A hat tip to Wretchard at The Belmont Club for noticing this San Francisco Chronicle article on the post-9-11 transformation of the U.S. military. It’s an interesting read, although Chronicle staff writer John Koopman manages to get some key points wrong, or he relies on experts (paging John Pike) who are wildly inaccurate in their assessments.

Koopman is correct in noting the obvious–the increased emphasis on counter-insurgency warfare over the past five years. Fighting terrorists in Afghanistan, Iraq (and elsewhere) has forced the U.S. military to improvise and adapt. Before 9-11, you couldn’t find a reference to an improvised explosive device in a military journal or field manual. Today, the DoD is spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year on that problem, and commanders in the field have developed tactics for dealing with the threat. Amid the daily “blast reports” from Iraq, you never hear the most salient fact: the vast majority of enemy IED attacks are unsuccessful, and as many as 40% are defused before they ever go off–a testament to the skill and innovation of our troops on the ground, and new forms of technology being applied to the problem.

If there’s a key fault with the Koopman article, it’s his suggestion that an increase in civil affairs operations–the so-called “hearts and minds” effort may hold the ultimate key to defeating insurgents. True, civil affairs is an important part of the equation. But, if such “carrot” efforts are not accompanied by sufficient force–the “stick” portion of the equation–then humanitarian ops may amount to little more than welfare for an indifferent population, or even aid to the enemy. Iraq and Afghanistan have illustrated the need for more civil affairs specialists, but those conflicts have also highlighted the need for more intelligence specialists, more special forces troops, more ISR sensors, and better ways to fuse information into actionable intelligence. Civil affairs is a part of the counter-insurgency solution, but not a magic pill or bullet.

Surprisingly, the oft-mistaken John Pike manages to recognize the “duality” of the U.S. military mission. While prosecuting the GWOT, the armed services must also prepare for potential conflicts against regional players, namely China. But Pike is way off the mark in describing the Chinese as 25 years behind. In reality, the PRC has taken major steps to improve its conventional and strategic forces, through the development of mobile MRBMs and ICBMs; the acquisition of modern surface-to-air missiles, and the purchase of advanced fighters from Russia. Couple that with developments in space, counter-space and ISR, and you can see why some senior U.S. officers describe China as a full “peer competitor” with the United States in the next decade. Pike is correct in stating the the military’s dual mission is not sustainable on a $300 billion defense budget. If you want to prepare for the full range of contingencies, you need the current level of spending–and possibly, even more.

A more burning question: will the transformation now underway continue past 2008, if Democrats regain control of the White House? As we’ve noted before, some of our problems in Iraq and Afghanistan can be traced to force cuts under Bush #41 and Bill Clinton who, collectively, cut six divisions from the active duty Army. Transformation decisions being made now will have a major impact on the military forces of 2015 and 2025. The real issue is whether our political leaders–from both parties–are willing to stay the course.