Reforming traditional armed forces

Kosovo and Kuwait may have been won using long-range precision weapons, advanced sensors and intelligent processors, but Kosovo was mostly fought in a rural, mountainous region and the Gulf War was conducted on an open, empty desert.

By 2020, about 70 per cent of the world’s population will live in cities, mostly on coastlines. There will be urban combat. There will be cyberterrorism and electronic attacks against information systems, and there are already about two dozen countries and counting which have either developed or are in the process of developing weapons of mass destruction – nuclear weapons, low-cost ballistic missiles and chemical and biological agents.

To illustrate this point, William Cohen, the US defense secretary in the Clinton administration, went on television holding up a five-pound bag of sugar saying that if it was filled with anthrax instead of sugar and if someone spread it over a city the size of Washington DC, with the right wind and temperature, it would wipe out 70 percent of the population. That’s just five pounds, and there is tons of anthrax in existence.

The widening gap in high-tech military capability between rich and poor countries could lead the West’s potential adversaries to unleash alternative weapons and unconventional strategies. Indeed, one of the West’s greatest strengths, its technological and information superiority, could also pose one of its greatest security challenges.

This irony wasn’t lost on William Cohen, who invited Clayton Christensen, a professor at the Harvard Business School and author of The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms To Fail, to come to the Pentagon and sit down with the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, service secretaries and other military policy people.

Christensen’s book is about major corporations that were doing everything right – top personnel, leadership, good flow of revenue, investment in research and development, anticipation of customer needs – yet failed because “disruptive technology” had come in, not at the top end, but at the low end of the marketplace.

Christensen spent almost four hours with Pentagon planners, looking into the future and assessing the potential disruptive technologies that could come in at the low end and take on the United States.

The Revolution in Military Affairs is about reforming traditional forces to make them more agile in order to face up to a new generation of threats and an uncertain future. Today’s military forces never know when or where the next major war theatre will occur, what demands will be placed on them, how the enemy will fight and who will join them in a coalition. The technologies, weapons and doctrines that looks right for today will be overtaken and obsolete in 10 or 15 years.

So rather than committing too far too soon, forces need the flexibility to switch courses depending on how the future unfolds. The most profound military innovation isn’t technology itself but an understanding of what can be done with technology. A high-tech, information-based type of warfare will require well-educated service personnel who are as comfortable with a keyboard as they are with a gun. It will require soldiers who can think critically, because in a multi-polar world with complex missions there could be lethal situations in which skills and knowledge of history, geography, languages, diplomacy and economics might be needed. Access to education and life-long learning will have to become one of the main attractions to get skilled people to enlist.

*Article extracted from ‘eGov: e-Business Strategies for Government’ by Douglas Holmes, published by Nicholas Brealey Publishing, ISBN: 1-85788-278-4, US $29.95. To order,