Building a True 21st Century U.S. Military

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U.S. Army troops at Fort Bragg, N.C.

When it comes to reform of the U.S. military establishment, we’ve tinkered on the margins far too long. We are currently in the ninth version of the Joint Capabilities Integration and Development System (JCIDS) in ten years; the main process for determining our military requirements. Marine General James Cartwright, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, had it right when he said, “It has been gamed to death — we’re going to throw it away.”

Unfortunately, like bad weather, the failed model always persists under new labels. Endless studies and analysis from GAO, assorted bvlue-ribbon panels, and legislation like the Weapon Systems Acquisition Reform Act, all attempt to correct dysfunctional behaviors. But they ignore the structural flaws in an anachronistic World War II-Cold War force.

Thanks to an acute lack of clarity in national military strategy, service “equities” (core bureaucratic interests) fill the void. In the absence of accountability for repeated failures in big-ticket modernization programs likes the Army’s $20 billion Future Combat System, loyalty to one’s service and the promotion opportunities it brings trumps all other considerations.

Why? A big part of the answer is too much of the civilian national-security hierarchy is invested in the defense department status quo, and they are leery of challenging the generals and admirals in charge.

Instead, the civilian appointees sit on the sidelines while the four-star service chiefs adjudicate their respective service’s “interests” in the highly-routinized Quadrennial Defense Reviews.

Bottom line: the retreads from previous administrations, Republican or Democratic, that populate Washington’s think tanks, places like the Kennedy School at Harvard, and the business-development offices of the defense industries, always default to the status quo.

These men and women will cut and trim the military status quo, leaving Americans, in the long run, with a less-effective — and ultimately more-expensive – force. It’s a force that sacrifices current and future war-fighting capability, and risks the scientific-industrial base vital to America’s defense.

It’s time to scrap the fiscally-unsustainable illusion that the U.S. needs military services forged in Cold War molds. An early 21st Century version of President Eisenhower’s concept of national defense — solvency and security -– is desperately needed. Today, below the four-star level inside the combatant commands, we’re less Joint and more single-service in operational terms than we were 10 or 20 years ago. The cost to the taxpayer is astronomical — and we cannot afford it.

We need to do now what General Eisenhower would do: create a framework that leverages ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance), strike, maneuver and sustainment across service lines, under permanent joint command and control, inside the combatant commands. We’ve got to go through the process of modeling, testing, evaluating and establishing this new paradigm for development and employment of America’s military forces that will operate within a reduced number of regional unified commands, getting more bang for the dollar.

Today’ military hierarchy knows this approach makes sense for the future, but it remains invested in yesterday’s paradigm. As Alfred Thayer Mahan said: “No service can or should be expected to reform itself!” Mahan was right. It’s time to implement the framework — a 21st Century national military framework — that will do the following:

— Reduces the bloated ranks of flag officers and senior civilians across the services.

— Alters World War II and Cold War policies and force design.

— Replaces service-specific “component” command and control with true joint force C2 on the operational level. It’s a way to dismantle the multitude of superfluous single-service headquarters currently residing inside the combatant commands that the nation no longer needs, nor can afford.

— Reduces the growth and cost of technology programs like the Global Command and Control System, Distributed Ground Control System , etc. that end in Service unique identifiers –N, -AF, A and –M.

— Scrutinizes the return on investment in expensive oversees garrisons and the way we currently conduct “presence” missions.

As these slides demonstrate, implementing this framework would reverse the trend of overpaying for the military the U.S. needs.

Then-Admiral Mike Mullen was right when, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, he declared: “When you’ve had the money you haven’t had to make hard choices…we have lost that.” The hard choices ahead will meet resistance from the Pentagon bureaucracy, as well as from other stakeholders, Congress, industry, etc. But we cannot afford to squander the “opportunity” that future defense reductions represent.

The resistance can only be intelligently overcome by a national imperative to adjust our national-security strategy to a new paradigm that’s been evolving for decades. After all, we still have to defend the country now, and cultivate new capabilities for its defense in the fiscally-constrained years that lie ahead.

Macgregor, a retired Army colonel and defense consultant, is the author of Breaking the Phalanx and Warrior’s Rage: The Great Tank Battle of 73 Easting.