Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Five Rules for Defense Spending

January 26, 2015


In 1796 Thomas Jefferson said there were two types of American political parties, “One which fears the people most, the other fears the government.” In domestic politics the contemporary American political divide is equally wide and Americans should not expect their elected leaders to change course one iota.

National defense is different. There is a sense across the country that it’s time to craft a new national military strategy focused on protecting Americans, American territory, and core American commercial interests.  Americans realize their Republic is so exceptional that it’s social, political and economic systems are not exportable to hostile and dysfunctional societies. Missions designed to rescue failed states with American military power are unpopular.

The question for the 115th Congress is how to chart this new course in national defense?  There is no quick answer, but Congress’s 2008 experience with American automakers suggests a possible solution.

When the chief executive officers (CEOs) of America’s Big Three Automakers flew to Washington in November 2008 to plead for public money to bail out their companies, members of Congress knew something about good business practices. They had no trouble exposing the essential truth: the automakers’ difficulties could be traced to a single, catastrophic failure. They had not adapted. For decades, American automakers promised one hyper-efficient vehicle after another—the electric car, the “super car,” the hydrogen car—only to deliver bigger gas guzzlers. Former Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd accurately summed up their problem: “They are seeking treatment for wounds that, I believe, to a large extent were self-inflicted.”

Conditions inside today’s American military are similar to those inside the big three automakers in 2008. Every four years a new service chief touts some big “reform plan,” but little changes. Preserving existing command slots, papering over acquisition failures, preserving “service equities,” sustaining budget share, deflecting serious questions about real reform, and maintaining as much of the Cold War organizational and institutional status quo as possible are the four services’ top priorities, not warfighting effectiveness.

With these points in mind, here are five rules that members can use to evaluate the four services’ 2016 budget requests:
  • Military Purpose: The American people develop, equip, train, and maintain armed forces for one principle reason—and it isn’t flood relief, humanitarian assistance, nation building or combating Ebola, for heaven’s sake.  The purpose of the U.S. military is to fight and destroy the enemies of the United States. The first rule is: “If it doesn’t fight, don’t fund it.”
  • Capability: Today, national military power is measured by what can deploy and fight immediately; not by forces that can get there in six, 12 or 18 months. In both World Wars, other great powers fought for years, thus giving the services time to build up their fighting power. In future crises or conflicts there won’t be time for a “pick-up game.” In the absence of a draft the nation must have fighting forces-in-being; i.e., ready, standing forces. Army Ground Maneuver Forces in particular must be organized and ready to rapidly exploit the profound, but temporary paralysis that massive strikes from aerospace and naval forces create. The second rule is: “If the proposed force package cannot rapidly deploy and fight, reconsider funding it.”
  • Modernization: Don’t invest in the elusive Silver Bullet or Unobtainium. Put the technology that is sitting on the shelves to work. Rapid prototyping is the answer. It’s about innovation, not invention. When tied to a new force design, rapid prototyping explores and develops new capabilities quickly with smaller inventories of new equipment before larger investments are made. The third rule  should be: “When modernizing, spend to innovate, don’t invent.”
  • Unity of Effort: Winning on every level—strategic, operational and tactical—demands unity of effort.  For the American people to get the most out of their defense dollar, congress must focus on force integration, the application of military capabilities across service lines.  Thanks to Goldwater-Nichols, it’s a point of law that none of the Services exists to independently fight and win the nation’s wars.  Combatant Commanders have the authority and responsibility to fight and win the nation’s wars.  The Services exist to develop, train, and equip modular formations and staff elements that can be deployed to the Combatant Commanders, integrated and plugged into Joint Task Forces.  The fourth rule should be: “Fund Joint Solutions, not Single Service Solutions.”
  • Overhead: The top heavy character of the American military obstructs unity of effort and results in wasteful spending. From March 1942 to April 1945 when there were 8 million men in the U.S. Army and Army Air Corps the U.S. had only 4 four-star generals to command them: Marshall, MacArthur, Eisenhower and Arnold. Today, 23 four stars command a combined Army and Air Force of roughly 870,000 soldiers and airmen. There are too many combatant commands and too many single service headquarters providing jobs for three and four stars.  For reasons of cost, as well as effectiveness, less general officer overhead and more lethal, survivable combat power at the lowest level must be the organizing imperative in 21stCentury warfare. The fifth rule should be: “Cut overhead; increase fighting power.”

If pressed on the five rules, senior officers from all the services are likely to ask members: “Why are you challenging us? We have not lost any battles. The burden of proof is on you to prove that we should change.”

What the senior officers won’t say is that American tactical success in action against insurgent enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan was due principally to the weakness of the enemy. Insurgents without armies, air forces, air defenses or no naval power had no more chance of defeating the American military in a fight than a high school football team would have against the Green Bay Packers.

If the opponent is weak or incompetent, even the non-optimal features of a powerful military organization can function well. The problem is that conditions change when a capable enemy turns the tables. Then all of the inconsistencies, weaknesses, inefficiencies, and disequilibria in the formerly successful military establishment are magnified. In a world where yesterday’s friend could be tomorrow’s enemy, this is dangerous.

This is why robust warfighting capabilities must take precedence over investment in forces designed for low intensity conflict or nation building and counterinsurgency.  The United States cannot afford to maintain critical core warfighting capabilities in addition to  light constabulary forces for use in “permissive environments.”

Finally, there is a tendency in Congress to equate money spent on defense results with the creation of real, effective military power. History suggests a different picture.

In 1934, France invested one-fifth of all government expenditures in the French Armed Forces. By 1938 spending on the French military accounted for over one-third of the national budget. Unfortunately, the massive investment in French military power made no difference in 1940. Why?

Spending decisions were left in the hands of the French generals who were determined to recapitalize the old World War I force. Free of oversight from the French Parliament, France’s military leaders between 1920 and 1940 squandered the opportunity to build new forces with new capabilities for a future war.

When military establishments don’t change then solutions rooted in the past compel armed forces to relive the past, not to master the present or future. It’s up to members of the Senate and the House to ensure that Americans in uniform do not relive the French experience in 2025.

Douglas Macgregor, a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors, is a decorated combat veteran and the author of five books. His newest book,
Margin of Victory, will be available later this year.