Desperate or Serious? U.S. Must Drag Policies Out of Old Mindsets

A century ago, gallows humor about the inevitability of an otherwise avoidable world war permeated the upper ranks of the Kaiser’s Army. The German General Staff quipped that this gathering crisis, when viewed from Paris, was dismissed as serious but not yet desperate. In Berlin, however, conditions were seen as the opposite — desperate but not serious.

The Obama administration’s strategic thinking appears trapped in this historical divide over desperate and serious. Consider several forces that are moving us to the desperate category.


First, America still relies on an antique and even late-19th century concept of national security in which, regardless of rhetoric, defense remains the default position for security. But the broader definition of security and its consequences must be our lodestar.

As the conduct of war for the time being has transformed from conflicts between more or less similarly armed and organized military forces to campaigns waged over people and their loyalties and perceptions, non-military tools and methods are critical to success.

Similarly, as non-military threats, such as resource dependencies, political instability and Arab awakenings, along with cyber and terror take center stage, defense is too narrow an aperture to provide for the common security. Defense is clearly crucial. However, defense alone can never serve as the surrogate for the 21st-century security challenges we face.

Second, compounding this excessive focus on defense, the structure for national security still remains organized on the National Security Act of 1947 — a creature of post World War II and the Cold War. Despite pleas for a “whole-of-government approach” to security and the creation of new bureaucracies such as the Department of Homeland Security for that purpose, sadly, the current organizational structure does not meet the needs of the 21st century as we see in Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, all failed or failing governments.

Third, while we spend huge amounts on defense, despite lusty promises neither Congress nor the executive branch is serious about reforming defense’s budgetary, procurement and spending processes.

Adding up the Pentagon, overseas contingency accounts, the Department of Veterans Affairs and nuclear weapon programs at the Energy Department, defense spending amounts close to $1 trillion a year, with the military getting the lion’s share. Roughly half goes for people and some operations; the other half goes to purchasing goods and services in approximately equal shares.

Goods are “stuff” from F-35 fighter jets to 7.62mm bullets. Services account for the privatization of many jobs in the department, from staff positions to civilian gate guards. Reform almost exclusively centers on the weapon acquisition process and big-ticket items, including research and development, which are less than a quarter of the department’s total budget.

Fourth, especially in light of what will be large spending cuts, the future of the defense industrial base is still cast in antique terms. Industrial is anachronistic, smacking of the late 19th and 20th centuries, when ships, tanks and aircraft were built in larger numbers. A 21st-century requirement is the need for a strong intellectual base, in which intellectual property manifested in information technologies and super-smart sensors and weapons is the coin of the realm, not simply bending iron as in the past.

Fifth, leading us to the desperate side of the equation is the failure to recognize that everything depends on people. John Paul Jones rightly observed that men were more important than guns in the rating of a ship. Instead of people as the central foundation for national security, the administration continues to rely on obsolete models of the past in which weapons, or technological breakthroughs, along with clarion calls for reform, take higher priority.

One anecdotal example: The National Defense University, the nation’s senior military educational institution, will see its presidency downgraded from a three-star appointment — and many argue that four stars were appropriate given the importance of education —- to two stars as part of flag officer reductions. This is not even a footnote in the budget. Yet it underscores how desperate is overtaking serious.

Driven by fiscal reality, large defense cuts are inevitable. The only questions are how much and when. As defense shrinks, other important assets across the broader national security spectrum will also be affected, probably more so.

More spending is not the answer. Given no existential threat on the horizon unless we are incredibly incompetent over China, defense can and should be cut back substantially with two provisions. First, it must be done intelligently, a dicey proposition given a government that is dysfunctional at best and in reality broken. Second, people must be treated not only fairly, but recognized as the most critical resource we have and be treated accordingly.

Plans in the future must recognize and act on this proposition if the state of our security is to remain only serious and not desperate.

Harlan Ullman is senior advisor at the Atlantic Council, and chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business. This essay was originally published in DefenseNews.

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