Grading the Pentagon’s Joint Vision 2020—20 Years Later

Twenty years ago, with considerable fanfare, the Pentagon published its blueprint for sustaining American military supremacy. The title of the document was “Joint Vision 2020: America’s Military – Preparing for Tomorrow.With that tomorrow having now arrived, this may be an opportune moment for assessing the accuracy of the Pentagon’s vision. Doing so offers insight into the capacity of the officer corps to comprehend the subject of their profession, namely, war.

JV2020 necessarily bears the hallmarks of the moment when it was produced. In presentation, the document is Madison Avenue slick. In overall tone, it exudes unbridled confidence. On both counts, JV2020 captures and conveys the prevailing spirit of the post-Cold War period: the future was deemed to be America’s to define. Where JV2020 falls woefully short, however, is on substance. 

Rather than entertaining the possibility of the wars to come assuming a multiplicity of forms and entailing a variety of responses, JV2020 prescribes a single template universally applicable to any and all future conflicts. By adhering to certain specific dicta, the document promises, U.S. forces will become “persuasive in peace, decisive in war, [and] preeminent in any form of conflict.” They will thereby achieve “full spectrum dominance,” perhaps the nuttiest phrase to appear in any official U.S. military publication since “mutual assured destruction” was offered as a formula for world peace.

JV2020 does make a brief and passing reference to an “uncertain future.” Yet it counts on information technology to abolish this uncertainty and therefore guarantee future victories. The document implicitly posits that the armed forces of the United States have discovered the means to substantially reduce, if not altogether eliminate, unwelcome surprises. “Realizing the potential of the information revolution” will make U.S. forces “faster, more lethal, and more precise.” They will thereby possess “unmatched speed and agility.” Forged into a seamless “system of systems,” they will win—always. Indeed, “the presence or anticipated presence of a decisive force might well cause an enemy to surrender after minimal resistance.” Actual fighting won’t last long and might even become unnecessary.

The anonymous authors of JV2020 concede that future adversaries won’t necessarily play our game according to our rules. They will develop and exploit “asymmetric capabilities.” Yet these will prove to be no more than annoyances. “Bold leadership supported by as much information as possible” will make short work of any such resistance. 

JV2020 purports to offer a forward-looking perspective that represents a sharp break from the past. Yet to those comfortable with ƒthe status quo, it contains only assurances that while some things will change, as much or more will remain the same. The “strategic concepts” that guided U.S. forces through the Cold War, namely “decisive force, power projection, overseas presence, and strategic agility,” will remain intact. 

So when it comes to service roles, missions, and identity, for example, the document is silent. Indeed, the photos illustrating JV2020aircraft carriers, tanks, single-seat fighters, paratroopers exiting airplanes, and Marine amphibious vehicles splashing ashore—offer tacit assurances that the individual services will keep doing what they have been accustomed to doing since World War II. While the term jointness appears throughout, more or less the way delicious figures in fast food commercials, the integration required of jointness poses no threat to existing service routines and prerogatives. The stewards of the various service tribes and subtribes can therefore rest easy. Hallowed rice bowls will remain unbroken.

What ultimately remains is this: a conviction that information superiority ensures battlefield superiority. This hypothesis forms the premise of JV2020 and provides its sole distinctive quality. 

This conviction, I want to suggest, describes the mindset of the American officer corps as it embarked upon a series of wars that persist to the present day. To be fair, when those wars began in the wake of the strategic surprise of 9/11, the armed forces of the United States had not yet fully put JV2020 into actual practice. The conception of war transformed by information technology represented an aspiration, not existing reality. Had history taken a holiday, allowing U.S. forces to implement JV2020 at their leisure, things might have turned out differently. Yet history never takes a holiday.

All we can say for certain is that as the United States went to war in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Greater Middle East, the grandiose expectations embedded in JV2020, with U.S. forces implementing its requirements on the fly, quickly proved illusory. The thinking that informed this template for future wars led not to “full spectrum dominance” but to costly and exhausting campaigns that, once begun, proved unable to conclude. Never in all of American military history have U.S. troops labored so long and at such great cost without achieving their assigned missions. This describes the abiding theme of America’s 21st-century wars, with the dictates of JV2020 proving to be somewhere between useless and an aid to our enemies.

What went wrong? The text of JV2020 itself offers one answer to that question. Strip away the techno-hype and it’s what JV2020 leaves out that is most instructive. Among the matters to which the document gives short shrift or ignores altogether are these: history, politics, and culture.

To state the obvious, all of these are inextricably bound up in the causes and conduct of war. History, politics, and culture shape the context in which war unfolds. The importance of each increases as you move away from the line of contact through ever higher echelons that are ever further from the battlefield. Squad leaders may not care terribly much about the origins of the Taliban, the evolution of al-Qaeda, or the difference between Sunni and Shia Islam. But theater commanders, defense secretaries, and commanders-in-chief who disregard such matters do so at their peril. 

Yet this describes an abiding flaw in the way the United States has approached war since JV2020 made its appearance. Information technology harnessed to advanced weapons technology was supposed to provide a surefire recipe for rapid victory. Other considerations were deemed superfluous.

This defines the mindset of George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and Tommy Franks as they prepared to invade Iraq in March 2003. Appearing before the press at the outset of Operation Iraqi Freedom, General Franks, the theater commander, announced that “a campaign unlike any other in history” had begun, one that would be “characterized by shock, by surprise, by flexibility, by the employment of precise munitions on a scale never before seen, and by the application of overwhelming force.” For all practical purposes, Franks was lifting passages directly out of JV2020

Franks did thereby describe the march to Baghdad accurately enough. Within a matter of weeks, however, his campaign unlike any other had become a campaign like many others throughout history—a bloody and inconclusive slog. Much like the Union and Confederate generals in the opening stages of the Civil War, Franks had failed utterly to grasp the actual nature of the war that political authorities had charged him with waging.   

Franks and his uniformed peers, along with a generation of civilian national security specialists, classified history, politics, and culture as an afterthought. As a consequence, U.S. forces in Iraq (and elsewhere in the Greater Middle East) found themselves fighting at a decided disadvantage. Technologically inferior adversaries proved to be at least as agile as U.S. troops with all of their high-tech information age paraphernalia. 

Of course, the enemy proved unable to defeat the United States outright. Yet by drawing U.S. forces into what became, in effect, multiple open-ended wars of attrition—precisely the predicament that JV2020 was supposed to avert—the enemy prevented the United States from achieving its political objectives. In war, this constitutes failure.

As an actual basis for waging war, JV2020 turned out to be an elaborate hoax, one that the Pentagon played on itself. In the annals of professional malpractice, it occupies its own special niche. As is so often the case, the troops paid a heavy price in exposing this hoax for what it was. 

Andrew Bacevich is president of the Quincy Institute and TACs writer-at-large. His new book is The Age of Illusions:  How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory.

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