Online Extra: Expanded interview with Loren Thompson

A professor of military strategy and a consultant to defense contractors, Loren Thompson has one foot grounded in academic theories of geopolitics and the other in the practical realities of business and war.

He teaches a course on emerging technologies and security at Georgetown University in Washington. He writes on national security issues for the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think-tank with a libertarian bent, and he heads up Source Associates, a McLean, Va., consulting firm. Editor Steve LeSueur talked with Thompson about Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's "military transformation" initiatives and the lessons learned from Operation Iraqi Freedom.

WT: The advantages of the military transformation appear obvious. Why are some in the services resisting military transformation?

Thompson: There are two reasons. First, military institutions tend to be conservative?for one very good reason: It's the only line of work where you're routinely shot at. People want proof that this is going to make them safer.
The other reason for resistance is that transformation can assume many shapes and definitions. Rumsfeld's definition is just one, and military officers have problems with some of the details of how he intends to implement transformation.

WT: What are some of those differences?

Thompson: Almost all of the military services are resistant to buying unmanned vehicles for combat missions. They don't have a problem with the notion of unmanned reconnaissance drones; but when you send an unmanned vehicle in order to bomb a target, to jam radar or to do other things that are usually done by manned pilots, they have a problem with that.

The standard criticism of their view is that they just don't want to give up the pilots' billets; but that's not really the issue. The problem is that unmanned vehicles are far inferior in their performance capabilities to a manned vehicle.
Where we are in artificial intelligence today is that we can recreate the level of reasoning ability to what we would find in a small insect such as a cockroach. So if you were relying on a robotic vehicle in a dynamic combat situation and it encounters a manned adversary, it's going to lose immediately.

WT: How will network-centric warfare change the services?

Thompson: The single most important change is that the services are more cooperative than they used to be with each other's needs.

WT: Because they have to share information now?

Thompson: That arises partly from the sharing of information, but more importantly from the fact that Rumsfeld has forced them to achieve a division of labor. Prior to Rumsfeld, the standard military approach to any mission is that a given combat community or military service wanted to be autonomous and self-sufficient. It didn't want to rely on other services and didn't really believe it could.

Today, it is simply a planning assumption that is wired into the modernization plans that you're going to have to depend on the other services in order to achieve your goals. For example, if you're a soldier, you're not going to have artillery, and so you're going to have to rely on Air Force aircraft or on Navy cruise missiles in order to achieve your goals.

There are drawbacks to doing that, but potentially it saves hundreds of billions of dollars.

WT: You've said that Secretary Rumsfeld has taken a capabilities-based approach to creating a military force, rather than a threat-based approach. What did you mean by that?

Thompson: Rumsfeld looked at the Cold-War military posture and said it was a threat-based posture that was keyed almost exclusively to dangers presented by the Soviet Union. But in the absence of some urgent, overarching threat in which to organize our forces, he said that what he intended to do for the years ahead was to have a capabilities-based posture that would focus on developing those capabilities that were most useful in terms of what threats we might encounter in the future.

The problem with the capabilities-based approach is the notion that you can know through simple deduction what capabilities you will need to deal with future challenges, and therefore you don't need to pay as much attention to the kinds of threats we're facing.

It's a great irony of the last several years that although everybody in the policy system has been predicting the arrival of asymmetric threats, such as 9/11 and the Iraqi insurgency, we appeared to be utterly unprepared for them when they arrived.

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