I have written in the past that dominant thinking in the Pentagon these days has been infected with what I call the “futurenow syndrome.”  If, as SecDef Gates has argued, the U.S. military establishment has in the past suffered from “future-war-itis,” his own proclivity has been to go in exactly the opposite direction.  That is, current thinking not only tends to focus exclusively on “the wars we are in,” but tends to take another step and assume that the future will look exactly like the present–i.e. all we’re going to do in the future is COIN; the future is now, hence, “futurenow syndrome.”

Unfortunately, it seems that the Brits may be the latest victim of this less-than-juvenile way of thinking about history and the future.  (When has such an assumption ever been true in human history?  Even a quick glance at a middle school history textbook should disabuse us of such a ridiculous idea.)  The Times Online reported today that

The RAF is under pressure to cut its multibillion-pound orders for fast jets in favour of cheaper propeller aircraft as part of a review of defence spending. […]

General Richards, Chief of the General Staff, believes that the Super Tucano offers a cost-effective alternative to fast jets such as the Cold War-era Eurofighter Typhoon in counter-insurgency operations such as those in Afghanistan.[…]

General Richards has argued that state-on-state confrontations will be largely replaced by counter-insurgency operations in the future, making huge savings possible if the Government is prepared to sacrifice ships and tanks for lighter and cheaper but technically advanced matériel.

If ever there was an example of futurenow syndrome, this is it!  And I thought SecDef Gates had caught a bad case of this malady!  And it doesn’t help that there is no end of so-called “defense analysts” willing to validate such nonsense:

Richard North, a defence analyst and another advocate of the aircraft, said: “The right kit for the sort of wars we are fighting today is a lot cheaper than the high-end kit.” […]

One defence source told The Times: “We neither need, nor can afford the ‘deep persistent operating capability’ associated with attacking stealthily the most heavily defended airspace on Earth. Something like Tucano does the job for irregular warfare [of the future] and is effective and cost-efficient.”

And there you get at the heart of the matter: We have people who want to take the easy way out, who don’t want to do the hard work of thinking about the future because they don’t want to be forced to deal with the inevitable outcome of that thought process.  We don’t know the future!  There are multiple possible threats, multiple possible scenarios.  This was the mantra of the defense community in the 1990s, that the world is “volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.” [1]  And though it wasn’t pretty, it was right!  But then 9/11 came along and many in the defense community suddenly had what they had so missed since 1991, a single explanation, a single threat, one clearly defined future against which to plan. [2]

But there is a slippage that happens in Mr. North’s comments, a brief moment when we see all of this for what it really is.  It is lazy, sloppy thinking…nay, even the refusal think at all!  It is saying we’re just going to do the minimum to get by right now and not think about the future, let someone else sort it out later and hope later isn’t too late.  But in most cases, folks like Mr. North aren’t so honest.  Because they know that such a position is irresponsible, instead they perform a rhetorical slight of hand in which the present and the future are conflated.  If it is irresponsible to only focus on the present at the expense of the future, then a myopic focus on the present can by justified if the two are made into the same thing–i.e. if the present is the future.  That rhetorical slight of hand is at the heart of the futurenow syndrome.

[1]  Stiehm, J. (2002) The U.S. Army War College: Military Education in a Democracy (Philadelphia: Temple University Press).

[2] Kagan, F. W. (2006) Finding the Target: The Transformation of American Military Policy (New York: Encounter Books).

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