Monday, August 17, 2009

Weapons, Obama, and history

Today, President Obama spoke to the Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention in Phoenix and in his wide-ranging remarks discussed the future of military weapons programs. Obama described what he called 21st century weapons programs that will "equip our forces with the assets and technologies they need to fight and win." Included in the program are new Army helicopters for "the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance that gives our troops the advantage; the special operations forces that can deploy on a moment's notice." Gone are the big budget programs of the 80s and 90s including the F22 And for all those serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, including our National Guard and Reserve, more of the protective gear and armored vehicles that saves lives."

Obama described his vision for this 21st century military.

"We're adopting new concepts -- because the full spectrum of challenges demands a full range of military capabilities -- both the conventional and the unconventional, the ability to defeat both an armored division and the lone suicide bomber; the intercontinental ballistic missile and the improvised explosive device; 18th-century-style piracy and 21st-century cyber threats. No matter the mission, we must maintain America's military dominance.

So even as we modernize our conventional forces, we're investing in the capabilities that will reorient our force to the future -- an Army that is more mobile and expeditionary and missile defenses that protect our troops in the field; a Navy that not only projects power across the oceans but operates nimbly in shallow, coastal waters; an Air Force that dominates the airspace with next-generation aircraft, both manned and unmanned; a Marine Corps that can move ashore more rapidly in more places.

And across the force, we're investing in new skills and specialties, because in the 21st century, military strength will be measured not only by the weapons our troops carry, but by the languages they speak and the cultures that they understand."

How do Obama's shifting priorities resonant with other periods of military reform? One interesting comparison can be made with Theodore Roosevelt's efforts to reorient American military might at the turn of the 20th century. You might wonder how TRs expansionist military strategies can compare with Obama's decidedly anti-war political career. In fact, George W. Bush seems a more likely comparison. But, what I have in mind is not the rhetoric of Obama and Roosevelt, but willingness to view the world anew in a time of realignment. In a short two year period at the close of the 20th century, the United States became an imperial power.

Photograph of Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet anchored in Elliot Bay at night, May 1908. Spotlights are beaming off the fleet’s ships. Photo courtesy Washington State Digital Archives.

In 1898 and 1899, the United States annexed Hawaii and acquired the Philippines, Puerto Rico, parts of the Samoan islands as well establishing a dominate position in Cuba and throughout Latin America. Roosevelt came to office in 1901 in this new American world. He responded with a political effort to transform the American military to meet these new conditions, most dramatically taking shape with the 1907-1909 voyage of the Great white Fleet (see an announcement for the fleet's arrival in New South Wales, Australia). Likewise, Obama came to office with a new military context in a part of the world where American has little experience. In response, Obama has called for reformed military that can meet the challenges of war and peace in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. The question is how will the military look in five years?

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