June 1, 2008  

An odd prescription

Old medicine won’t solve Pentagon woes

The House Armed Services Committee, chaired by the venerable and serious Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., established a panel in 2007 to look at the military’s roles and missions.

The panel reported its findings early this year and sought responses from AFJ readers [“Request for proposals,” U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, March.] Observing that “every twenty or thirty years, we seem to realize that our national security institutions are driven not by our country’s strategic needs, but by petty organizational interests, political expediency, or plain inertia,” the roles and missions panel concluded that the time for additional military reform — a “Goldwater-Nichols II” is mentioned specifically — has arrived.

This may be true. However, the report looks firmly to the past not only to measure whatever ails the military today, but also as the fundamental answer to today’s — and tomorrow’s — problems. Rivalry between the military services, the report says, was, and remains, the obstacle to effectiveness. The 1940s Revolt of the Admirals poisoned the atmosphere needed for reform for decades. Passage of the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols legislation was a miracle. U.S. combatant commanders need more bureaucratic/budgetary heft. Creating a new staff position as advocate for future joint warfare might solve the problem.

But changing the nation’s security arrangements and organization is a large task. What does the report say is the problem? This is not clear, although several reasonable efforts are made to make a clean statement. In one section, the authors argue that because other parts of the government — most notably, intelligence and diplomacy — have not been prepared “to adapt to a new world, … our military is stressed trying to fill in for civilian agencies.” In the face of this stress, the report then criticizes the military for failing to protect its own interest by “resisting change.” Specifically, the authors say, the air and sea services continue to emphasize traditional missions while the land services “tinker at the margin.”

How to correct this basic failure of understanding? The panel sees wrongheaded notions about equipment as an important culprit, and wants the secretary of defense to clarify the armed forces’ roles and missions and add members to the Joint Requirements Oversight Council (JROC). This — the panel says it believes — will improve the Pentagon’s ability to decide whether hardware matches need, thus rectifying the services’ conceptual problems. Even if the roles and missions panel is right about the source of the problem, this particular solution is not convincing. Military history — for example, the Civil War and World War I — is rich with illustrations of tactics and strategy that do not reflect equipment. Will new staffing patterns on the JROC change the way whole institutions think?

The need to adapt to change figures prominently in the report’s findings. But it’s not always easy to square the panel’s ideas about what is changing with what it identifies as the problem. Among several thoughtful articles by outside authors that appear in the report are summations of four pieces about current events. Richard Pipes’ 2004 Foreign Affairs article on Russia reminds readers that the unchecked progress of democracy should not be taken for granted. Pipes argues that the majority of Russians prefer order to political liberty. A December New York Times piece by columnist David Brooks looks at China’s rise as a great power along with the limitations it faces. A Wall Street Journal op-ed piece from 2006 notes warming relations between Iran and Venezuela and calls attention to the likelihood of increased, and state-sponsored, terrorism. Selections from a fourth article, on Pakistan, also published in the Wall Street Journal, remind readers of the continued dangers of failing and failed states.

The little quartet of quoted excerpts makes sense. We face significant threats from the emergence of great powers, from the kind of unpredictable terrorism that lesser powers are capable of supporting, and from spent states. But several pages earlier, the report singled out the Navy and Air Force for “re-emphasizing more traditional threats and downplaying the unexpected threats we face today.” It’s hard to know what to think: If the authors of the report genuinely believe that China and Russia ought to be taken seriously as potential future adversaries, why shouldn’t some of the services keep their eye on traditional threats?


There are more contradictions. Several chapters speak intelligently and convincingly about the need for government’s increased responsiveness in the face of multiplying threats. For example, the report notes, the secretary of homeland security can be called before 86 different committees. Congressional requirements, the authors admit, also hinder the Defense and State departments from easily sharing funds with one another. But such cooperation is problematic: “[A]llowing transfers between the departments would weaken the influence of both [the Foreign Affairs and Armed Services] committees.”

Again, one doesn’t know what to make of this. The panel report finds the military services’ efforts to preserve their prerogatives harmful, but greater efficiency in the form of agreement to transfer appropriated funds between the usually competing Defense and State departments treads dangerously on congressional prerogatives? The possibility that military service self-interest might be as useful to national security as congressional self-interest is not considered.

Other chapters speak persuasively about the need for a civilian corps as an alternative to the military to help failed states begin to function again, and perhaps even a department of nation-building to aid in the same effort — ideas that are worth serious consideration but that also suggest the limitations of reforming the Defense department.

The panel’s authors do understand that the security challenges the U.S. faces are not limited to military solutions. They say they believe that improved interagency cooperation, the ability to act more quickly and less hierarchical organization offer the nation more security. Agreeing with two recent publications of the executive branch, the State Department’s 2025 Working Group and a Defense Science Board report, the roles and missions’ authors sensibly point out that “we have ceded the information struggle to many of our adversaries.”

As a small part of addressing this large problem, the panel recommends — among other proposals — that the U.S. government reward with additional pay professionals who learn critical foreign languages. The panel praises the establishment of Africa Command as a step in the right direction of interagency cooperation at the operational level, and in a different chapter commends the provincial reconstruction teams (PRT), whose interagency combination of military and civilian expertise has proven useful in helping to rebuild Afghanistan and Iraq. But the authors still find that the Defense Department is prevented from easing the task of today’s military because the organization cannot concentrate on seeing and producing the forces needed in the future.

And here, most notably, the report returns to its own comfort zone, territory that has been the traditional disputed area of the debate over defense reorganization since the end of World War II. Insofar as the Defense Department — rather than a failure of sufficient interagency coordination — is responsible for overstretching today’s military, the roles and missions panel sees four possible solutions, all bound together by the expansion, enhancement or embellishment of staff, which is not surprising because the report is written by staff.

The first idea for providing better future military capability is one that was popular in the time of Goldwater-Nichols: Give the combatant commanders more bureaucratic power — in the form of additional budgetary responsibility, a measure certain to dilute the nation’s war fighters’ focus on their first priority. The second idea is to empower the JROC — which is composed of senior uniformed representatives of the services — to lay down the law to the individual services. A third suggestion is to create a new position as advocate for future joint war-fighting requirements, a move whose effectiveness the panel correctly doubts because the new position would be one among many other competing ones.

The last idea is to “make it our elected leaders’ responsibility to say what the nation’s future needs will be.” Hello? Since when was it not the responsibility of elected leaders to determine the nation’s future security needs? The report’s only comment about the drawback of this suggestion is that handing over the military services’ current responsibilities to the secretary of defense would entail “the need for a much larger staff,” an understatement whose magnitude almost equals its silence about how a competent staff to replace the military services could be assembled that sheds service parochialism without abolishing service experience.

“Only when our services have clear direction on what military forces our war fighters will need in the future,” this portion of the report concludes, “can they efficiently prepare today.” There’s a large and important unstated assumption here, and it suffuses the entire report: the notion that the services are constitutionally incapable of making intelligent judgments about the future based on their own war-fighting expertise. This may be true, and it may not. It may be partially true. But the report does not offer evidence one way or the other. Nor does the report offer evidence that other sources consistently offer superior judgment about future requirements.


Citing these same future requirements, the report criticizes the cost overruns the Defense Department has experienced in recent years with the Littoral Combat Ship, the Coast Guard Deepwater modernization plan, the failed Advanced SEAL Delivery System, and the F-22, among others. The criticism is deserved, but Congress has been rightfully calling the executive branch to account for the shape and cost of weapons systems since at least the Jefferson administration without raising roles and missions. The legislature’s power of the purse provides strong remedies that have proven effective.

Toward its conclusion that substantial reform at the Defense Department is required, the panel on roles and missions continues to mine the vein of unmet future joint requirements. “Key to the future,” the authors say, “is the joint procurement of the network-centric systems needed to provide knowledge to the U.S. military in order for it to act more swiftly than an adversary.” Similarly, with electronic warfare (EW), the HASC panel notes the increased applicability of EW to protecting troops on the ground. The report argues that the operational understanding of the mission’s importance did not inform Pentagon decision-making swiftly or efficiently enough to supply the demand filled by hardware that already existed with the Navy, Marines and Army. A little case history of the B-52 Stand-off Jammer’s design problems, cost overruns and resultant delays in operational capability is offered to support an argument for redundancy, specifically that “we don’t end up, once again, in a situation where EW expertise … is largely confined to one community.”

This chapter is followed immediately by one that takes the opposite position. The Air Force’s UAV program, which looks more to the skies than to the ground, requires more skills than those demanded by the Army for its operators, who concentrate more on what’s happening on the ground. “Our increasing defense budget allows each service to pursue its own program,” the authors lament. In this case, they argue that expertise and hardware should be confined to one community.

The panel’s report appears to be a salvo that is intended to begin the next step in defense reorganization. But the wick flickers and the propellant burns unevenly. The Goldwater-Nichols legislation of more than 20 years ago looked to previous U.S. military operational problems — in the failed mission to free U.S. hostages in Iran, the seizure of the Pueblo and the Mayaguez, and flaws in the invasion of Grenada — as justification for reform. It found answers in consolidating the powers of the JCS chairman, the Joint Staff and, to a lesser extent, the reach of the combatant commanders.

The effort that began with this report is more political: It cites an Ohio State professor who writes that in most years, the sum of all people “who die at the hands of international terrorists is roughly the same as the number of people who drown in bathtubs in the U.S.” In other words, “What’s all the fuss about fighting terrorists?” No less tendentious, the report argues that “the native resiliency of America may have been diminished by the enormous sums of money that we could have spent on other, more effective ways of undercutting al-Qaida’s support in the Arab world,” a political teaser in which beholders may find what they wish, but hardly a practical guide for changing the nation’s security arrangements.

Outside of partisanship, however, the more serious argument is that the U.S. military is failing sufficiently to plan for and build the right kind of equipment required for joint war fighting in the future. Inadequate attention to joint network-centric warfare figures prominently in this complaint, whose remedy the report identifies in a second Goldwater-Nichols, this one for acquisition.


It’s an odd prescription that looks backward at the very moment that we ought to be looking ahead — as does the panel in its thoughtful warnings about asymmetric warfare — to the possibility that deepening reliance on satellites for the information needed to conduct all military operations exposes us to the kind of attack that China conducted successfully against one of its aging weather satellites in January 2007.

Nor is this the only place the report appears to be at odds with itself. Despite much emphasis on equipment and hardware, the report quotes excerpts from a May 2007 Armed Forces Journal article by Lt. Col. Paul Yingling, “A Failure in Generalship.” Yingling maintains that the military’s failure to reward intellectual and moral courage in senior officers is responsible for large mistakes in the conduct of both the Vietnam and Iraq wars. Fairly, the report notes that the Yingling piece preceded the success of the surge in Iraq.

But the panel avoids inquiring into the reasons for this success because the answer contradicts its major premise: that rivalry between the military services is the root of U.S. defense problems; that the armed forces are prevented from useful, effective action by their squabbling; and that persisting in the same direction of reforms that were appropriate during the Truman administration is as warranted today as it was 60 years ago.

Army Gen. David Petraeus’ gains in Iraq question whether this set of assumptions is correct. His understanding of the importance of the local character of the conflict, of the need for solutions based in the community, of the economic, political and information problems that are critical in countering sectarian violence fanned by the jihadists — all of these look toward the future threats that will challenge U.S. national security. The leadership success of Petraeus and his staff also demonstrates that military effectiveness is not necessarily the product of changed organizational arrangements or consistently and inherently odious to the service’s leaders, as the Army proved in November when it called Petraeus back to Washington to head the selection board for brigadier general officers.

The Navy’s new maritime strategy, an effort that drew upon the ideas and energy of the Marine Corps and the Coast Guard to propose a strategy based significantly on preventing wars through humanitarian and relief services, also demonstrates effective and cooperative imagination among military services in planning for the future. Readjusting the JROC wasn’t necessary, and it would be extremely difficult to keep a straight face and argue that giving the secretary of defense a huge staff to supplant the functions of the military services would have produced a better or even equal result.

Over the next half century, the U.S. will face transformed and different threats than those to which we became accustomed in the 20th century. New powers are emerging of both the state and non-state variety. We will be challenged by having to deter and perhaps defeat both. This requires increased skill and technology in traditional warfare, in asymmetric and irregular warfare, and in threading the dismayingly sharp needle of powers equipped with massively destructive weapons that are also proficient in wielding power at much lower thresholds of force. Improved intelligence, our ability to convey strategic messages to large and small audiences, the speed at which the U.S. government is able to make wise decisions, its success in marshalling competing and disparate parts are some of the key skills on which the answer to the roles and missions panel’s excellent first question — how do we remain the world’s only superpower? — depend.

The panel looks ahead when it sees solutions in the simplicity, flattened structures and adaptability it praises. It looks to the past where it finds the answer in centralization, increased staffs and the continued desuetude of the military services.

SETH CROPSEY is senior adviser on maritime strategy at the Center for Naval Analyses, and a fellow at the Hudson Institute. He is a former deputy undersecretary of the Navy.