Hey America: Don’t Do Like the French

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Sgt Rachael Moore / U.S. Marines

U.S. Marines direct a French amphibious assault vehicle over a ribbon bridge during a 2012 exercise at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

CLERMONT-FERRAND, France — Discussions about defense budgets are often shrouded in esoteric and far-fetched considerations about the future of warfare, none of which ever seems to fit into a broader, clear and cogent picture of conflicts to come.

Instead, military experts and high-ranking generals prefer to rattle off endless lists of potential threats, underlining how incautious and foolhardy we’d be not to brace for every one of them in case they materialize.

I don’t mean to pass a moral judgment on the reactions to the sequester’s tightening budget vise.

I know: I am French, and hence not in a favorable position to comment on U.S. defense policy.

But my country is a fairly good example of what not to do across a wide array of issues, including the armed forces.

For years, we have left the military’s sacred cows graze at the fat pasture of dwindling budgets, unwilling to make sensible choices, unable to revise our strategic stance.

As a result, and for all its rhetoric, France has to mothball its ambitions as a global player. The French government has already begun to deep-six a higgledy-piggledy collection of defense programs.

There was conspicuously no discussion about their strategic relevance, but only cold accounting. Designed as a consultation with stakeholders, this preview (in English) of the White Paper on defense ended as a Presidential editorial exercise.

It is not an example to imitate. As a European who believes in the benevolent power of America, I do not want the U.S. military to walk in France’s steps and repeat our mistakes.

In the United States, fear-mongering is common currency, and a familiar expedient to avoid that military expenditure be slowed to a dribble. It is also a very pedestrian tradecraft to help military bureaucracies cling to the prevailing orthodoxies and delay necessary reforms.

And it is eventually a convenient way to elude any serious debate about change, innovation and what should be done to bring military capabilities and the reality of modern conflicts into line.

Unsurprisingly, the continuous debate over defense-budget cuts has been an exercise in reality denial. The whole matter is fraught with the most awkward intellectual dishonesty.

Military pundits always plead for new procurement programs and more training to respond to all sorts of contingencies, but when one finally arises, we always end up fighting it unprepared, untrained and having to find ad hoc solutions to make up for the lack of adequate equipment.

It is exactly the same on our side of the Atlantic, if only with more dramatic consequences given the ludicrously shrinking size of our military.

Besides, debating the usefulness of individual services is beating a dead horse. Any attempt to question their relevance rapidly devolves into didactic and ungainly turf wars, with an utterly predictable defense of the status quo (for an illustration, see the reactions to Douglas A. Macgregor’s Battleland post — USMC: Under-utilized Superfluous Military Capability — last December).

The U.S. Army’s readiness crisis is just another sequel to the same problem. Armed forces keep being trained for a slew of contingencies when they should instead focus on their capacity to adapt quickly. We favor predictability over agility, which implies allotting training time to each specific skill we expect our armies to develop.

It is not only wasteful, but financially untenable. Retaining military capacity is about making choices, no matter how drastic they look.

By consistently failing to frame a clear strategic picture, France has been unable to arbitrage over its military budget, which is now down to a trickle. For all its bluster in Mali, the French army will soon become irrelevant as a military force because of its inability to break out of its ghetto vision of strategy and procurement. Inertia and hidebound ideologies rarely make for a more efficient military, no matter how much you focus on technology.

What screams off the pages of the swelling literature on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is the need for more flexibility — and some room for creativity. The Pentagon has failed to grasp the most important lesson of these two major wars: that innovation is about learning new missions quickly and at minimum cost, not exchanging an old dogma for a new one.

There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all doctrine. Network-centric warfare is of limited utility in low-tech social communities; airpower has drawbacks and is useless when doing counterinsurgency; aircraft carriers are indeed vulnerable (yet a recurring problem since the Second World War); mobile but armor-less light infantry is dangerously exposed to IEDs. And counterinsurgency did not work in Afghanistan.

Nonetheless, the military brass will stick to their guns and keep on selling their dated doctrines and white elephants to poll-savvy politicians. The former are all too career-conscious to defy military orthodoxies; the latter all too willing to promote a hodge-podge of wasteful projects so far as they provide leverage over their respective constituencies.

Airmen don’t want to relinquish their jet fighters, sailors their aircraft carriers, soldiers their armored vehicles and marines their vertical-launch aircraft. By this token, it is doubtful that the government will get more bangs for its bucks by simply chipping away at the smorgasbord of Pentagon’s boondoggles. Wrestling with budget deficits and huge military costs not only demands that redundancy be scrapped, but also calls for serious risk-assessment and strategic vision.

This should start with a plain and honest admission of recent failures and the shortcomings of the U.S. military as it is now organized.

For all its superior technology and training, the U.S. military has not been able to achieve clear victory in any of the wars it fought since Vietnam. With the exception of Grenada, two ended in a draw (Iraq I and Afghanistan) and two were complete failures (Somalia and Iraq II).

In all four cases, the initial objectives were not even remotely met.

Judging by this poor performance, American taxpayers may rightly think that their money was not very well invested, even if there were brilliant tactical successes like the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Yet, it has not made the world safer for the Americans and possibly diverted attention from more pressing issues.

Planning for the full gamut of possible contingencies is no longer an option, especially if you end up lacking the essential skills. As one military expert put it, we’ll rarely conduct wars in the forms that we train for because the very fact that we train for them make them unlikely. With its resourcefulness and sense of improvisation for only solace, the adversary will always find a way to thwart our scripted scenario.

We should remember exercise Millennium Challenge 2002, when the opposition force in the war game did the unexpected and sent the whole Blue Team to the dogs. In real wars, you cannot stop the game, reset it and make the Opfor stick to the script. Why do we continue to believe that the enemy will follow a script when our experience shows otherwise?

With austerity now holding sway in Washington, even the United States has no other alternative but to cut the fat and forge a new defense policy. In hindsight, the most important weapon is the ability to adapt and improvise. And it’s more about mindset than training and technology.

Don’t do like the French. If sequestration persists, wholesale changes in the U.S. military and inevitable. So stop clinging to old fads, butcher the sacred cows, and make sound strategic choices while you still can.

Julien Mathonniere writes from central France on defense and foreign policy for journals in France, Britain and the U.S., as well as on his Crosstalks blog.