The Military Isn’t Going to Change Anytime Soon

Chuck Hagel speaks at NDU April 2013

In his first major policy address as Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel called for a radical overhaul of our armed forces — “not just tweaking or chipping away at existing structures and practices.” While the goal is bold and laudable, history tells us that achieving it is unlikely.

Hagel cited Dwight Eisenhower’s plea that “the wise and prudent administration of the vast resources required by defense calls for extraordinary skill in meshing the military, political, economic, and social machinery of our modern life…so that the greatest effective use is made of resources with a minimum of waste and misapplication.” To that end, Hagel has directed a Strategic Choices and Management Review as guide to “matching missions with resources – looking at ends, ways, and means.”

While that might be a prudent step, I’m reminded of the Bottom-Up Review commissioned exactly two decades ago by Hagel’s predecessor, Les Aspin. Now, the nation is trying to achieve fiscal savings as we draw down from two major wars. Then, the nation was seeking a “peace dividend” after decades of cold war. The impetus then was much greater: the entire premise of the national security posture of the postwar era was obviated by the collapse of the Soviet Union. The United States no longer faced a peer competitor and was already involved in various peacekeeping and stabilization operations that required new capabilities. And, yet, the nation wound up with essentially the same force structure that we’d deployed against the Soviets, just proportionately smaller.

At the time, I was a graduate student fresh out of a four year tour as an Army officer. What started out as a doctoral dissertation on how the United States should restructure its military for the post-Cold War era quickly became something else.

A few months’ research made it clear that the experts — whether in academia or in uniform — essentially agreed on the direction that was needed. Our debacle in Somalia made it pretty clear that, despite having far and away the most capable, modern military force on the planet, we were woefully short of strategic lift, civil affairs, military police, engineer, linguist, and similar assets required to sustain stabilization operations. A series of other operations in Haiti, Iraq, Bosnia, and elsewhere pointed in the same direction.

Yet, despite this consensus, something else was obvious: We weren’t going to adopt that force. Instead, we would short-change the missions we were sending troops overseas to accomplish in order to preserve and even extend capabilities that were unlikely to be needed.

The interesting question, then, was why?

The answer is more complicated than a short essay can cover but, essentially, during times of tight budgets, bureaucratic institutions naturally fight to protect their core capabilities — based on their deeply ingrained sense of who they are — regardless of the actual demands that they’re called upon to meet.

The American military is both the archetypal bureaucracy and a special case. It’s far and away the largest and most established government agency, having interlocking institutional cultures with roots that, in some cases, predate the nation itself. But its relationship with the American public and the rest of government is unique.

Most obviously, it is charged with safeguarding our security at the risk of life and limb. Because the stakes are so high, great deference is given to the generals and admirals that make up the top echelon of the profession.

Additionally, the armed services have a symbiotic relationship with the Congress and the American public. Historically, this was a function of a tradition where all able-bodied men were expected to put on the uniform in times of war, which created a special bond between those in harm’s way and those back home, including those on Capitol Hill. Forty years into an all-volunteer force, that shared experience has been replaced by a sense of obligation: those risking everything in the service of our country deserve the very finest equipment, regardless of cost.

This is compounded by the fact that military procurement, and to a lesser extent basing, impacts all fifty states and virtually every one of the 435 congressional districts.

A classic case is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which has been under development since the mid-1990s and currently seven years behind schedule and way over cost. Designed as a muli-service, multi-national platform to replace several existing aircraft and save money, the program has instead become a boondoggle. Among its other problems, pilots can’t see behind them, which is rather inconvenient in a dogfight. Regardless, the United States is set to to spend $8.4 billion in the next fiscal year on what the DoD’s Undersecretary for Acquisition Frank Kendall calls “acquisition malpractice.”

Among the reasons for this is that 133,000 jobs spread across 1300 suppliers in 45 states are tied up in the program. That means a powerful network of lobbyists have a sympathetic ear with 90 of 100 Senators and a solid chunk of Representatives. The program is literally “too big to kill.”

In addition to the difficulty of getting Congress to kill bloated programs of dubious military necessity, there’s the matter of the four military services. While tremendous progress toward a “joint” mindset has been made since Goldwater-Nichols became law in 1986, there’s still a competition for resources with each service pleading that preserving its core capabilities is vital to the security of the nation.

Hagel called for “close scrutiny of DoD’s organizational chart and command structures,” noting that “the operational forces of the military — measured in battalions, ships, and aircraft wings — have shrunk dramatically since the Cold War era. Yet the three- and four-star command and support structures sitting atop these smaller fighting forces have stayed intact, with minor exceptions, and in some cases they are actually increasing in size and rank.”

Defense experts have been complaining about this for as long as I can remember. Yet the trend continues. We’ve shut down whole Army corps since my time in uniform; but we’ve got more general — and more senior generals — than ever.

Part of this is good old fashioned turf building. So, for example, we’ve gone from three-star generals running the National Guard and Reserve prior to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to having four-stars running them and, finally, their inexplicably getting a slot on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. While the reserve component is supposed to be part of the Total Force, their constant deployment over the years since 9/11 gave them the clout in Congress to elevate themselves into a quasi-separate service.

Additionally, though, as the budget has exploded, managing each piece of it comes under bigger scrutiny. Putting a more senior general or admiral in charge gives the impression that the services view it as a higher priority. Similarly, as a functional area or region becomes more prominent, upping the rank structure — or creating a new command — signals that new emphasis. So, for example, we’ve created Central Command, Transportation Command, Special Operations Command, Africa Command, and Northern Command — more than half of the unified combatant commands — since 1983. And that doesn’t even include Cyber Command, which is nominally subordinate to Strategic Command but commanded by a four-star.

More fundamentally than mere bureaucratic politics, turf wars, and Congressional leverage, though, is the fact that the uniformed leadership of our armed forces have a long institutional memory. Too often in our nation’s history, we’ve torn down our military capability at the onset of peacetime only to find ourselves unprepared for the next war. In World War II and Korea, in particular, we took heavy casualties at the outset as we sent unprepared and under-equipped men to fight.

Indeed, the rout at the Battle of Osan produced a rallying cry – “No more Task Force Smiths” – that was the mantra for defense planners during the post-Cold War drawdown. Despite the fact that it was obvious to most observers that stability and peace enforcement operations would predominate, we shortchanged that structure in favor of a planning structure based on two nearly simultaneous major regional conflicts, modeled after a second Korean War and second Gulf War, despite how implausible that scenario was.

The cost of that was high. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, the initial invasions were simply spectacular displays of military prowess. Our high tech, superbly trained forces simply dominated the fight. Alas, the same shortfalls in assets that many of us identified as far back as 1992 came back to haunt as our forces moved into stabilization and reconstruction – and later, counterinsurgency – mode.

But, in the minds of most of our generals and admirals, it’s better to lose a lot of small wars than one big one. And, to some extent, they’re right. While we expended too much blood and treasure in Iraq and Afghanistan — to say nothing of Somalia and other small fights of the 1990s — the consequences for the nation are far from existential.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. This essay originally appeared in The Atlantic.

Photo credit: DoD/Glenn Fawcett

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