In his January/February Atlantic cover story, I write about politicians' reluctance to reform the military:
In the spring of 2011, Barack Obama asked Gary Hart, the Democratic Party’s most experienced and best-connected figure on defense reform, to form a small bipartisan task force that would draft recommendations on how Obama might try to recast the Pentagon and its practices if he won a second term. Hart did so (I was part of the group, along with Andrew J. Bacevich of Boston University, John Arquilla of the Naval Postgraduate School, and Norman R. Augustine, the former CEO of Lockheed Martin), and sent a report to Obama that fall. He never heard back. Every White House is swamped with recommendations and requests, and it responds only to those it considers most urgent—which defense reform obviously was not.
That memo, which was titled “Bending the Arc of Military History,” can be read below.
Twenty-first Century Directions for America’s Defense. War has changed and we have not kept pace. The potential for traditional nation-state wars is decreasing. Unconventional, irregular conflicts are increasing. Rather than traditional, hierarchical command systems managing concentrated, large-scale force structures designed for major global wars, 21st century conflicts require networked, smaller-scale combat units configured for maneuver, mobility, flexibility, and surprise operating under a modern, faster, cohesive command structure.
1. Combat units must become smaller, faster, and more lethal. Unlike the 20th century when size meant power, today smaller combat units have much greater power due to technology, weapons precision, and networked communications and information systems. Brigade, regiment, and company size units seamlessly networked will be much more effective on the 21st century battlefield. These more powerful and effective combat units can be “scaled-up” into larger, more traditional formations if required by larger-scale conflicts.
2. Conduct a critical review of the U.S global posture. Our foreign “footprint” is represented by our current legacy regional commands heavily layered since the end of World War II. This review should determine which foreign headquarters and bases may be consolidated, reduced, or replaced by maritime assets.
3. Streamline the Cold War national security apparatus. Replace it with a smaller, more compact system designed to provide the commander in chief with focused, precise, and timely advice based on refined real-time intelligence. This new national command authority support structure should be augmented with a small senior Defense Council composed of seasoned national security experts free from institutional responsibilities who would report directly to the President.
4. Clarify the decision-making process for use of force. Such critical decisions, currently ad hoc, should instead be made in a systematic way by the appropriate authority or authorities based on the most dependable and persuasive information available and an understanding of our national interests based on 21st century realities.
5. Appoint a Commission to Assess the Long Wars. This commission should undertake a dispassionate effort to learn lessons from Afghanistan and Iraq concerning the nature of irregular, unconventional conflict, command structures, intelligence effectiveness, indigenous cultural factors, training of local forces, and effective combat unit performance. Such a Commission will greatly enhance our ability to know when, where, how, and whether to launch future interventions.
6. The Commander in Chief as military reformer. Major political and technological changes require the President once again, as in previous instances in U.S. history, to become a bold military reformer. Under differing circumstances this role has been played by Presidents Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Reagan.
7. Restore the civil-military relationship. The President, in his capacity as commander-in-chief, must explain the role of the soldier to the citizen and the citizen to the soldier. The traditional civil-military relationship is frayed and ill-defined. Our military and defense structures are increasingly remote from the society they protect, and each must be brought back into harmony with the other.
Purpose of this memorandum: Twenty years after the end of the Cold War, and after a decade of experience in a different kind of warfare brought on by new kinds of threats, our military remains fundamentally unchanged from its Cold War organizational schemes. We inherited and continue to maintain a military structure, spending patterns, and habits of thought that owe too much to threats and technologies of a bygone age and reflect too little the strategic challenges and technological opportunities of the decades ahead.
Over time, we cannot continue to outspend the rest of the world, combined, on military forces when our economy represents one quarter of the world’s output and requires sustained domestic investment to preserve and increase economic leadership and opportunity for the American people. A restructured 21st century military should cost no less nor no more than is required to defend our country. But savings in lives and money will result from making that military more effective.
We face a security environment increasingly mismatched to our legacy national security systems. Evolving threats are specifically designed to avoid our fortified points. Opportunities for strengthening American economic and political power are being sacrificed to the maintenance of a military system from the last century.
At critical historical moments, such as following World War II and the Vietnam War, our nation has adapted its security resources to the realities of the age. In these and other cases we learned from experience and profited by correlating our strategies and military resources to the realities of changing times. Lessons learned from two current long wars must guide us in undertaking long overdue post-Cold War reforms.
1. Smaller combat units have much greater power due to technology, weapons precision, and networked communications and information systems. These more powerful and effective smaller combat units can be “scaled-up” into larger, traditional formations if required by larger scale conflicts. Technology, especially high technologies such as robotics, now enable us to reverse the recent pattern of “scaling down” and, instead, make our baseline forces the brigade, regiment, or company which can be “scaled up” in the event of a major nation-state war.
Scaling-up, fitting smaller combat units into larger division, carrier task group, and bomber wing formations, can be accomplished in a timely fashion, when required, through training, equipping, and exercising, to achieve combat presence in the case of threatened conflicts at the nation-state level.
However, about two dozen wars are presently underway around the world, all of them irregular, attritional and protracted. We are presently militarily involved in three of them. This memorandum recommends changes designed to enable us to engage with smaller, nimbler, more networked forces. This will in turn make it possible for us to sustain combat presence, when our interests or our ethics demand, without exhausting our military in the process of endless repeated deployments of large combat and support contingents.
Networked intelligence systems constructed laterally will increasingly erode the traditional intelligence hierarchy accustomed to secrecy hoarding. The National Directorate of Intelligence is a layer of hierarchy that makes networking (lateral information sharing) harder. Advanced technologies both enable us and require us to must transition from centralized intelligence to networked intelligence. Serious consideration should be given to the elimination of the NDI structure.
The U.S. should, finally, declare a policy of no-first-use of nuclear weapons. A world without large strategic arsenals is one in which American air power, naval mastery and incomparable ground forces would have their advantages sealed into place. Nuclear weapons in the hands of rogue nations or terror networks pose a terrible threat. Denuclearization – even eventual abolition, carefully and verifiably pursued – should be our goal. It is our obligation under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Both measures make practical national security sense. And it is the right thing to do for future generations.
2. Review the U.S. global posture. Since the end of World War II, every conflict has produced far-flung, permanent foreign deployments now controlled by regional commands top-heavy with bureaucracy. New conflicts produce new commands and sub-commands and those produced by old conflicts are seldom reduced or eliminated.
It is now necessary to liquidate unnecessary foreign deployments and commands, consolidate others, and, where strategically logical, consider replacement of them by maritime assets. Produced by accretion and the reluctance to surrender an established “presence”, our global posture manages to avoid critical examination and proliferates without a rational strategy. A critical review of this crazy-quilt system will produce a much more rational and relevant global posture for the nation, one attuned to the realities of the current new century.
3. The national command structure. The National Security Act of 1947 provides the statutory framework upon which a vast and growing defense structure has expanded by accretion. Layer upon layer of civilian and military command structures and inter-departmental committees and bureaus overlap to a degree that makes focused, well-informed, and timely decisions increasingly difficult. This system must be simplified, rationalized, and made relevant to a newer, faster-moving age. Warning times and therefore reaction times are dramatically more compressed.
A thorough, top-down review by disinterested and experienced advisors can provide a blueprint for achieving this too-long delayed objective. The national command authority is not well served by the present security super-structure. It is more elaborate than necessary and increasingly irrelevant to the realities of the 21st century.
A 21st century support structure for the national command authority should be augmented by a Defense Council composed of those with superior experience in national security affairs who are not encumbered by current institutional responsibilities or allegiances and who are available to give the President their best advice.
4. The use of force. Current practices for determining to commit U.S. military forces are irregular, uneven, and ad hoc. Though the circumstances of conflict will always and inevitably vary, it is possible to produce a regular order for deciding when, where, how, and most importantly whether to apply military resources. This system can and must be superbly informed, based on an agreed data base (and not contradictory intelligence reports and confused and conflicting information), involve a predetermined and established set of senior civilian and military commanders, be based on timely communications, and be premised on an established set of guidelines as to both the advantages and costs, financial and political, of engagement.
A streamlined and effective command structure and decision-making process must also consider projected loss of life among both indigenous populations and U.S. forces and projected time commitments based on realistic, not fanciful, estimates. Future force deployments should take place only after a thorough understanding of the historical and cultural conditions in the theater and their implications for long-term commitments
5. A Commission to Assess the Long Wars. An unprecedented effort to learn the lessons of modern conflict, particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq, is required. Traditionally, our society is sufficiently relieved by the suspension of hostilities that we choose not to look back. This reluctance sacrifices invaluable knowledge shared among those who participated in the conflict and those who commanded.
Lessons learned are imperative if we are to prosecute future conflicts more effectively and if we are to know more clearly whether military intervention makes sense. We must assess the nature of unconventional, irregular warfare, indigenous cultural factors, training of local forces, coordination of allied efforts, and effective combat unit performance.
A precedent for this commission may be found in the 9/11 Commission.
Such a commission will greatly enhance our clarity in knowing when, where, how, and whether to commit American military forces. It will help us anticipate when we are committing ourselves to long-term nation building. Most of all, this full-scale review represents a moral duty to those who have sacrificed their lives in these current protracted conflicts.
6. The Commander in Chief as military reformer. A number of previous presidents have influenced major strategy changes, usually in advance of established military theory and doctrine and traditional military institutions. The combination of three on-going conflicts and new national security leadership, provide the platform for the commander in chief to articulate the US approach to conflict in the 21st century.
Abraham Lincoln understood, in many cases ahead of his senior military commanders, the strategic revolutions represented by the railroads and the telegraph. His appreciation of these revolutions directly impacted the Union’s military strategy throughout our Civil War.
Franklin Roosevelt modernized mass mobilization and skillfully allocated resources between two major global combat theaters. American forces at the end of World War II were radically different from those that went to war in December 1941. A decade after 9.11, the U.S. military still looks structurally as it did the day the twin towers fell.
Dwight Eisenhower rejected advice to eliminate adversaries by pre-emptive warfare, including the use of nuclear weapons, and instead established the doctrine of containment and nuclear deterrence that guided us successfully through the Cold War.
John Kennedy managed the Cuban missile crisis, often in contradiction to the wishes of senior military commanders, and is credited with avoiding nuclear confrontation and potential exchange by instituting the quarantine of Cuba.
Ronald Reagan instituted arms control breakthroughs by imagining an exchange of highly advanced space technologies with the Soviet Union adversary. This innovation was resisted strongly by senior military commanders and political advisors alike. He also instituted a maritime strategy and presided over the introduction of technologically advanced precision-guided weapons.
7. Restoring a healthy civil-military relation. National security education must be increased in two dimensions: the military academies and officer training schools must be more widely focused in terms of involvement in civilian instructors, such as historians; and the commander-in-chief must play a larger role in educating the public at large concerning national security issues.
Greater attention must be paid to the implications of a widening chasm between civilian and military sectors of society and the increasing detachment of the military from the society it serves. Americans in general and the soldiers, sailors, and airmen and women who protect them must be more closely linked. This may be achieved via educational programs that can give all Americans a deeper appreciation for military and security affairs.
Citizens, especially those who have no family member in the military, see our military as a distant and little-understood system somewhere on the outer edges of our society. Military professionals continue to be respected but do not engage the public’s interests on any immediate basis. Very few members of Congress have any military experience whatsoever and most take little interest in military affairs.
An age in which our military is constantly engaged and our public is not is a potentially serious challenge to American democracy.
Summary. Twentieth century conflict involved traditional nation-state wars with formal declarations of war, direct involvement of the public, conscription and mass mobilization, often increased taxation, and even rationing. These wars had a beginning and an official end.
Late 20th century and early 21st century conflicts have been irregular and unconventional with less Congressional involvement and oversight, much less involvement of civil society and without an official beginning and end. Victory is increasingly elusive and difficult to define.
There are three fundamental reasons to pursue military reforms. First, every period of technological change implies the adoption of new, oft-times radically different, military “tools and practices.” Second, our stressed economic situation and consequent fiscal constraints require us to invest in our military with far more circumspection than in the past. Last, the external security environment, filling up with rising regional powers – and ever more potent networks – should spur us, in our straitened economic condition, to pursue innovative approaches that will restore our somewhat blunted “edge.”
Resistance to change must be confronted from the outset. Militaries practice a dangerous, complex business, and are loath to risk changing from tools and practices that have worked in the past and that they believe may still work. But sometimes the risk of not changing is greater, as was the case a century ago when the great powers marched their armies off into battle, massed shoulder to shoulder, against machine guns and high explosive artillery. Millions were slaughtered needlessly because of the reluctance to embrace change when it was clearly necessary.
Post-Cold War military reform is twenty years over-due.