For all the tactical twists and turns in U.S. military planning during and since the Cold War, the basic strategic template has remained more or less the same. To simplify mightily, the emphasis has been on a doctrine of attrition and theater warfare against large, identifiable foes with professional standing armies. This strategy has gone hand in hand with an emphasis on costly high-tech weapons systems designed to project force from a distance. Some of these weapons systems are dubious, and the procurement system as a whole is characterized by cronyism, turf battles, and waste. To be sure, not everything about the traditional outlook is bad, and the American military is in important respects without parallel. It is capable of a crushing global reach, which in certain circumstances can destroy opposing forces with limited risk. But the U.S. military also has trouble reacting quickly, and it has tended to think far more about the kinds of battles we won't be fighting than about the real-world conflicts we're about to be embroiled in.
The terrorist attacks on the United States last September, orchestrated by the Osama bin Laden organization, have now placed the issue of the military's orientation plainly in the public view. In one corner stand advocates for something along the lines of the status quo (whatever they may now say about the need for "flexibility"). In the opposing corner are champions of the late John Boyd, a colonel in the Air Force and an innovative theorist who considered that large, expensive weapons systems that took forever to produce were as much of an enemy as hostile foreign powers. A student of Sun-Tzu and Clausewitz, Boyd advocated reforms—many of which have been successfully adopted by the Marine Corps but have met with resistance elsewhere, particularly in the Army—that stressed a number of interrelated elements. Chief among them: adaptability and agility as the driving forces of combat; weapons that are dependable, simple, and cheap; and decentralization of command and communications, so that fighting units aren't at the mercy of layers of decision-makers.