Obama – Putting People, Not Technology, First

Where will defence spending in the US head with a new political focus? Richard B Gasparre finds out.


For army technology vendors in the US defence market, the policy views of President Barack Obama represent both good and bad news. Of the three services the army has the most personnel and comes into contact with the most people, so Obama's overarching defence theme of prioritising people is good news. It is also the bad news, because if people come first, technology, even army technology, must come second.

Consistent with its political emphasis on grassroots mobilisation and new media, Obama's campaign team published a wide-ranging defence page on its website. Befitting the marketing of Obama as the change candidate, the defence page's theme could be summarised as configuring the military for '21st century challenges'. The phrase '21st century' is key: it appears in five subheadings and the headline for the entire webpage.

"Of the three services the army has the most personnel and comes into contact with the most people."

Judging by specific content, Obama's key systemic change will be to refocus the US armed services on people. This policy has several goals, from improving the treatment of soldiers over the entire recruiting-to-retirement lifecycle to cultivating popular and institutional support abroad, whether from existing allies or within potential adversaries.

From a technology perspective, however, the most important element is Obama's emphasis on unconventional warfare, which implies more focus on missions that are inherently low-tech but 'high-touch' such as counterinsurgency.

This focus, which is part of a broader national security philosophy, has broad consequences for groundforce structuring.

The tilt toward 'soft power' implicitly inverts the traditional 'tooth/tail' ratio. If the military focuses less on an adversary's active military forces and more on its population – as a target of opportunity – the tail may produce more long-term progress than the tooth. Indeed, the tooth's primary job may be to support the tail – the engineers, civil liaison units, military police, psyops personnel, and so on – rather than, traditionally, the other way around.

Although no fixed relationship exists between the frequency of traditional wars and unconventional conflicts, recent history has featured more of the latter than the former. In conjunction with the low-intensity nature of guerrilla warfare or terrorism, the frequency of unconventional conflicts suggests a need for more but smaller units, which will require technology that is less resource-intensive and more rapidly deployable.

Despite promising scientific advances in robotics and bioengineering, nobody has yet designed a machine that actually wins hearts and minds. And if any machine can, it is more likely to be an innovative water filter or windmill rather than a new tank or UAV.

If labour and capital are the two main inputs to an enterprise, and labour is the top priority, then not only will technology come in second but specific applications will more directly support the top priority. Not surprisingly, the few specific army technologies mentioned by Obama's website are focused on protecting people. Specifically, "...we cannot repeat such failures as the delays in deployment of armoured vehicles [such as up-armoured MRAPs], body armour and unmanned aerial vehicles that save lives on the frontlines."

"If people come first, technology, even army technology, must come second."

Walking the walk: Afghanistan and Gates

Naturally, all campaign documents are geared more towards winning elections than actually implementing policy. The consequences of tough choices, which invariably mean goring someone's ox, are assiduously avoided, so not surprisingly, Obama's defence blueprint does not discuss heavy armour, artillery, helicopters, and missiles, among other big-ticket, high-visibility accoutrements of high-tech conventional war.

However, Obama's campaign-long emphasis on winning the war in Afghanistan is consistent with and may require the kind of people-first philosophy implied by his defence pronouncements. Moreover, other current hot zones, notably those spread around Africa, feature similar mixtures of failed governments and multiple overlapping sub-national adversaries that require soft power and nation building.

If actions speak louder than words, then Obama's most significant move has been to retain Robert Gates as Defense Secretary. This is not a show of bipartisanship – with solid congressional and popular-vote majorities, Obama doesn't need to be that accommodating. More critically, Obama and Gates share similar views on core issues. As the anti-Rumsfeld, Gates has waged an unusually hard and public fight over the last couple years against the services' traditional 'next-war-it is'. Moreover, subordinating technology to manpower in the current economic environment is not only a core issue but one that will doubtless elicit resistance from commanders, contractors and not a few legislators.

Programmatic handicapping

So what army technology is Obama's administration likely to fund? Here are three probable themes, and their consequences for three programmes.

"Obama and Gates will focus on current production items rather than future systems."

Obama and Gates will focus on current production items rather than future systems. Therefore, the army's vaunted future combat systems (FCS) programme is probably in trouble, at least as an integrated programme. Given its development problems and cost overruns to date, the FCS arguably deserves the axe but Obama could opt for the scalpel and cherry pick those FCS elements that are cheaper or more mature.

If individual soldier survival and effectiveness is paramount, technology purchases will tend to be 'small ticket' items with high volumes.

This profile tends to facilitate acquisition management: such items allow for up-front combat testing and enable learning-curve improvements to have a large impact. Despite being cancelled in 2007, the Land Warrior programme fits Obama's policy preferences, and thus might be revived in some form.

If Obama's team ends up rightsizing the military for unconventional conflicts rather than just downsizing it for economic reasons, it would, in principle, increase spending on technology that will enhance unconventional or quasi-military capabilities. A showcase system would be the army's human terrain system, which attempts to do with 'target societies' what integrated C3ISR does with hostile forces. The irony here is that the anthropologists, computer scientists and other academic folk who would normally build much of the project are politically opposed to it. If his personnel appointments are any indication, however, Obama is quite willing to break away from his progressive activist political base.