Why Does the Pentagon Need an Iron Man Suit? Why Can't America Win its Wars?
February 3, 2016 Anna Mulrine / Christian Science Monitor
The Pentagon isn't afraid to spend money on technology. But recent requests by Special Operations generals have an imminently practical element and speak to the evolving nature of American war fighting. It's easy to blame presidents for a lack of strategy, but a growing number of officials are saying that the fault lies with a lack of vision in the Pentagon.
Why Does the Pentagon Need an Iron Man Suit? Anna Mulrine / Christian Science Monitor
(January 29, 2016) -- WASHINGTON — When the head of United States Special Operations Command said recently that he hopes his troops will someday soon be wearing super-light, super-strong exoseletons known affectionately as "Iron Man" suits, it might have sounded like a bit of classic Pentagon excess.
Cool, but outrageously expensive and a bit of a luxury item.
Then Special Forces Operatives like Paul Scharre share their experiences -- in Mr. Scharre's case of coming upon a nest of Taliban at dawn in the mountains of Afghanistan -- and the request begins to make more sense.
Sure, the body armor he was wearing was a "big advantage," as were the night-vision goggles, but all told, the members of Scharre's sniper team each had to lug 160 pounds of gear up a mountain.
WIth the small, elite team quickly outnumbered, "all of a sudden, all that stuff that we carried up and thought was so great" became a liability, says Scharre, who served as a special operations reconnaissance team leader in the Army's 3rd Ranger Battalion, completing multiple tours to Iraq and Afghanistan. "We did that once and said, 'That was a mistake.' "
That is what makes things like exoskeletons, which help troops bear heavy loads, "really appealing," he says.
The technology requests by Special Operations Command generals still sound decidedly Buck Rogers, such as self-healing computer networks that can repel cyberattacks and "comprehensive signature management" systems that provide stealth for ground troops by masking they ways they could be remotely detected. And they would require an enormous budget outlay.
But at a time when America's primary mode of warfare is counterterror operations, they point to the frontiers of that war. And with special operators being sent on many of the most dangerous missions -- whether in war or peace time -- the requests often have an imminently practical element: They aim to save the lives of troops who are being sent directly into harm's way.
For Scharre, now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, the lists are about trying to give America's on-the-ground fighters the same advantages that technology has given its airmen and sailors.
Back in World War II, the three most dangerous jobs were bomber pilots, submariners, and the infantry, he says. In the years since, the US has leveraged technology to increase the survivability of bombers and submarines. "We built stealth bombers that no one else has, and the very best submarines," he notes.
But infantry combat hasn't changed fundamentally since World War II, Scharre argues. "You grab someone who operated on the beaches of Normandy, you show them how to use an M4 [rifle], and there's a level of parity that isn't very different."
It's the same level of parity that US forces have encountered in Afghanistan. "All of the whiz-bang technology hasn't had the same effects on the ground," Scharre notes. "In a shootout we're pretty evenly matched against guys carrying AK-47's and wearing flip flops."
That is the potential appeal of so-called "human performance enhancers," like the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) exoskeleton -- or Iron Man suit.
The hope is to "bring technology to bear in ways that we haven't quite done for ground warfare yet," he says.
Small drones that can follow elite ground units around like devoted winged puppies are also "super appealing," he adds. Commercial technology allows snowboarders, for example, to wear a wrist tracker that allows small aerial drones with cameras to follow them, garnering great footage.
Something similar would work well for US forces -- to peer around buildings and hillsides to get eyes on the enemy.
"I remember in Iraq we lost a whole squad of troops wounded or killed because somebody in a suicide vest came around a corner," Scharre recalls. Such a drone would have prevented that -- and, equally important, forces wouldn't have to carry them around.
But that means creating a longer battery life and more funding. Of the services, Special Operations Forces are the least cash-strapped, and among the most able to think in terms of occasionally outlandish, gee-whiz technology.
That's because counterterror operations have made Special Operations so in demand by US military commanders. "I think we have been extraordinarily well-supported by Congress; we've been extraordinarily well-supported by the [Defense] Department," General Votel told a Special Operations conference in Washington last week. "When I look at this year's budget, we did pretty darn well."
That has the potential to impact all ground forces. Since small teams are a trademark of Special Forces, they can more agilely field experimental equipment, to try out new body armor, exoskeletons, and other high-tech gear to see how it works.
From the most elite special operators to the general forces, Scharre says, "It filters down."
(December 12, 2015) -- WASHINGTON — When Michael Vickers was making his name as the Central Intelligence Agency operative depicted in "Charlie Wilson's War" -- running a covert war against the Soviets in Afghanistan through Muslim jihadis -- it was by no means a war of decision by committee.
It was the bold and resourceful work of a maverick.
The wisdom of that approach remains controversial -- it vanquished the Soviets but planted the seeds for modern terrorism. Yet this week, Mr. Vickers, a former undersecretary for intelligence, told lawmakers that the qualities that guided him in Afghanistan have been in too-short supply in America's recent warfighting. Put bluntly, American efforts to respond to the security challenges of today simply aren't working.
"We are not postured as a [Defense] department, intellectually or organizationally, for these highly asymmetric and largely unconventional long-term challenges," Vickers said in congressional testimony. "We are winning battles and campaigns, but not our wars."
Vickers is not alone in his belief that America's security infrastructure needs to rethink deeply how it makes decisions. The criticisms from top defense and intelligence officials go far beyond typical partisan complaints against the Obama administration.
Instead, they lay the blame on the Pentagon and CIA themselves, arguing that those organizations are consistently failing to come up with new and innovative ideas to present to the president, resulting in a lack of strategy.
"We seem flummoxed by and self-deterred in our response to Russian indirect and direct aggression," added Vickers, who stepped down from his job earlier this year. Meanwhile, in the Middle East, "although it's certainly not from a lack of trying, we are far from having a strategy that can bring stability."
These are, of course, enormously complicated decisions. And part of the caution stems from the desire to avoid unintended consequences that could come back to hurt the United States even more -- as the support for the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s has, many say.
But there is a growing sense among some officials that the debate about the Islamic State, for example, has become "overly focused" on boots on the ground, because top Pentagon leaders are not thinking in "broader and more diverse strategic terms," said retired Navy Cmdr.
Jeffrey Eggers, former special assistant to the president for national security affairs and a former Navy SEAL, during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday, at which Vickers also testified.
'The Tyranny of Consensus'
To fix this, the Pentagon must change the way it does business, argued former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy, who is often named as a likely contender to become the first female secretary of Defense if Hillary Clinton is elected.
Making good decisions requires, in no small part, being decisive. Yet the most "pernicious" practice within the building today is "the tyranny of consensus that has come to dominate the Pentagon," she said.
While consensus is generally viewed as plus, "focusing what we can all agree on has become an end in itself in too many areas," including strategy development, Ms. Flournoy told lawmakers Tuesday.
Consensus is a particularly tough goal considering that the Joint Staff, the collection of the Pentagon's top officers, has grown to nearly 4,000 people, she notes. That's 10 times its 1958 size.
This is not simply a matter of efficiency, but also effectiveness, Flournoy said. "Bloated headquarters staffs have been documented to slow decisionmaking, push too many decisions to higher levels, incentivize risk-averse behaviors, undermine organizational performance, and compromise agility."
Instead, they create a "lowest common denominator consensus that does little to illuminate tradeoffs and investment decisions the department must make for the future."
Congress launched a major reform of the Pentagon 30 years ago, known as Goldwater-Nichols, in the wake of the Vietnam War. The goal was to fix a Pentagon recommendation-making process that had grown so bad that its military advice was "generally irrelevant, normally unread, and almost always disregarded," as James Schlesinger, secretary of Defense from 1973 to 1975, put it at the time.
"Goldwater-Nichols was, of course, informed and catalyzed by the failures of that generation. And my sense is that our modern shortcomings are equally deserving of them," said Mr. Eggers.
He cited former Defense Secretary Robert Gates's take on the matter: "When it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements since Vietnam, our record has been perfect: We have never once gotten it right."
The Buck Stops . . . Where?
The need for change today was one of the rare points that seemed to have bipartisan consensus this week.
Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, noted that within the Pentagon, "Innovative ideas that challenge the status quo rarely seem to survive the staffing process as they make their long journey to senior, civilian, and military leaders."
Instead, the result seems to be "watered down" thinking "that is acceptable to all relevant stakeholders precisely because it is threatening to none of them."
Michael Rubin worked in the Pentagon during the Iraq War.
"It's very easy to blame presidents and say the buck should stop with the president, but I do believe what we've seen for the past 20-something years has been the ossification of the decision-making process," he says.
He recalls frequent policy discussions in the early days of the Iraq insurgency that routinely devolved into semantics. "Whenever you have people start arguing over terminology -- whether they should be called anti-Iraq forces, or terrorists -- that ultimately becomes a distraction," says Dr. Rubin, now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
It doesn't help, either, that the body charged with corralling the policymakers -- the National Security Council -- is itself bloated, Flournoy and others noted. "The NSC was created to coordinate policy and impose discipline and ensure it's implemented, but it has turned into another large bureaucracy," Rubin says, growing to an estimated 400 staffers -- roughly double the size it was under the George W. Bush administration.
In the Brent Scowcroft era under George H.W. Bush, Flournoy recalled an organization "with a very clear understanding of what their role is, which is strategy, policy, honest broker, and options development for the president."
Reducing staff sizes within the NSC and the Pentagon is a necessary start, said Flournoy.
Mr. Eggers said he would place a premium on strategic and higher university training for military leaders. He pushed, too, for a "red team" of experts from outside the building to question the conventional wisdom within.
This idea was enthusiastically greeted by Sen. Angus King (I) of Maine. "I love the idea of a red team in the Pentagon or perhaps the National Security Council whose job it is to contest the conventional wisdom -- to contest the consensus, to be obnoxious," he said. "I could volunteer for that."
The key may be getting a key group of players together, says Rubin.
He recalls the run-up to the Iraq War, when he was the Pentagon's country director for Iran and Iraq. "What we felt was, if they would just get us a place in Crystal City [near the Pentagon] where we could all work together," they could speed the decisionmaking progress.
This might include people from the Pentagon, State Department, Treasury, and CIA all troubleshooting in one place. "What we don't have is anything to allow people working on a common problem to actually work together," he says.
He recalls when, during the Iraq War, someone in the State Department was investigated for leaking unclassified documents . . . to a Pentagon official.
"Let's treat the people working on these problems as a unit which can be 100 people working together," he says. "They can hash things out, and then someone in NSC can make a decision -- and bring it to the president if they can't."
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.