WASHINGTON, D.C. -- On Dec. 11, President Bush returned to the Citadel in Charleston, S.C., where, in Sept. 23, 1999, he set forth a remarkably prescient national security agenda for his presidential campaign.
Last Tuesday, he reminded the cadets that he had prognosticated, "America was entering a period of consequences that would be defined by the threat of terrorism, and that we faced the challenge of military transformation." He went on to say, "That threat has now revealed itself, and that challenge is now the military and moral necessity of our time."
The military metamorphosis Bush promised in 1999 could have taken nearly a decade, but it has been accelerated to "warp speed" by the war against those who wrought such devastation on Sept. 11, 2001. The president described the retooling of our armed forces in the midst of the Afghan war as akin to "overhauling a car engine while you're going at 80 miles an hour." And then, as if to underscore how dramatic the changes will be, he vowed to "move beyond" the 1972, U.S.-Soviet Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which prohibits defending Americans from incoming, nuclear-tipped missiles.
In his second Citadel appearance, the commander in chief told America's next generation of warriors that it will take a "high-tech military" and "old-fashioned spies" to "save our children from a future of fear." He's right about both, but when it comes to defining a "high tech military," congressional opinions widely differ.
Based on a week of firsthand observations for Fox News, no military planner in the region debates the president's position to expedite the development and deployment of additional "smart bombs" and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) like the "Predator," which Bush singled out as an example of how quickly U.S. forces and technology can be adapted to meet new threats. And no one on-scene disputes the necessity of using small, well-trained and well-equipped teams of special operations forces, often working deep in hostile territory, to improve the efficacy of indigenous allies. But many I spoke with are concerned that some of the "lessons learned" in the effort to crush the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terror network may be lost in the "fog of war" and the flurry of "gun camera" videos released in daily Pentagon briefings.
In the region, they are justifiably proud that when U.S. military forces were called to the ground in southeastern Afghanistan, the Navy and Marine Corps responded -- even though the mission required inserting more than 1,200 Marines into hostile territory, over 450 miles from the nearest "friendlies."
But one senior officer asked me, "Do you think anyone in Congress understands that we wouldn't have the base at 'Rhino' (the Marine forward Operating Base south of Kandahar) without ships like the Bataan, Peleliu, 'Teddy' Roosevelt and Carl Vinson; that we wouldn't have "special ops" units roaming the Hindu Kush hunting down al Qaeda but for Kitty Hawk; or how much lower the risk would be for the Marines if we had the V-22?" The questions are valid because congressional "military experts" question the need for building more of these ships and aircraft in this new, post-Cold War, "high tech" era.
The USS Bataan, LHD-5, an 884-foot, Wasp-class amphibious assault ship, carries Marine attack and transport helicopters and AV-8 Harriers on its flight deck; high-speed, sea-skimming, Navy LCAC assault craft in its well deck; and more than 1,000 combat-ready Marines. This world-roaming weapons system is essential to supporting the troops at Rhino -- but we're not building any more of the LCACs that move tons of weapons, ammunition, troops and supplies ashore.
It was the Tarawa-class assault ship, USS Peleliu, LHA-5, that launched its helicopters and Marines to seize Rhino. We're not building any more of these vessels, either.
USS Theodore Roosevelt, CVN-71, and USS Carl Vinson, CVN-70, both nuclear-powered Nimitz-class carriers, have launched thousands of close air support, intelligence-collection and tanker missions over Afghanistan. Without them, the Taliban would still be running Kabul and Osama would be plotting his next terrorist attack.
The 40-year old USS Kitty Hawk, CV-63, one of the last three non-nuclear carriers in the Navy, left its F-14 and F-18 squadrons behind when she raced out to the Arabian Sea -- and became a "floating air base" for Army and Air Force special operations units and helicopters. Without her, the United Front Afghan Alliance forces would have lacked the close air support that has ensured the margin of victory.
The V-22 Osprey, of which the senior officer "in-theater" spoke, faces an uncertain future. This high-speed, vertical take-off and landing aircraft was designed for air assaults like the mission to Kandahar. It's intended to, among other things, replace the Marines' aging fleet of CH-46 and CH-53 helicopters. Yet some in Congress want to scrap the V-22 program because it is "too technologically risky."
The House Intelligence Committee was paying attention to the president's comments last week about "old-fashioned spies." On Dec. 12, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence increased the CIA's Clandestine Service budget by over 8 percent. Now, the House and Senate Armed Services Committees need to do the same. If they are wise, they will fund more of those "old-fashioned" ships and "new-fangled" airplanes that are essential to winning this new kind of war.