Back to the Future at the PentagonRoundup
tags: Cold War, military history, Pentagon, Department of Defense
William Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and professor of history, is a senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN), an organization of critical veteran military and national security professionals. His personal blog is Bracing Views.
The future isn’t what it used to be. As a teenager in the 1970s, I watched a lot of TV science fiction shows, notably Space: 1999 and UFO, that imagined a near future of major moon bases and alien attacks on Earth. Movies of that era like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey envisioned colossal spaceships and space stations featuring international crews on mind-blowing missions to Jupiter and beyond. Who’d have thought that, 20 years after Kubrick’s alternate reality of 2001, we humans would effectively be marooned on a warming “sixth extinction” planet with no moon bases and, to the best of my knowledge, no alien attacks either.
Sure, there’s been progress of a sort in the heavens. Elon Musk’s Space X may keep going down in flames, but the Chinese now have their very own moon rocks. As the old-timey, unmanned Voyager probe continues to glide beyond our solar system, Mars is a subject for research by new probes hailing from the United Arab Emirates, China, and the U.S. Meanwhile, the International Space Station continues conducting research in low-earth orbit.
As with space exploration, so, too, with America’s military. What amazes me most in 2021 is how much of its structure and strategy resembles what held sway in 1981 when I joined the Air Force as a college student in ROTC. Instead of futuristic starship troopers flying around with jetpacks and firing lasers, the U.S. military is still essentially building the same kinds of weaponry we were then. They’re newer, of course, glitzier, if often less effective, but this country still has a Navy built around aircraft carriers, an Air Force centered on fighter jets and stealth bombers, and an Army based on tanks, helicopters, and heavy brigades. Admittedly, that Army may soon spend $20 billion on “augmented reality goggles” for the troops. (Perhaps those goggles will be programmed so that “reality” always looks like we win.)
As in the days of the old Cold War — and we may indeed be heading into a new cold war in 2021 — America is even witnessing a $100-billion revival of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, weapons that were vulnerable by the 1960s and obsolete by the 1980s. Consider them doubly-obsolete and no less escalatory in the 2020s. And despite having an ever larger and overly secretive military within the military, Special Operations Command, today’s forces are generally structured in a way eerily similar to those I joined two generations ago. Think of it as the Pentagon’s version of science fiction in which stasis rules instead of progress.
It’s true, of course, that, thanks to the vanity of our last president, a new Space Force has been added to the services (though without moon bases, alien interceptors, or much of anything else yet). And one sci-fi-style “advance,” drone warfare, has become increasingly automated and unbounded. Otherwise, this country’s war song of 2021 remains much the same as 2001 or even 1981. It still has a force structure designed first and foremost to deter and defeat another great power like China and Russia, the very bogeymen I first raised my right hand to defend America against 40 years ago. Indeed, the Cold War is simply being rebooted and rebranded for a new century, a century more likely to be China’s than America’s.
Nowadays, instead of speaking about the “containment” of communism and the Soviet Union, as in the Cold War, the talk is of prevailing in “near-peer” conflicts. (Note how the U.S. military may have near-peers but is ultimately peerless, since there can’t be any question that we’re number one, militarily speaking.) Who are those “near-peers” so intent on challenging America and spoiling our freedom-driven version of imperialism? China and Russia, mainly, with Iran and North Korea tossed in as minor-league risks. Again, for my 1981 junior military self, it’s déjà vu all over again. Iran as a perfidious enemy? Check. Russia and China as autocratic menaces? Check. An unpredictable North Korea? Check.
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