Today’s Defense Leaders: “Too Steeped in Old Ways”

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It's time for the Defense Department to differentiate, dissolve, and distribute.

Perhaps the greatest Western ideal, apparent in our literature, economics, and theology — to name just a few areas — is the belief that loss energizes new life.

Ernest Hemingway depicted the simple paradox of war in For Whom the Bell Tolls: death foreshadows renewal. Joseph Schumpeter modified Karl Marx’s notion of creative destruction, pointing out that, without bringing a crashing end to old ways of commerce, the new cannot thrive. The heart of Christian faith beats to the notion of death and resurrection.

Today we are at something like the crossing where Hemingway’s band of guerrilla fighters found themselves at the climax of For Whom the Bell Tolls.  The unit can only live on if someone is sacrificed in a rearguard action—and Robert Jordan, the American protagonist, makes the astute choice to remain behind.

At today’s strategic crossroads, national-security leaders have yet to make astute choices about what to sacrifice in order to move ahead.

The problem: their habits of mind and institutional interests are too steeped in old ways.

Too focused on the allure of sheer mass and overwhelming force (the Powell Doctrine), they fail to discern. Too centered on quantitative metrics and stylized functions, they have lost the capacity for inspiration, insight. Exhausted from the last decade of troubling conflicts, their creativity, originality, and inventiveness have dulled.

The solution: engage in some creative destruction.

Renewal and a reset are required. Here are three active ideas that could easily be injected into decision-making processes in this looming era of fiscal austerity for defense: differentiate, dissolve, and distribute.

Contrary to popular belief, less can indeed be more. Especially if what is lost leads to fresh new growth.

First, there is the need to differentiate.

By drawing on disparate expertise from many fields, better strategic choices can be identified—and implemented. This will not come via the usual lumbering reviews produced every four years—the next one will be out in 2014. Instead it requires reaching out to forceful visionaries who provide specific and tangible guidance consistent with what they know to be true: the key contemporary military environments are not sea, air, or land, but rather economic, electronic, and environmental.

Low-visibility irregular wars and persistent conflicts now challenge the very notion of the utility of overwhelming force. Their resolution will depend upon the skillful use of small, smart, scaled-down forces capable of mounting a diverse range of missions. In the words of former Pentagon chief Robert M. Gates, “any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.” That level of candor is rare—and desperately needed.

The second step is to dissolve, to creatively destroy the impediments to change.

Institutional concrete must be demolished. Second-rate programs and platforms—even some first-rate ones that lack relevance—need to be eliminated without further ado. Structures that reflect outdated and simplistic notions of conventional war in an earlier era have to be cleared out. Defense insiders understand that the current era of technological change calls for new strategies, doctrines, and organizational forms. Yet, for the most part, their public posture in this period of fiscal austerity has nevertheless been marked far too much by retrograde thinking and sounding false alarms when confronted with the prospect of reduced defense spending.

Take, for example, the recent open letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel from five former deputy secretaries of defense. In their words, “reduced expenditures mean accepting narrower national security capability” and a new review should “specify force end strength, operational tempo, readiness, and training, and the suite of military equipment and systems.” Such outdated thinking, steeped in the way of war of an earlier era, must be quickly discarded. Sheer spending does not translate into stability and security. One need look no further than this week’s report of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction—or to the past decade in Iraq—to demonstrate that point.

The reality of military and security affairs in our time is that it is not within our control to determine with any precision what crises demanding intervention will arise, or what the military’s operational tempo will look like. Similarly, the notion of “readiness levels” again (incorrectly) presupposes that we know what lies ahead. We can probably all say with certainty that instability and uncertainty are permanent features of our national security future. To claim anything more would be the product of a dangerous mix of arrogance and ignorance.

Thus the key to moving forward, to allow strategic hedging against uncertainty, is our third remedy: broad distribution of forces.

American ground troops today are concentrated in too few locations—i.e., largely in Afghanistan, Germany, and South Korea. We know too much about the hiking trails in Garmisch, Bavaria, and not enough about climbing the Jebel ech Chambi in central Tunisia. A quick look at the U.S. security assistance efforts in Africa shows how woefully imbalanced our global engagements are.

Furthermore, our performances in Libya and Mali, playing a supporting role to a multi-national effort, may not provide the template for the future, as the American role in each endgame is limited—even though the consequences of each conflict will send out global ripples. As Admiral William McRaven, head of the Special Operations Command, has said so succinctly, “there is no local problem.”

Our ground forces should be balanced and redistributed accordingly, then, and immediately, so that outcomes can be more actively shaped and consequences better controlled. Even American air and naval forces would benefit from broader distribution in smaller “packets.” A.T. Mahan may have been right at the turn of the 20th century when he admonished senior leaders, “Don’t divide the fleet!”  But early in the 21st century, the mantra should be “Distribute the fleet!”

Fail to choose wisely, the bell will toll for thee.

Nancy Walbridge Collins teaches international affairs at Columbia University, where she is a research fellow with the University’s Saltzman Institute.