comment made by the head of the Army (horse) cavalry after the Nazis blitzed Poland with panzers. "Under no circumstances will I agree to any further depletion of my horse cavalry. To do so would be a betrayal of the national defense."

Loyalty glues organizations, and loyalty is especially crucial to creating effective military units. However, when loyalty to institution stifles innovation, when protecting political turf trumps new technology, when organizations wedded to a theoretical "sure thing" deny empirical reality (e.g., Nazi fighters slaughtering unescorted B-17s), crisis and combat exact a stiff price.

It's 2002. The tech is higher, our embedded interests aren't quite the same, and we're at war. Johnson's history is no perfect guide, just a serious, well-documented reminder that narrow imaginations, go-along, get-along leaders and self-centered politics can have terrible consequences.

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