Building a Smarter, Smaller Military

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Erik De Castro / Reuters

A U.S. Marine observes an area while on guard at a police sub-station at Now Zad district in Helmand province, Afghanistan, Nov. 8, 2012.

Fact: The fiscal crisis will compel reductions in defense spending. More important fact: How do we do it in ways that make sense?

Economists argue that economic crises do nations a service by clearing the way for innovation, more-efficient production, and faster growth. If that’s true, crises also compel us to see with brutal clarity, what tasks and capabilities are critical and what is simply “nice to do.”

With these points in mind, when it comes to cutting defense, there are really three options:

Option 1. Let the Pentagon’s military bureaucracies drive outcomes. The division of effort among the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines compels its uniformed leaders to view all national policies, even conflict itself, in terms of what the policies attain or fail to attain for the specific Service. As a result, the uniformed military leadership is inclined to reject any serious appraisal of alternatives that changes the military status quo (little if any money saved).
Option 2. Politicians can tinker on the margins of the military status quo. Congress avoided confrontation with the four stars in the aftermath of Desert Storm and made the old industrial age force smaller, while retaining a bloated command overhead. Senior military leaders paid for expensive, often failed modernization programs by downsizing soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, leaving intact the enormous bureaucratic command overhead with its Cold War legacy of numerous single-Service headquarters (modest money saved).
Option 3. Politicians can leverage the fiscal crisis to reduce redundant bureaucratic overhead, streamline defense investment and, ultimately, cultivate greater war-fighting capability. These measures mean fewer regional unified commands, fewer four-star headquarters and more capability integration across Service lines. In 1947, General of the Army, Dwight David Eisenhower made the salient point: “Separate ground, sea, and air warfare is gone forever.”

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Ike was right then…and now.

Eisenhower was right. Sixty-five years later, it’s time to get on with the job and harvest the major financial savings generated by a smart retooling of the U.S. military.

Option 3 is the only option that allows us to see with brutal clarity what’s required and it promises both savings and increased capability. Given that “Jointness” and the unity of effort it is supposed to deliver is largely an illusion, a national reset of defense policy and national military strategy is vital.

This reset must produce an efficient and effective organization of military power for the optimum use of increasingly constrained resources.

Put another way, lawmakers and the White House should view defense cuts as a once-in-a-century opportunity to harmonize defense investments with the evolutionary trends in military technology, organization and command structures, as well as, the nation’s need for fiscal discipline.

It’s time to craft a new military strategy and a new force designed for the post-industrial age.

The top priority in U.S. military strategy is economic prosperity and the technological superiority that economic strength creates. Conflict avoidance is vital to this outcome.

President Eisenhower’s military strategy led him to invest in capabilities that would make American involvement in wars less likely, conserving America’s military, economic and political reserves of strength in the process. In this regard, open-ended missions to install liberal democracy inside failed or backward societies, missions that are prohibitively expensive and likely to fail, must be discarded in favor of U.S. foreign and defense policies that promote both solvency and security.

Constrained budgets demand armed forces that fight together, creating real unity of effort, and its corollary: American military power that is disproportionate to the actual size of the armed forces employed. This statement describes a force designed to maximize war-fighting capability, a force organized around Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance (ISR), Strike, Maneuver and Sustainment.

In an operational military context, economy is about integrating existing and future capabilities within an agile operational framework guided by human understanding. It’s about combining ground maneuver forces with ISR, Strike and Sustainment capabilities from all the Services.

The question is how to do it?

Here are some thoughts:

— Reduce redundant command-and-control overhead and establish Joint Force Commands.

Standing up permanent Joint Force Commands (JFC) in a reduced number of regional combatant commands bring together the aerospace, naval and land warfare expertise from the four functional areas – ISR, Strike, Maneuver and Sustainment — in one Command within a relatively flat, joint command structure inside the regional unified commands.

DoD photo / Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta meets Dec. 5 with combatant commanders over breakfast at the Pentagon.

Sir Winston Churchill told his wartime cabinet, “Failure in war is most often the absence of one directing mind and commanding will.” Perhaps, Churchill’s point explains why from March 1942 to April 1945 when there were 15 million men in the Army and Army Air Corps the U.S. had only four four-star generals to command them: Marshall, MacArthur, Eisenhower and Arnold. Today, the U.S. employs 23 four stars to command a combined Army and Air Force of roughly 879,000 soldiers and airmen. The situation inside the Navy and Marines during World War II was similar.

When there were roughly 4.2 million men in the Navy the U.S. had four four-star admirals to command them: Nimitz, Halsey, Leahy, and King, and, until March 1945, 485,000 Marines were led by a three-star named Vandegrift. Today, the U.S. has 10 four-star admirals and five four-star Marine generals for a combined force of roughly 500,000. The small number of commanders elevated to four stars during the Second World War reflected the understanding that no subordinate in an organization should report to more than one boss, that lines of command authority must be clear and uncontested.

Joint Force Commands address this requirement by consolidating the numerous two-, three- and four-star single-service commands into three-star Joint command centers that capitalize on the vast array of strike forces networked with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities. However, permanent three-star Joint Force Commands are not a gimmick to justify massive new investments in technology.

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The brass-to-grunt ratio is out of whack.

Joint Force Commands are really intellectual constructs with technological infrastructure, the lynchpin in the shift to a 21st Century force centered on integrated operations and Joint military command structures. The faster that command structures can accurately assess a situation, make “good enough” decisions on what to do about it, and act decisively to deal with it, the more lethal and agile the force becomes.

In future conflicts and crises involving capable opponents, there won’t be time in future conflicts for the “pick-up game” that cobbles Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine headquarters together, the approach we used in Iraq and Afghanistan where there were no opposing armies, air forces, air defenses or naval forces. In a confrontation with a great power like China, by the time the U.S. gets its operational construct and “command and control” act in order, one or more great powers will defeat or delay attacking U.S. forces and achieve their own strategic aims. In this strategic setting, competing single-Service commands and ad hoc Joint Task Forces are burdens, not assets when the size of general-purpose combat forces and the fiscal resources to support them is diminishing.

— Build mission focused capability packages for Joint employment.

The fiscal crisis in defense spending creates the opportunity to both economize and expand the Nation’s range of strategic options while reducing costs by constructing a 21st-century scalable, “Lego-like” force design, and a design structured for warfare inside an integrated ISR-Strike-Maneuver-Sustainment Framework.

The future points towards smaller, but more lethal force packages under one-star officers designed for missions of limited duration and scope, not mass armies created for territorial conquest and occupation. Building mission-focused force packages designed to deploy and fight under one star command or the military equivalent of “Legos” that can be assembled into larger joint operational forces is something aerospace and naval forces can do now, but the ground force cannot. Maneuver, Strike, ISR and Sustainment formations become clusters of joint combat power under brigadier generals or rear admirals (lower half).

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Future wars require lighter, more agile forces

Generals in the Army and Marines are resistant to Joint Command structures that do not ensure their forces operate under Army or Marine Command Headquarters. But in a world where the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction makes future operations by large concentrations of ground troops dangerous, especially operations from large, expensive fixed installations like those in Iraq and Afghanistan, the deployment of large, unwieldy headquarters ashore to manage WW II troop formations is a liability. Instead, the ground force can make virtue of necessity and create battle groups under one-stars organized around ISR, Strike, Maneuver and Sustainment ashore, formations that operate like ships at sea, mobile, self-contained, and capable of independent operations under Joint Command.

Organizing forces to deploy and fight under Joint Command is the next logical step in the evolution of warfare beyond the ad hoc coordination of Federal Agencies or combined arms, air-ground cooperation, air-sea battle, amphibious and special operations. Eliminating the colonel or captain level of command also offers additional advantages. Not only does the one-star/three-star command structure allow more time for officers to become educated and qualified for Joint operations – something current Service career patterns obstruct – it can also speed promotion to one-star rank.

— Create a predictable revenue stream and job creation inside America’s defense industries through Joint Optimized Defense Investments.

There is plenty of evidence that functionally organized military establishments that integrate capabilities across Service lines while simultaneously eliminating unneeded overhead are not only less expensive to operate and maintain, they also reduce duplication of effort with the potential to create sustainable profitability inside America’s defense industries.

The topline in defense investments is going down in real terms, and the pressure to reduce costs will drive government clients to squeeze profits as well. What is needed is a new business model that stabilizes investments, increasing capability returns while offering sustainable profitability. The new business model is intertwined with the implementation of the ISR-Strike-Maneuver-Sustainment Framework.

America’s defense establishment desperately needs stability in modernization programs along with clarity in technology forecasting, the kind of forecasting that promotes a real and substantial return on research and development. Aligning defense investments with evolutionary trends in technology, organization and command structures is an essential feature of creating sustainable profitability. Applying the ISR-Strike-Maneuver-Sustainment Framework as a methodology for investment planning and programming to support informed choices as constrained budgets compel force optimization is an important part of this process.

Thirty years passed between the outbreak of World War I and the dropping of the atomic bomb in 1945. Americans should expect at least as much change in defense technology over the next 30 years. As a result, binding military modernization efforts through massive programs intended to stamp out hundreds or thousands of ideal designs over two decades of production runs is the road to ruin as seen in programs like the Future Combat System.


The Future Combat System: A road to ruin

The point is simple. What works now must triumph over “unobtainium.” Industry can deliver what’s required, but the military leadership must establish attainable requirements.

The Bottom Line

Welding American military power into a coherent operational framework is essential to save money and rationalize modernization, as well as extract greater capability from the existing force.

Action to achieve this outcome, however, requires tough, courageous decisions from lawmakers and the White House, and this won’t be easy.

As Benjamin Disraeli quipped over a hundred years ago: “Courage is the rarest of all qualities to be found in public life.”

Yet, shrinking resources always means a destructive inter-Service fight inside a fragmented defense policymaking process. Numerous active and retired four-stars, along with their political allies on Capitol Hill, will argue furiously against any change in the way the armed forces are commanded, funded or developed. They will always insist that critical capability gaps could emerge with unknown consequences for American national security.

This form of resistance springs from the natural instinct to protect one’s Service, one’s self, and more especially, the business model and war-fighting status quo one knows.


Mahan: Military services can’t reform themselves

Such behavior validates Alfred Thayer Mahan’s view that “No Service can or should be expected to reform itself.” Still, the risk of doing nothing, of living in the past and extending the life of structures and thinking the nation no longer needs, is far greater and, prohibitively expensive.

In the hundred years after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, Britain fought many small conflicts against weak enemies within its overseas empire, actions that did nothing to prepare the British armed forces for the great power wars of the early and mid-20th Century. As H.G. Wells recorded laconically, “I think that in the decades before 1914 not only I but most of my generation – in the British Empire, America, France, and indeed throughout most of the civilized world – thought that war was dying out…”

When the British entered World War I, they discovered what it meant to fight a determined enemy with capable armed forces.

Americans should not fall victim to similar illusions.

Building effective military power takes time, resources and imagination.

To be ready for the world that will emerge in the aftermath of today’s global economic crisis requires change in defense to begin now, not in 10 or 15 years. By then, Americans will be confronting powers that opted to exploit the coming “inter-war” period and wisely adjusted to the evolutionary trends in armed conflict.

PHOTOS: Military Photos: A Month Inside the Armed Forces, November