Experts debate Rumsfeld's transformation legacy

As the Defense Department’s secretary, Donald Rumsfeld was a vocal advocate of the transformation of DOD and the modernization of the armed forces. But as he steps down, he leaves the department in the middle of both processes, making their future uncertain, say defense experts who have begun assessing his legacy.

Rumsfeld’s goal was to change the military from an Industrial Age organization to an information-based force by advancing the concept of network-centric warfare and reorganizing the armed forces into lighter, modernized units that integrate technology into combat.

Defense industry analysts say they were shocked when President Bush announced last week that Rumsfeld had resigned and that he had nominated former CIA Director Robert Gates to replace Rumsfeld. But DOD watchers were less unanimous about the effect of Rumsfeld’s departure on DOD transformation and its future.

“Rumsfeld was a big proponent of transformation, particularly in the area of technology,” said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org. “The question is are the new secretary’s priorities going to be aligned with those of Rumsfeld in terms of spending a lot of money on defense high tech.”

Some say the Rumsfeld brand of transformation, based on network-centric operations, information technology and joint operations, is only one way to produce needed change.

“That [specific] concept of military transformation is going to be severely undermined by Rumsfeld’s departure,” said Loren Thompson, defense analyst and chief operating officer at the Lexington Institute.

But Rumsfeld wasn’t able to produce enough results, Thompson said, and some of his biggest projects, such as space radar and transformational communications, have made little progress and become politically vulnerable.

Gates doesn’t have strong convictions about transformation, Thompson said. As a technocrat with an intelligence focus, Gates may leave most technology decisions to the services, which in turn might return to their old service-centric habits, he said.

Other experts, however, said transformation predates Rumsfeld and will continue on track. “The services will continue to push that agenda,” said Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information.

The military services have embraced transformation and recognize the advantages of bringing IT into warfare, he said.

Most experts agree that the new Democratic leadership in Congress is unlikely to cut defense funding for large weapons platforms or force changes in the military.

But major modernization programs, including the Future Combat Systems, will face increased scrutiny as budgets become tighter, Wheeler said.

“That doesn’t mean they’re going to kill it,” he said. “That means they’re going to use it as a bill payer so that they can add money in other places in the budget.”

The defense IT sector is unlike the automobile or energy industries, Thompson said. “IT is an ecumenical, bipartisan industry that is not likely to be impacted heavily by changes in partisan control.”

DOD is in the midst of implementing its National Security Personnel System, which offers employees merit-based pay raises instead of the automatic pay increases that most civilian DOD employees receive now. “That’s the sort of concept that appeals more to Republicans than Democrats,” Thompson said.

Rumsfeld on transformation

Donald Rumsfeld put forth his vision for defense transformation early in his tenure. He explained that vision in a January 2002 speech at National Defense University:

“We must transform not only our armed forces but also the Defense Department that serves them, by encouraging a culture of creativity and intelligent risk-taking. We must promote a more entrepreneurial approach to developing military capabilities — one that encourages people to be proactive, not reactive, and to behave less like bureaucrats and more like venture capitalists.

“And we must make the leap into the Information Age, which is the critical foundation of all our transformation efforts.”

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