The plans of US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to transform the nation's armed forces ran into a spirited dose of skepticism at a recent gathering in Hawaii of strategic thinkers from the US, Asia, and the Pacific.
An Australian strategist on land warfare, Michael Evans, set the tone by pointing to both the strengths and weaknesses of the Rumsfeld plan, which seeks to propel US military power so far ahead of that of any other nation that none would dare challenge it.
"American strengths in transformation are seen as being in the realm of ideas, innovation, and technology," Evans told his colleagues. Weaknesses included "a tendency toward faddism," a love of technology for the sake of technology, and "a perceived inability to transform the vast organization of the Pentagon whose mindset was formed in the crucible of the Cold War."
The conference on transforming US armed forces was organized by the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, where military officers, defense officials, diplomats, and law enforcement officers from the US, Asia, and the Pacific meet to examine security issues. To encourage candor, speakers usually cannot be identified. Evans, however, agreed to be quoted.
The main cause of the Asian doubts, which were as much cultural as military, was their difficulty in discerning what "transform" means. US defenders of the plan acknowledged that it was an "elusive concept" but asserted that the objective was to assemble a force that could dominate the spectrum of conflict from nuclear war to terror. This transformed force, which would include political, economic, diplomatic, and cultural elements, would provide depth in homeland defense and would rely a revitalized intelligence corps, innovative uses of space, streamlined logistics, and new weapons. The deadline was set as 2012.
In Asia and the Pacific, the US has already begun to redraw the map of its bases and to realign forces so that expeditions could be launched to points elsewhere in the region. War plans are being updated and speed of command will be emphasized.
Alliances with Japan, and to a lesser extent with South Korea, will become even more vital than they are today. Even so, Japanese misgivings included concern that the plan relied too much on advanced technology that Japan's Self-Defense Forces could not match.
There was concern that efforts to win hearts and minds through public affairs, psychological operations, and the Internet would be neglected.
For South Korea, the Rumsfeld plan is seen as ambitious but ambiguous and has been greeted with ambivalence. President Roh Moo-hyun has asserted that his nation should be "self-reliant" in defense against North Korea but some South Koreans have deplored US plans to reduce troop levels in South Korea and to assign those forces missions outside of South Korea.
A participant from Southeast Asia drew affirmative nods when he asserted that too often US leaders insist that "you must do it my way" rather than seek Asian points of view. Another participant said Singapore found the plan had little relevance for small powers. A South Asian contended that most strategists in his part of the world saw the Rumsfeld plan as "too expensive and too expansive." It was "technologically exotic" and not suited to low level threats, such as terror, that plague that region.