One area that he sees changing in the military is what he calls “the platforms” — by which he means tanks, troop carriers, ships, aircraft, heavy guns and even rifles. They are becoming less important in Cartwright’s view than the new electronics, sensors and other gadgetry.
He recalls being with then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates in Georgia reviewing an Army unit ready to deploy to Central Asia with new systems that included iPads and droids for individual soldiers. Cartwright said Gates asked one sergeant during a barracks walkthrough, “What do you think of all this stuff?”
The sergeant replied, “I’d sooner leave this barracks without my rifle as to leave without these things.”
The lesson for Cartwright was that the new electronics, which the military calls information technology (IT), will replace in importance the current platforms — in which the side with the most modern guns, tanks and aircraft often won. Platforms, however, take time to develop.
“We’re starting to move away from platform-centric towards the leverage that is gained by IT systems that allow us to gain advantage no matter what the platform is,” said Cartwright, who holds the Harold Brown Chair in Defense Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Another factor is the time available to make changes for the new battlefield.
“Spending 20 years in development of a platform [such as an armored personnel carrier] and then building it,” as well as taking two or three years to make adjustments, all “seems somewhat irrelevant,” Cartwright said. In the future, there will be much shorter time periods in which to upgrade systems.
This was one lesson he learned from combatting IEDs [improvised explosive devices], first in Iraq and now in Afghanistan, where they continue to be the greatest threat to U.S. and coalition forces.
As Cartwright described it, dealing with IEDs has become super fast-paced. The enemy invents a new fuse to detonate an IED; someone on the U.S. or coalition side invents a counter to that fuse and by the time it is deployed another new fuse has turned up. “It’s about a 30-day cycle to try to stay up with that fight,” he said.
Cartwright says cyberwarfare will determine leverage on the next tactical battlefield. And that cyberfight, he said, will have a time cycle “somewhere between nine and 14 days.”
A second issue for the future in Cartwright’s view is maintaining the all-volunteer force.
“Their expectations of service [personnel] are substantially different than a conscript force,” he said, referring to past wars followed by peacetime cutbacks when the military draft provided the basic manpower needs. The more professional, career-minded all-volunteer force expects “to come to work and have equipment that works,” Cartwright said. “They expect to come to work and do training that is relevant to what they think is going to happen next, so that they are ready.”