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The Economist Looks at the System Administration Force

November 14, 2007


My colleague Tom Barnett has been arguing for several years that the United States needs both a Leviathan force and a System Administration force — the former being primarily military and the latter being mostly civilian. The Leviathan force should be capable of winning wars and the System Administration force should be capable of securing the peace. The transition from war to peace will require a mixing of the two forces as the military gives way to the constabulary. The cover story on 27 October 2007 print edition of The Economist is entitled, “Brains, not bullets: How to fight future wars.” It begins, “Western armies are good at destroying things. Can they be made better at building them?” Anyone who has been a consistent reader of this blog knows that my company, Enterra Solutions, has been working with the Pentagon’s Business Transformation Agency to help answer that question. The larger question, perhaps, is whether militaries should be in the building business at all.


Many critics don’t believe nation-building should be a military role and, in an ideal world, they’re probably correct. When the military is only large organization in place that can handle security, logistics, communications, humanitarian assistance, and so forth, it is unrealistic to believe that it won’t get involved. Tom argues that its involvement is necessary but it should transition as quickly as possible to civilian control. Security always seems to be the sticking point as it is in Iraq. The Economist reports that the Pentagon is fully engaged in the debate about which kinds of roles and missions the military should engage in the future.

“Another debate to do with Iraq and Afghanistan is building in America, one that could have important consequences for the West. This debate is being conducted in the Pentagon—and it has to do with the future shape of America’s armed forces. With its far-flung alliances and commitments, the superpower rightly wants a ‘full spectrum’ of military capabilities to deal with everything from an all-out war to a small policing action. But precisely what the mix should be is increasingly contentious—and could prove expensive. If the biggest threat comes from rising powers, such as a belligerent Russia or a pushy China, America and its allies will need to invest in aircraft, ships and advanced weapons to cope. If the greatest challenge is the fight against militants and insurgents around the world—seen by some as a new and different ‘fourth generation’ of warfare—then they will need more boots on the ground and, crucially, different sorts of soldiers wearing them. Sadly for taxpayers everywhere, the emerging answer from America is that a modern power needs to prepare for both challenges. But there has been a clear swing towards manpower from technology.”

If you really want to get engaged in the debate and learn more about subjects like fourth generation warfare, then you should routinely read Tom’s Weblog. Tom spends a great deal of his time discussing the future of the U.S. military with its leaders. You can also find links to Tom’s two books on his web page which are well worth a read. Following the end of the Cold War, people started talking about a Revolution in Military Affairs. The touchstone term for that movement became “transformation.” You couldn’t get a program through Congress unless you could show how it would help transform the military. The Economist captures the tenor of the debate pretty well.

“The ‘transformation’ advocated by Donald Rumsfeld, George Bush’s first defence secretary, envisaged that the armed forces would be slimmed down and money invested in ‘smart’ weapons, reconnaissance systems and data links. Speed, stealth, accuracy and networks would substitute for massed forces. The army’s idea of its “future warrior” was a kind of cyborg, helmet stuffed with electronic wizardry and a computer display on his visor, all wirelessly linked to sensors, weapons and comrades. New clothing would have in-built heating and cooling. Information on the soldier’s physical condition would be beamed to medics, and an artificial ‘exoskeleton’ (a sort of personal brace) would strengthen his limbs. The initial success in toppling first the Taliban in Afghanistan and then Saddam Hussein in Iraq seemed to vindicate such concepts. But the murderous chaos in Iraq, and the growing violence in southern Afghanistan, have shown that America is good at destroying targets, and bad at rebuilding states. Firepower is of little use, and often counter-productive, when the enemy deliberately mingles among civilians.”

The article goes on to discuss the new counter-insurgency manual being used by the U.S. military. It abandons the notion that the military doesn’t do “nation-building.”

“America must expect to fight protracted, enervating counter-insurgency wars that offer no clear-cut victories and risk the prospect of humiliation. A new manual on counter-insurgency co-authored by the man now in charge of the war in Iraq, General David Petraeus, overturns the notion that America doesn’t ‘do nation-building.’ Counter-insurgency, it says, is ‘armed social work.’ It requires more brain than brawn, more patience than aggression. The model soldier should be less science-fiction Terminator and more intellectual for ‘the graduate level of war,’ preferably a linguist, with a sense of history and anthropology.”

In other words, at least part of the U.S. military must start to look more like Tom’s System Administration force. Tom asserts that the purpose of the SysAdmin force is export security in a non-threatening manner. It engages in capacity building. It prefers preventative measures over mitigation. It acts deliberately. It seeks connectivity with as many partners as possible to pursue its constructive objectives. The Economist article believes the shift in focus is helpful.

“In general, the shift from technology to manpower is welcome. Some sceptics will argue that America’s first future priority should be to avoid smallish wars of choice altogether. Even if that were sensible, history suggests it is unlikely to happen: American troops have kept on getting involved in foreign conflicts. The military planners’ job is to cope with the likely, not to restrict democratically elected politicians’ options.”

The concerns expressed in the article center around the fact that most occupations don’t end happily for occupying nations. Generally that is because the goal is ending the insurgency (i.e., winning the war) as opposed to securing the peace.

“Post-colonial politics, stronger concerns for human rights, the rapid dispersal of news: all these (good) things make today’s conflicts even harder to win for occupiers. So it may well be better to step back and work through local allies. Few insurgencies have unseated existing governments. In the ‘war on terror’ most of the important al-Qaeda suspects have been rounded up for America by local allies. Strengthening local forces is the best way of salvaging Iraq and Afghanistan, and may help avoid the need for future interventions. To be fair, the Pentagon talks about building ‘partner capacity,’ but it may need more radical steps—in particular creating new specialist units to train allies, embed Western soldiers in local forces to improve their performance and be able to call in airstrikes, and help organise civil reconstruction. Generals complain about splitting the army, but they already oversee a myriad of specialist units. It is at least worth trying.”

That sounds like a pretty good endorsement of Tom’s SysAdmin idea. It mystifies me that reporters from The Economist didn’t stumble across Tom’s writings in preparing their articles. I know of no one who has spent more time and thought about such a force than Tom. When he first started talking about the SysAdmin force, some pundits thought he was crazy. People are laughing no more.

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