For the past 17 years, as the U.S. military has invaded, bombed, and attempted to pacify a fair-sized swath of the map, the assortment of military theorists, practitioners, profiteers, chroniclers and critics known as the “defense community” has engaged in a navel-gazing debate about its future.
Donald Rumsfeld, enraptured with a war in Afghanistan he never bothered to complete, marveled after the invasion that soldiers could lead a cavalry charge while also calling in airstrikes. A few years later, colonels and generals waging another war Rumsfeld couldn’t complete pushed a recalcitrant Army to embrace an imperial and intimate theory of urban war. When that theory fell out of fashion due to its immense commitment of blood, treasure, and time, a fallback version advised building and mentoring foreign armies as proxies. Thousands of miles away, in the Pentagon, the Army leadership treated the wars that it fought as diversions from the great-power conflicts it was used to fighting; then hedged with an all-of-the-above concept called “Full Spectrum Operations”; and finally persisted to see a national defense strategy re-prioritize great-power conflict.
The debate was never limited to ground combat. The Navy, marginal to Iraq and Afghanistan, pondered whether its fleet should grow to 313 ships over 30 years, 328 or 355; whether a proliferation of cheap missiles augur the end of the aircraft carrier; and whether it should focus on the shallow waters near which most of the world’s population lives. The Air Force, dissatisfied with providing close air support to soldiers and Marines below and piloting loiter-and-strike drones remotely, pushed unfathomably expensive air-to-air fighters despite not having to face a rival in the skies. Like the Army, the Air Force spent its way through a generation of unparalleled air dominance until eventually the political leadership reemphasized the great-power conflict it preferred.
And the services were only one venue for the debate. In online venues like Small Wars Journal and then War On The Rocks, off-record fora like the Warlord Loop, at innumerable think-tank symposia, at the war colleges, in the pages of books with titles like War Made New and The Future of War: A History, the central preoccupation at all times for this cohort was, is and will be: what is next in warfare?
The U.S. defense establishment comprises millions of people. Answers to these questions, from the truly profound to the laziest it’s-all-about-professional-military-education answer, determine the allocation of hundreds of billions of dollars and—always as a euphemistic afterthought despite its centrality to the enterprise—the lives and deaths of millions of human beings. They are by no means unique to America or this generation. They are among the central enterprises of every great power and great-power aspirant.
But none of this history actually happened, according to Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin. Michael Griffin is the first person to consider that war exists at the intersection of people and technology.
Griffin recently gave an epic quote to The Economist, which has convinced itself that refocusing on great-power conflict that the Pentagon, at most, reluctantly back-burnered for a decade or so is some sort of Grand Strategic Shift. “This is the first time since the Reagan era where the United States has been motivated to modernise its war-fighting architecture, its technologies,” Griffin told the magazine. “The first time we’ve been forced to think about how we fight war.”
That was no one-off errant quote. In October, Griffin told the Islamophobic conspiracy theorist Frank Gaffney, “It’s the first really new National Defense Strategy that I think we’ve had since the Reagan era, to be honest. Possibly the first new such strategy that we really needed since that time.”
A Defense Department spokesperson had “nothing to add to Dr. Griffin’s comments.”
Where to begin with this ignorance?
Let’s begin on the surface, on the terms Griffin set out for himself. The existence of big-ticket weapons platforms—some of which succeeded, some of which failed—like the Army’s $18 billion Future Combat Systems, the Air Force’s Long-Range Strike Bomber program (to say nothing of the F-22 and the multiservice $1.5 trillion F-35 “fifth generation” fighters), the Navy’s Virginia-class attack submarine and even the Littoral Combat Ship, the emergence of drone warfare, the slow maturation of digital conflict by U.S. Cyber Command—all of these things refute Griffin. Even more recently, everything he’s laying out as a preoccupation was a cornerstone concern of the Pentagon during Barack Obama’s second term for its so-called “Third Offset” approach to leveraging technology for outpacing rival great and emergent powers. Going back further, Griffin is even being unfair to Dick Cheney, who as defense secretary during Bush 41 reoriented the military— formally, at least; the training of its officer corps tells a different story— away from its Cold War posture. You don’t have to subscribe to Cheney’s project or Donald Rumsfeld’s or Ash Carter’s to recognize that they all existed.
But going deeper, so many of the bitter, bloodsoaked lessons of a generational conflict that has yielded neither peace nor victory are on display in Griffin’s thoughtless quote. To “modernize [America’s] war-fighting architecture [and] its technologies” is not the same as being “forced to think about how we fight war.” Within that self-satisfied conflation lies the catastrophic hubris that Rumsfeld and his ilk displayed when sending American soldiers and Marines to a place where their overwhelming technological superiority were trumped by people who knew their own neighborhoods, languages, cultures, and histories better than Americans ever will. This is a lesson that America since 1898 has refused to learn, as it intrudes upon cherished myths of invincibility, benevolence, and escape from history known as American Exceptionalism and shorthanded by Griffin with the term “Reagan era.”
Ignorance is nothing new to Michael Griffin. He used to administer NASA during the George W. Bush administration, where he somehow managed to prove himself to be worse than a climate-change denier. During a 2007 interview with NPR, Griffin advanced the novel position that sure, humanity was the engine of climate transformation, but to do anything about it was a worse form of hubris.
“I have no doubt that ... a trend of global warming exists. I am not sure that it is fair to say that it is a problem we must wrestle with,” he said. “To assume that it is a problem is to assume that the state of Earth's climate today is the optimal climate, the best climate that we could have or ever have had and that we need to take steps to make sure that it doesn't change. First of all, I don't think it's within the power of human beings to assure that the climate does not change, as millions of years of history have shown. And second of all, I guess I would ask which human beings — where and when — are to be accorded the privilege of deciding that this particular climate that we have right here today, right now is the best climate for all other human beings. I think that's a rather arrogant position for people to take.”
Griffin was talking about something that, alongside nuclear warfare, is the only demonstrated existential threat to all mankind—something that, unlike nuclear warfare, will manifest if humanity simply continues along its current ecological and economic pathways. If you ever read a Superman comic and thought it was bad writing to have the Kryptonian Science Council rebuke planetary cassandra Jor-el until the planet exploded, remember that the man who said all of the above to NPR was in charge of the premiere scientific entity within the U.S. government. And then he advanced to a senior position within the defense establishment.
What is Griffin’s vision for the Pentagon after his Promethean discovery of rethought warfare? As The Economist laid out: “each service wielding its own ultra-fast and long-range hypersonic missiles, fed information from a vast satellite network girdling the skies, all of it supported by a procurement process that can spit out high-tech weapons in years rather than decades.”
Has anyone ever seen Rumsfeld in the same room as this guy? Two quick problems with all that, leaving aside the hoariness bordering on defense cliche masquerading as innovation: first, while not all hypersonic missiles can carry nukes, great powers are increasingly likely to interpret those “ultra-fast and long-range” hypersonics as carrying nuclear payloads—I guess that’s one way to not deal with climate change – which was the exact same failure when Rumsfeld proposed a version of this idea and the exact same failure when the Obama administration resurrected it as “Prompt Global Strike.” (Notice that Russia is moving aggressively into nuclear-capable hypersonic missiles; and also notice why.)
Second, Griffin’s zipless Pentagon procurement process is a complete chimera. In practice, it’s just another way to more efficiently redistribute wealth to the big defense companies like the one that the current acting Pentagon chief used to run. Griffin talks about his vision for the Space Force in similar terms: “build[ing] out the next-generation space deterrence order of battle, leveraging U.S. commercial capabilities, on rapid timelines and at reduced cost.” That’s more gobbledygook that sounds fantastic to the boardrooms of Lockheed, Boeing and the legislators they bankroll. It helps that Griffin calls it “disruptive.”
Ignorance and myopia aren’t the same as idiocy. Griffin is tremendously credentialed as a physicist and engineer. And Griffin’s vision of the future is so well-pedigreed within the defense establishment that it hits at a greater truth. Griffin is less a departure from the security status quo than a caricature of its decadence, much like how Donald Trump is replacing conservatism with nationalism by proving how commensurate with nationalism the conservative project is. Spout the right shibboleths and flatter the right political leaders—acquisition reform; muscularly challenging rival powers; the promise of technological innovation—and you will reap rewards, particularly rewards named after Ronald Reagan. In the pursuit of dominance, history is just another encumbrance to disrupt. At least until it returns to remind you of the damage you inflict.