The Services, Their Towers, and the Earthquake

The release of the FY15 DOD Budget Proposal has gotten the Armed Forces rather ruffled. Some to a far greater extent than others, to be fair, but the writing is on the wall that everyone will be needing to get on with less. This is not a new thing, but it’s never something the military wants to hear.

Frederick the Great or someone of the like once observed the state of the multiple ministries of war, finance, etc in France. He noted the habit of the ministers to act like little kings, or the phrase I adore from C.V. Wedgewood’s The Thirty Years War, like “petty Wallenstein[s]”. Rarely able to agree on what the nation ought to spend its money on, the individual services (Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, National Guard) are each within their own towers, each convinced their kingdom is of seminal importance.

Inter-service rivalry is a hallmark of bureaucratized organisations for the purposes of national defense, and it is the source of continual sniping by those experts and leaders who desire a degree of cooperation between the services truly unknown in history. They argue about the extensive bureaucratic tail of the armed services, and argue that it hurts interoperability and leads to unhelpful rivalry over resources that can make operations difficult and obfuscate the necessary needs of national defense and warfighting capabilities.

Bureaucracies are of course maddening when it comes to processing, but they are there, in theory, to build firm foundations for continuing institutions and refining them so they don’t disappear or fundamentally lose coherence. As we employ a large and diverse military, our services need power to advocate and build traditions and capabilities to allow for strategic flexibility even within their supposedly narrow domains. The US Marine Corp has arguably done much better than their counterparts in other countries and is held up as the premier world institution because it has a service autonomy and independence from the navy, and it has proven its role goes far beyond merely littoral operations. The biggest drawback is that the services do occasionally get stove-piped into ways of thinking that are hard to break, but they are also given a certain autonomy not being forced to be absolutely component on one another in their realms of combat.

The autonomy of the services makes sense to a great extent given the multiple dimensions of warfare in evolving battlespaces and hence we need expertise; in short, we need to have a navy to sail the ocean blue and an Air Force for the wild blue yonder. Fish gotta swim, bird gotta fly to borrow an old tune, though there has been overlap in capabilities in order to round out each (the Marines, Navy, and Army have their own aircraft for example). On the whole you put them together in a military scheme and you’ve got a full arsenal of excellent institutions to employ successfully in combat against less well conceptualized and structured forces. Having this arsenal allows for a range of flexible uses to pursue actions globally and then to have strengths in those fields beyond the mere regional buildups of other countries.

Anyone 100 or so years ago who could see the deployment of the forces to Afghanistan would be absolutely amazed by the logistical apparatus and the world-wide capability of our forces today in a far reduced time frame. That’s not to say mistakes aren’t made and that it might not always be as practical as we might hope, but in the big picture it’s impressive considering the relatively low presence of forces in the region prior to September, 2001. The 2003 build-up for Operation Iraqi Freedom, in comparison to the six months of Desert Storm, was even more impressive, and superiority was accomplished with the implementation of high tech weaponry and redoubtable infantry in an impressively short span. Sadly, what came after was demonstration that it needed more than just smartbombs to bring victory, and we are still fighting this out in Afghanistan. Indeed both wars proved far longer, and far costlier, than anticipated, and in a large part, this cost explains the difficulties we are facing now in the proposed FY15 budget cuts.

Cicero wrote that “the Sinews of War are Infinite Money” and this is the astonishing secret to our success in the past. We simply have the resources deployed to the services on a massive scale; in 2012 we outspent (in real dollars) the next 10 countries combined. The scale of the spending, and the chunk of the GDP it occupies, is simply out of the question for most other countries. Of course Russia’s reemergence and China’s rise now confront the world with the possibility of inter-state warfare, and they have both ramped up spending, as have other regional players like India, Japan, and Brazil. but America has over the last decade always had deep pockets for the wars and the national defenses we felt we ought to have.

This is set to change. As the budget woes of the United States have not gone away, the desire to ratchet down military spending in order to refocus public money. Now attempting to exit Afghanistan after 13 years of war, there exists the desire to reap some form of peace dividend, like that of the post Vietnam drawdowns or the 1990’s drawdown. In terms of manpower, the army will be at numbers reminiscent of the days immediately following the Second World War. In other quarters, this feeling is manifesting in large cuts to the services, on top of (and hopefully soon to be rid of) sequestration’s “indiscriminate” cuts.

This is where the inter-service rivalry factor becomes a potential problem. American history is full of legendary partnerships between the service leaders in order to achieve the strength of American forces from the mid-twentieth century onwards, but also instances in which inter-service rivalry over funding produced some less than admirable results. The leadership is not absolutely set on tearing at each other’s throats over budget cutbacks, as in the past they have done their best to negotiate. Also, there has been fair warning, as the necessity of tightening the belt has been the talk of politicians and the services themselves (if begrudgingly) since the fiscal crisis and the beginning of the withdrawal from Iraq.

The cuts are trying to balance budgets and be fair to some extent. But the truth is that if the pivot to Asia mentioned in everybody’s talking points is going to be more than mere talk, then American dollars will need to focus on mobile platforms on the seas (the Navy) and those who know how to work comfortably from those bases (traditionally the Marines).

In other words, the money needs to go to the swim team and not the lacrosse team. And the varsity lacrosse team is not only worried about that funding, but it’s also worried about the junior-varsity players.

What I mean here is that the fear is really on the Army and to some extent the Air Force. In confronting the possibility of China, the position of strategic bases in Japan, Korea, and East Asian islands represent their best hope because their deployments into that battle (given the vast distances of the Pacific Ocean) require them to be close enough to be able to make a difference without banking too hard on the navy (which will theoretically be working hard in the region already). But they do have to face some further discomfort over the possibility that their budgets will see bigger cuts than their comrades on the seas because those will have the advantage in an Asian war unless the Army redeploys in competitive numbers (and they are already trying) or the air bases continue to operate in the region at optimal distances to meet their offensive and defensive purposes.

The Airforce, still banking on the massively over-budgeted F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, is scrapping the very useful if much maligned A-10, signaling it no longer feels that the A-10’s ground support will be necessary if the F-35 can do both support and air-to-air combat. The Navy on the other hand is simply being told that it will need to fix its acquisition’s program (signalling no desire to actually stop spending money on ships, though DOD is proposing to tighten the reigns on the contracts for the future Littoral Combat Vessel).

The Army is really taking a licking on this front, and unless the army’s future lies in doing African stability operations (a possible sell due to AFCOM’s successes in the previous years) they are the ones who are going to end up doing the most time on the treadmill as the European bases get eyed for the chop and the energy boom means the Middle East falls from the forefront of American energy interests. The Pacific-familiar Marines, on the other hand, are being told that all is being done to save their budgets to keep the Corps roughly as it is now. In a way this is fair; the Marines are a smaller body, and they will be the ones needed to deploy in the Asia Pacific if it becomes a Theatre of Operations (God Forbid). But the Army is getting a royal treatment of troop reductions, far beyond the original envisioned reduction fro 530,000 to 490,000, and instead potentially dropping as low as 440,000.

The Army is understandably somewhat concerned by that drop. 20,000 more, claims Army Chief of Staff Gen. Odierno, and it will signal the end of the effective usefulness of the Army in general. Likewise the Army is cutting the cord on the Ground Combat Vehicle program (also to the potential detriment of the Marines).

In terms of the junior varsity bit of the metaphor, the breeze being shot on Defense blogs and news sites is that the first shot of the budget war may be over the 5,000 man reduction of the National Guard and Reservists. The Reserve component, which has been extensively employed overseas since 9/11, has experienced a level of involvement in expeditionary deployments not seen since the Korean War. As such they have been able to demand a larger clout of military spending since the beginning of the 21st Century. They are also the most intensely political portion of the armed services, since they also have a voice via the Governors of their respective states and the additional funds they pull from outside the DOD in the Federal Government and in the State Legislatures. Their reductions (and the transfer of their fleet of attack Helicopters to the Army to make up for shortages) have met with a strong political response, as their advocates insist that the lower-costs of a reservist-intensive force are the logical way to ease the budget squeeze without sacrificing manpower.

The Regulars and the Guard/Reservists have played out one of the most wonderful comedy-dramas in US History. One tends to look with scorn on the other, and this goes all the way back to the foundations of the US Army, which was loudly opposed by militia advocates who did not trust and/or did not want to pay for a standing army (which is why, for example, the Regular US Army of 1861 numbered 16,000 men for the whole of the United States when Fort Sumter was fired upon). Since the Total Force restructuring after Vietnam, the Regulars and Reservists have been rather forcefully married, and hence a National Guardsman with 70 or so days of training a year can find himself driving trucks in Afghanistan in order to round out the forces deployed and fill out the manpower shortages. The marriage is not always a happy one, but generally works fine. The big hiccup comes when the argument about which service model is more cost effective ceases to be an academic one in the eventuality of army downsizing.

The Army insists that the forces needed to maintain a lean, mean, fighting machine need to be active and in a state of near-total readiness to deploy. A few months ago in the Fall of 2013, as Sequester’s first blossoms were blooming, the Army constantly warned of damages to the readiness of the forces, however intangible that might be to the average voter who couldn’t even begin to imagine the complexity, let alone the astonishing costs, of putting an American soldier into the field abroad with the technological edge to multiply for his lack of numbers and the necessary combat support to maintain that supposed technological edge. Anyone who has studied the British Campaign in Helmand against the far-less well armed Taliban can attest that doing a lot with too little, backed up by not enough, is no pleasant way to fight a war, especially one which is going to involve state-on-state ‘conventional’ forces. The Army has got to maintain the edge, but it also has to be able to make every soldier count, and each soldier can’t be in two places at once. Overstretch is a serious problem, and so manpower remains an issue.

While a small-well trained army can defeat a large and untrained one, one needs to study the problem from the perspective of the BEF of 1914. The ‘Old Contemptible’ British professionals were much better trained and equipped than their German enemies or French allies with their armies largely made up of reservists and conscripts. But the British Army numbered less than 100,000 men, and simply could not fight the full brunt of their section of the front alone when their French allies pulled back. Numbers still count for something. We’d prefer to fight our wars with the sword edge and not the blunt instrument, but you still need the right strength to wield the sword. And there is the worry that the reduction is going to be too much to wield the sword.

It all comes into a question of timing in the end; readiness, rapid deployment, and the rest are all mantras for the theology of the US Military of the 21st Century as a small but technologically superior force. We want to dominate the battlefield so completely that any wars we fight we win overwhelmingly and fast. Long wars are expensive and invasive to funding/comforts for civilian life (though the last two have done a good job of not involving the majority of the population). We want our conventional forces to be the best so that we don’t have to spend further blood and treasure down the road, and we want our forces to be a credible deterrent threat so we don’t have to spend more in the first place. But all this is very expensive, and with the needs of the nation’s budgets for initiatives to aid our economy, provide for better infrastructure, and “do nation-building at home”, we are going to need to take the cuts.

We cannot throw money like we used to, so now the machinery will have to work together and in tandem. This is historically possible, but it is uncomfortable when forces able to act with autonomy have to pull it back and rely on the birds to fly and fish to swim when previously they could too. Each Service fears stagnation and losing out the battlefield and budget priorities of tomorrow, making them less autonomous and less relevant.

The earthquake is shaking the Service’s individual towers, and while all agree that they must reduce the size to keep from toppling, none want to live in the lowest.

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