The Doctrine of Digital War

How high tech is shaping America's military strategy: the pros and cons

When Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, mindful of America's two-month rout of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, sat down with war planners to prepare for a U.S.-led thrust into Iraq, he had a vision of how the unfolding conflict would play out. A devotee of a new theory of warfare that places enormous stress on air power, computer communications, and small, agile ground forces, the Pentagon chief began work on a battle plan that was a marvel of technological prowess.

Ever since he joined the Administration, fresh from a second career as a successful CEO, Rumsfeld had been fighting skirmishes with his military brass. His notion of "transformation" -- Rumspeak for a leaner, more technologically driven force that leapfrogs generations of Cold War weaponry -- met with resistance from generals and congressional porkmeisters alike. Defenders of the status quo insisted that future wars would be won the old-fashioned way -- with lethal firepower and plenty of U.S. grunts on the ground. The debates intensified as the prospect of war in Iraq drew nearer and Commander-in-Chief George W. Bush signaled his determination to oust Saddam Hussein.

The blueprint Rumsfeld wound up with is a blend of his ideas for War Lite and the more traditional desires of Tommy Franks, the tough-talking general who heads the U.S. Central Command. Franks argued successfully for a large conventional force of up to 250,000 combat and support troops. In return, Rumsfeld got Franks to agree to deploying the troops in phases, rather than all at once. And Rumsfeld also prevailed on a strategy built around simultaneous air and land strikes, a rapid advance to Baghdad, and extensive use of special-operations units. Their assignment: to go behind enemy lines to knock out targets, thus lessening the need, Rumsfeld argued, for more frontal assault troops.

Whatever the compromises, there is little doubt the plans Rumsfeld finally signed off on were designed to showcase many of the reformers' theories. Some nine days into the assault, this new-wave warfare is being put to the test in the harsh sands of Iraq, and not everything is going with clockwork precision. True, it is early in the fight, and what looks like a series of initial glitches could be overcome by future breakthroughs. For instance, if the coalition secures its southern flank, it would fare better in the assault on Baghdad.

Still, it's undeniable that the first week of "shock and awe" did not go as the Pentagon had hoped. As U.S. forces gather for a climactic battle for Baghdad, they have been hobbled by sandstorms, guerrilla strikes by fedayeen irregulars, stretched supply lines, friendly fire incidents, and signs that the Iraqis may use chemical and nerve agents. As a result, Rumsfeld and Franks face increasing flak. The most frequently heard charge: that the U.S. lacks the ground troops for what may turn into a tough, protracted fight in Iraq.

That wasn't how things were supposed to play out. Pentagon planners had hoped that a blitz of precision bombing and cruise-missile strikes would sever Saddam Hussein's ability to communicate with his commanders. A simultaneous land assault would arrive on Saddam's doorstep with unnerving speed. Isolated and surrounded, Iraqi soldiers were expected to surrender en masse.

There was one more thing: Strict targeting restrictions would minimize civilian casualties to help the Americans and British be perceived as liberators by a skeptical Arab world.

Rumsfeld's strategy lends itself to caricature by critics, in part because of the Pentagon chief's unwavering confidence in all things Rumsfeldian. But in fact, it represents the culmination of years of thinking by hawkish policy advisers who advocate a preemptive tack toward America's enemies in an era of proliferating weapons of mass destruction. In these encounters, the U.S. would bring to the battle advantages drawn from the nation's edge in high technology. Advances in communications, stealth technology, robotics, and precision targeting would act as "force multipliers" that lessen the need for lumbering land armies and big cannons.

But with military analysts questioning whether the U.S. has sent enough troops for the task, some wonder if, just like some '90s dot-com visionary, Rumsfeld oversold techno-war. One example: Despite disruption to Saddam's communications, Iraqi soldiers and irregulars have still found ways to harass the coalition advance. "We're bogged down in a low-intensity conflict like we would find in any Third World country," Major William Gillespie of the 3rd Infantry told BusinessWeek. "Guys in civilian clothes in pickup trucks are taking shots at us."

And, as widely predicted, even vaunted three-dimensional views of the battlefield cannot prevent friendly fire accidents or mistaken attacks on civilian cars, buses, and houses. With the Republican Guards preparing for a fight to the finish in Baghdad, some analysts suggest that without the missing 4th Infantry Division -- a unit that was supposed to move into Northern Iraq from Turkey but now faces a lengthy detour to Kuwait -- U.S. armor may be too thin for the coming showdown.

Amid the haze of war, it's still unclear whether the skeptics will be proved right. But one thing is certain: What's being tested in Iraq is not just the mettle of the U.S. military but an entire philosophy of warfare. The Rumsfeld approach is in sharp contrast with the "overwhelming force" doctrine outlined by then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin L. Powell prior to the 1991 Gulf War. A former artillery officer whose views were shaped by Vietnam, Powell stated that barring a mandate from the American people, a clear objective, and a force advantage of at least three times the enemy's troop strength, America should steer clear of wars. That's why Powell insisted on a U.S.-led invasion force of 550,000 during Operation Desert Storm.

Rumsfeld's new-wavers think massing huge numbers of land troops isn't always needed in an era when powerful networked-computing systems and unerringly accurate munitions can do much of the dirty work. "There's a substitution of information for mass," says retired Vice-Admiral Arthur K. Cebrowski, a key Rumsfeld adviser on transformation.

The outcome of the Iraq war could determine the fate of Rumsfeld's vision, which has run into spirited resistance from entrenched military chiefs. If the U.S. wins a quick victory, it will accelerate moves to modernize U.S. forces and make them more reliant on high-tech wizardry. And it would be a boon to the still reeling high-tech industry. But if the Iraq intervention bogs down amid costly street fighting, the Pentagon chief would face a major setback.

Rumsfeld seems stung by the potshots, but he's determined to prove that technology and speed will prevail over crude mass in Iraq. "It is a good plan," he insisted on Mar. 25. "Wars are unpredictable, and there's lots of difficulties." In the end, says Rumsfeld, the coalition will roll up Baghdad sooner rather than later, and with far fewer casualties than pessimists envision.

Still, Rumsfeld has been sketchy on the details of his promised tech and strategic revolution. With the exception of axing the 70-ton Crusader howitzer, he hasn't killed any major weapons programs that were envisioned for Cold War conflicts. The current Pentagon arsenal is in reality just a better-funded version of what the Clinton Administration crafted.

What's more, top military officials are still scrambling to figure out ways to tackle the 21st Century challenges the Pentagon foresees. Some of those threats are hardly distant, from the risks of urban warfare -- which U.S. troops face in Baghdad -- to the lack of access to bases near a newly menacing North Korea.

Indeed, to some analysts, Rumsfeld's Pentagon is acting much as Sears, Roebuck (S ) did when it saw Wal-Mart Stores (WMT ) making inroads in rural retail markets. Sears responded by making its catalog business more efficient. In the same way, instead of changing, the U.S. military is more efficient at doing what it always did. It's "much better at waging the kind of war we did in 1991 in the Persian Gulf," says Andrew F. Krepinevich, executive director of the Center for Strategic & Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank.

If the U.S. manages to extricate itself more or less intact from Iraq, that may be all that's needed this time around. And in the end, the vaunted Rumsfeld Doctrine may be perceived as little more than a flexible road map for doing whatever is needed to win wars in the future. But to Rumsfeld, it's much more than that. The nation's chief war planner wants nothing less than to create a new military strategy that makes America's technological might the ultimate weapon. And now, as high-tech dreams meet low-tech tactics in the barren landscape of Iraq, it is facing its first big test.

By Stan Crock, Paul Magnusson, and Lee Walczak in Washington, with Frederik Balfour with the 3rd Infantry Division in Iraq

— With assistance by Frederik Balfour

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