The terror attacks of September 11, 2001, and the ensuing U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, focused attention at the Pentagon on one unavoidable fact - the world's most powerful military force was not very well prepared to fight the wars of the 21st century.
The main problem was not a lack of manpower, firepower or technology, but rather an organizational structure, equipment supply and mindset that were stuck in the Cold War era when military planners were mainly concerned with traditional, large-scale combat.
As a result, the Pentagon speeded up efforts to transform the U.S. military to combat insurgencies, while maintaining its readiness to fight large-scale wars.
"If I may direct your attention to the runway, the Fire Scout is approaching for takeoff,” says engineer Tom Shinell, who works on a project for the U.S. army's Future Combat System. He is describing a test flight of the Fire Scout, a small unmanned helicopter, at a military test site near Washington. “It was at full engine power and it has just launched it will now rise up to about a 30-foot hover before it proceeds down the runway onto its flight path. Fire Scout has the ability to autonomously take off and land at unprepared and unimproved landing zones, confined spaces and in close proximity to command posts and tactical operations centers," says Shinell.
Fire Scout is designed to fly over enemy positions and provide real-time information, including live video, without putting any U.S. lives at risk. It is just one of dozens of high-technology systems the army is developing to help it fight a new kind of war.
The Changing Face of Combat
The top officer in the U.S. army, General Peter Schoomaker says, "We are on a dynamic path to the future. "We're taking the current army modular force to the future army modular force that will be populated with capabilities that you saw today. So it isn't trading up to a new car, it is growing into increasing capabilities."
That means, in addition to unmanned aircraft, unmanned trucks, robots for searching buildings and collecting bombs, tanks with more capability and smaller crews, longer-range, more accurate heavy artillery, intelligence from people on the ground, aircraft and satellites, and a wireless battlefield computer network to tie it all together. When the system is finished, if someone shoots at a U.S. vehicle, not only will that vehicle be protected by a series of high-tech systems to block or evade the attack, but a satellite-enhanced computer network will instantly inform all other allied forces of the location of the shooter, who will be quickly attacked by a variety of manned and unmanned systems.
It sounds futuristic, and some of it is, but some parts of the new system are already being deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq.
General Schoomaker says the new systems even helped in the intense battle for control of the Iraqi town of Fallujah in 2004. "They integrated marine, navy and air force close air support down at the platoon level, over joint networks in a very dynamic urban environment. And this is just a peek under the tent of what the future is going to call for us to do, and how we must move our force creatively forward. And we must do this in a coalition sense," says Shoomaker.
Transforming the U.S. military will be expensive. The Future Combat System alone is estimated at well over $100 billion over 10 years. And the new technology is just one part of the plan.
U.S. Military Overhaul
The U.S. military is also re-organizing itself into mobile, flexible combat brigades, increasing its special operations capabilities, expanding its intelligence gathering, training officers in foreign languages and cultures, launching more ships and satellites, improving the training of reserve forces and taking a variety of other steps, all while still fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Some experts worry about the cost, long time frame and uncertain outcome of some of the efforts. Others, like analyst Michele Flournoy of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, worry that not enough is being done. "First and foremost it needs to treat the mission set that is under the rubric of irregular warfare as a top priority, if not the top priority. We've paid lip service to (eds. Talked about) that in the past, but I think real changes need to be made in terms of how the services are organized, trained and equipped," says Flouroy.
Flournoy, who was a Pentagon official during the Clinton administration, says the Bush administration has taken some good first steps, but she says the U.S. military needs to be larger and needs to use its resources more efficiently to meet the needs of the coming decades. "I do believe this is going to be a struggle that lasts for decades, if not a couple of generations. This is going to be a war that requires sustaining a level of effort over a long period of time. So we have to have a force that's large enough to maintain this operational tempo over time. I don't think we have the force that's sized properly to support that," says Flournoy.
The U.S. military is working to respond to such concerns. Financial incentives have been increased, and recruiting and retention are improving. Units are being reorganized across all the services. The army, navy, air force and marines are working together more, and also improving their ability to operate with allied forces. And the U.S. military is spending a lot of time and money training the militaries of friendly developing countries to help prevent terrorists from establishing bases in remote areas.
At the same time, U.S. forces are deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan and several other places. They conduct humanitarian operations around the world. And they remain on guard against a variety of potential threats from several countries. Officials acknowledge that military transformation is a difficult task, and that it is being done at a particularly difficult time, but they say it must be done in order to provide security for the United States and its allies in the 21st Century.
This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.