On his first day in the job, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told the Pentagon that “We live in a very defining time . . . a difficult time . . . a time of tremendous challenge . . . with the budget and sequestration
. . . . We need to figure this out. You are doing that. You have been doing that. We need to deal with this reality.”1Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey put it more dramatically to Congress a week earlier: “What do you want your military to do?” he asked. “If you want it to be doing what it’s doing today, then we can’t give you another dollar. If you want us to do something less than that, we’re all there with you and we’ll figure it out.”2 Behind these blunt words lay a challenge to the Armed Forces unlike any seen for a generation or more: a cutback in funding large enough to call into question the policy, strategy, and force structure—in effect the purpose—underlying the entire military establishment.
Even with congressional permission for flexibility to manage the reductions, the puzzle will remain, in Secretary Hagel’s words, how to “figure this out.”3 The choices will be painful. At one extreme, the Services could surrender to less capacity to defend the United States; at the other, they can revisit roles and missions, turning jointness upside down by igniting bitter inter-Service competition or making reductions that fracture longstanding relationships with military contractors, retired officers, veterans groups, and even foreign allies.
In the short run (fiscal 2013), nothing will avoid real hurt—for people personally and for programs, including delays and deferments that will reverberate into 2014 and beyond, and may add to costs in the long run. But in the intermediate and long term, each Service and the military establishment as a whole can preserve American military power for the future if they choose wisely in the age-old tradeoff among readiness, modernization, and personnel.
Outside pressures appear strongest in readiness and modernization, the first from political leaders at home and abroad and the second from contractors and domestic constituencies. The country is on record as demanding that combat forces be ready, although ready for what is unclear to most everyone, and the record of prediction of what will be the next war, contingency, or deployment has been astonishingly poor for over a generation. After more than 10 years of continuous war, military equipment needs refurbishing or replacing. Few advocate foregoing the best technologies; Soldiers, their families, Congress, and the contractors who will supply and profit from the purchases insist on the most capability with less regard for affordability.
Past as Prologue
Austere (or worse) budgets are nothing new for the Services. Inadequate funding has been the norm in nearly every peacetime period, which always began (until 1991) with huge reductions. Today’s is the second contraction since the end of the Cold War. Even during that conflict, in the 1950s and late 1970s, one or more Service lost the budget competition (usually the Army because of the need to maintain a strategic balance with the Soviet Union). Yet even the Army survived to succeed after the reduction, largely for three reasons: the country enjoyed strategic warning and thus time to prepare; the Army understood that it was to be the core for a mass citizen ground force to be mobilized from the population; and outstanding military leadership at the top during the buildup and ensuing war.
Today differs from the more distant past because the United States both attempts to guarantee stability in several regions of the world and faces terrorist threats, and each of these challenges could require forces ready to intervene. The country no longer possesses the benefit of a long period of strategic warning. No Service organizes for, or even thinks much about, mobilizing the citizenry for large-scale war, the assumption being that for lack of time, the Nation will have to fight with the forces, Active and Reserve, present at the beginning.4 Inducting people would be relatively simple; training, equipping, and leading a greatly expanded force when all or most of the Active-duty and Reserve forces have been committed to the fight would be something else. Could American industry provide the high-tech weapons, and could the Services quickly train the men and women to use them? Little or no serious planning goes on for such a contingency, and no scenario on the horizon suggests that it is likely to. But the United States has been surprised in war almost every time, to a greater or lesser degree. If the Pentagon is truly preparing for the full spectrum of conflict, planning for a full-scale mobilization beyond the call-up of the Reserves is by definition necessary, and even some preparations would be wise and worth some modest expenditures.
Perhaps the most stressful period of General George C. Marshall’s 6 years as Chief of Staff of the Army were the first 2, from September 1939 to the eve of Pearl Harbor, when he struggled to create a modern mass army. Even as the war began in Europe, it was not altogether clear what kind of conflict was coming. The Army could hardly predict that “37 percent of the total value of all materiel bought by the War Department” from 1940 through 1945 would be for airplanes or that keeping Britain and the Soviet Union in the war would be the cornerstone of success.5 The Navy, focused determinedly on fleet action, did not predict, even in 1941 after 2 years of war in the Atlantic, that the first battle to be won would be against German submarines and that the Navy would lose that battle for well over a year.6 Nor did either Service anticipate the indispensable role that landing craft would play in both the European and Pacific theaters, or the numbers and types that would be required.7
Readiness, Modernization, and Personnel
As the United States enters a period of relative peace, the chief challenge is how to choose among the three priorities of readiness, modernization, and personnel. Given the uncertainty and unpredictability of future war, the top priority must be to develop leadership that recognizes the kind of war that occurs or threatens, is flexible enough to adapt the people and forces to the tasks, devises the menu of strategies that will support the Nation’s objectives in the conflict, and then executes the decisions of the political leadership with speed, secrecy, and least cost in blood and treasure. All of the Services know that wars are won by people, and particularly—crucially—by leadership. The quality of the people—how they are trained, how they are educated, and how they are led—will in the end, as much or more than how they are equipped or whether they are ready for the first fight, determine the outcome. To give one recent example, leadership largely explains why the Army came so close to failing in Iraq, and how in the end it prevailed in that troubled country.8
Douglas MacArthur, an officer of great accomplishment who was Chief of Staff from 1930 to 1935 during the depth of the Great Depression, provided a grim warning. He faced an even more desperate funding equation. He was so frustrated and so burdened by “emotional exhaustion,” as he recounted in his memoirs, that in a meeting with the President and Secretary of War in the White House, he “spoke recklessly and said something to the general effect that when we lost the next war, and an American boy, lying in the mud with an enemy bayonet through his belly and an enemy foot on his dying throat, spat out his last curse, I wanted the name not to be MacArthur, but Roosevelt.” Roosevelt “grew livid. ‘You must not talk that way to the President!’ he roared.” MacArthur recognized immediately the truth of that, “apologized,” offered his resignation, and after Roosevelt brushed it off, left and vomited on the White House steps.9
MacArthur consistently chose poorly, focusing on the size of the Army, starving modernization, neglecting technology (except for the Air Corps, which had its own vocal constituency in the Army and, more importantly, in Congress), and blaming Congress for the penury visited on the ground forces. His successor, Malin Craig, Chief of Staff from 1935 to 1939, actually decided “to freeze weapons development.”10 Yet the emphasis on personnel, while it sacrificed readiness and modernization, may have lessons for today.
Nowadays, on the surface, personnel worries seem secondary or even tertiary except for civilians and contractors who, unlike their uniformed counterparts, are subject to cuts in pay and diminished contracts under sequestration. While all the Services will shrink, each retains the extraordinarily experienced combat forces, as has been the case after every war.
The future, however, may prove much more challenging. First, combat experience inevitably declines over time even when retention is relatively high, as people retire or leave the Service and operations and training funds level off or drop.
Second, as the economy improves, recruiting will come under pressure both in numbers and quality even with cutbacks in the size the Army and Marine Corps. Some 75 percent of American youth are ineligible to serve due to deficiencies of health, mental or other physical incapacities, or criminal records.11 Some 85 percent of today’s youth plan to attend college within a year of graduating from high school, few of whom consider military service. And as the economy expands and unemployment declines—even slowly—recruiting and retention are likely to become more difficult.12
Furthermore, people are expensive now and may prove to be more so years hence; the cost of soldiers and equipping them has risen dramatically in recent years.13 The all-volunteer policy survived the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan through raising the maximum enlistment age, offering signing and reenlistment bonuses, expanding education and other benefits, upping pay, modifying standards, the massive use of contractors, and other changes.14
Other problems loom. The incidence of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and traumatic brain injury, which by some estimates are of epidemic proportions among combat troops returning from deployment, is only beginning to be understood, not only medically but also as challenges to treatment and healing, impacting the ability to send those affected back into combat. At present, the military does not possess the personnel to diagnose every individual, treat him, predict how long it would take to restore him to wellness, and what the consequences would be for deploying him again and again into combat. The textbook Combat and Operational Behavioral Health, published in 2011 by the Office of the Army Surgeon General, concluded that Department of Defense “behavioral healthcare delivery has improved dramatically,” but “one point that remains constant is that the human ability to adapt to the horrors of combat is finite.”15 As the medical services learn more, it may be that such wounds make sending these soldiers repeatedly into battle is neither militarily helpful nor ethically or politically acceptable.16 We seem already to be breaking new ground in allowing wounded soldiers to continue on Active, though perhaps limited, duty, and it is unclear how far that can go. In any event, it has become clear that the military health system is not adequately covering all the veterans suffering from wounds, particularly in the area of mental health.17
The all-volunteer force was never designed to sustain a large war or military campaign over time; the last two succeeded because of the patriotic surge after 9/11, weak civilian job creation, and the ingenious workarounds mentioned above. Almost no one wants a return to a draft, no matter how temporary; it would be impossible to administer fairly anyway. The Pentagon would be wise to spend whatever is necessary not only to treat today’s wounded, but also to improve prevention, assessment, diagnosis, and treatment so the volunteer force is capable of sustained combat and future budgets are not consumed by the costs of disability and medical treatment for veterans who will live longer than in the past.
The Primacy of Leadership
Of greater long-term significance, and far less visible, is the effectiveness of the officer personnel systems corps in each of the Services. Officers are critical not only to tactics and operations, but also to the indispensable function of advising the political leaders (and through them the American people) on the policies and strategies to accomplish national objectives. To do that, officers at the highest levels must understand strategy in enough depth and breadth to guide their staffs and decide on the choices most likely to succeed with a minimum of blood and treasure. In other words, each personnel system must develop officers who are engaged in the serious study of war. It has to recruit them, educate them, assign them, and promote them to the highest commands in the military establishment. Equally important, it is this capability—in policy, strategy, and the underlying study and understanding of war—that will enable a Service in peacetime to advise civilian leadership and Congress about the best choices in circumstances such as the Pentagon faces today.
During the first half of the 20th century, the United States succeeded in military
strategy but in the second half failed. American arms have been operationally magnificent but strategically inept beginning in Vietnam and in almost every significant war since.18 It would be easy—and mistaken—to blame civilian leadership or the American people for these failures, as many did after Vietnam. Of course the civilian leaders were part of the problem. But our generals and admirals have little say in determining who is elected or appointed, how Congress operates, or how the American people feel and react to war. Some of our most successful war leaders—Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin D. Roosevelt in the Presidency, and John C. Calhoun, Edwin Stanton, Elihu Root, Henry Stimson (in his first stint as Secretary of War), and Melvin Laird overseeing the military—had little or no uniformed experience. And some of our most knowledgeable civilian officials, such as Jefferson Davis, Louis Johnson, and Donald Rumsfeld, had the least success. Senior generals and admirals do have a huge impact on what politicians think, the choices they have, and the goals they pursue, and that requires military advisers to have a deep knowledge of war and the keen judgment that arises from military experience.
Such capability is the first and chief requirement for making the budgetary choices facing the military today, for that requires informed guesses about what kinds of wars are possible or likely in the near and distant future. The possibilities are far larger and more complex than counterinsurgency or high-tech conventional combat. It is unlikely, after the last decade, that the American people will soon countenance another long, indecisive limited war where American security and interests are dubious. “As General Marshall once succinctly put it, ‘a democracy cannot fight a Seven Years’ War.’”19
The greatest threats today are transnational terrorism, particularly with weapons of mass destruction, and cyber attack. None of the Services appears to have a significant role in countering that threat except for their special forces.20 The larger, more indistinct external threats involved in climate change, cyber attack, global financial instability, transnational crime on land or sea, and other political and economic threats hardly suggest the choices among manpower, readiness, and modernization or clarify the military’s role in national defense. Other national security requirements—homeland defense—do not promise much of a role at least for the Active-duty force unless a disaster is so enormous it requires every available resource for consequence management. War is also merging with crime, both internationally in such places as Latin America and the Caribbean, and at home in some of our cities.21 This, too, does not suggest much of a role, although the Army has been involved historically, even though that can be controversial given our posse comitatus limitations at home and the unintended consequences of military interventions abroad.22 The “responsibility to protect” that is so prominent at policymaking levels is unclear in meaning and offers no guidance for the Armed Forces. Thus, the easiest (but not necessarily wisest) choice is to fall back on the most recent experience and what each Service has traditionally assumed to be its chief role, usually defined by its weapons systems, organization, or doctrines. It is true that each Service must maintain core competency, indeed excellence, in successful warmaking in its domain against a peer competitor. While each of the Services needs to be ready for different types of wars, each has the responsibility to wage the most sophisticated conventional war possible to defeat any possible adversary.
The solution to the puzzle of how to absorb large budget cuts lies in developing officers who are thinkers as well as warriors. Over time, officers must be devoted to the profession of arms in all its varied aspects, to include the serious study of war—and many must be promoted to the topmost ranks. The first duty of senior military commanders is to determine what kind of wars they are in. The same can be said for peacetime periods: what is the situation of the country and what is most likely? Without such officers in the flag ranks, there will be little possibility of breaking out of business as usual, meaning a reaction to whatever comes and a period of catchup as the institution figures out the war it faces and how to adjust to it.
These worries about military leadership extend beyond the problems of strategy in the last half century. The loss of so many midgrade officers in the late 1990s and again just a few years ago may diminish the quality of the officer corps. So, too, may the high promotion percentages to O4, O5, and O6. In the last 22 years, the military has lost a surprising number of four-star officers to relief or unexpected early retirement before the end of their normal tours of duty: three chiefs of staff of the Air Force; a commander of U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command; a Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, and three U.S. Central Command commanders; the suicide of a Chief of Naval Operations; a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff not reappointed to a second term; and the relief of two commanders in Afghanistan. Such turbulence at the top suggests that each of the Services should review its officer personnel system from recruitment to education to assignment to promotion. It should not escape Army leadership that in 2012, with nearly four times more flag officers than the Marines, the Army held only 60 percent of the warfighting four-star slots and only 50 percent overall of the four-star billets filled by Army and Marine full generals. Certainly in a sample so small other factors were involved, but this trend has been ongoing for years, and it is common knowledge that the Services monitor the filling of joint billets closely. Indeed, one Service secretary complained last year about his Service being discriminated against in the filling of these joint positions.23 So, too, do the Navy and the media closely watch the number of commanders relieved for cause, which seems to have risen in recent years.
Two years ago the Independent Review Panel for the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review proposed several changes to an officer personnel system rooted in the experience of World War II and designed for the Cold War. The recommendations below, taken from that report with an added recommendation, aimed to prepare officers for the challenges of this century and to strengthen military leadership over the next generation.24
Extend the length of career for every rank by 5 or more years to accommodate the broader assignment experiences involved in producing strategists and removing incentives to leave the Service for second careers. Longer careers would also save money in recruiting, training, and education, as well as by deepening experience. People live longer and are healthier and more productive at older ages. Already numbers of the most senior flag officers serve for more than 35 years in very high-pressure assignments.
Modify or abandon the system of “up or out.” Current personnel policy, constructed to avoid a superannuated leadership and favor youth and vigor, expels many capable officers at the waste of their capabilities and forfeits their training, education, experience, and accomplishment. Many officers would be fully capable of serving longer in assignments they desire and in which they excel.
To conform to best practices in human resources in the civilian world, and to reduce toxic leadership at the higher ranks, the annual officer evaluation system should require so-called 360-degree written evaluations; that is, assessments by subordinates and peers as well as by supervisors. Officers assessing their supervisors as well as their peers and subordinates would rapidly learn that their Service values delegating authority, treating others with dignity and respect, communicating candidly, mentoring and leading by example, deciding with dispatch and transparency, avoiding micromanagement and zero-defects expectations, and other traits conducive for inspiring leadership. The Chairman and Service chiefs are instituting this system for flag officers; it should be extended to officers at all ranks.25
At the Service academies, expand instruction in ethics, American history, military history, security studies, and related subjects. War is more a human than an engineering phenomenon, so more requirements in the humanities and social sciences and fewer in the technical areas would better prepare graduates for the profession of arms, leadership at junior levels, and graduate school in the disciplines relating to war including staff and war colleges.
Also at the academies, radically reduce the numbers of athletes recruited for varsity teams. As a group, they come in with lower academic scores than their peers, do poorer in their academic work, drop out in higher numbers, remain in the Service in lower numbers, and rise to high rank less frequently. The academies should not lower their standards just to compete athletically, as do so many other institutions of higher education. Academy educations cost too much, and national security cannot afford to subsidize athletic prowess at the cost of too many less-capable officers.26
Replace ROTC with all-expense scholarships to schools of choice for high school graduates selected on a competitive basis in exchange for enlisted Reserve service while in school and 5 years of Active-duty service. Many youngsters would take those scholarships to the most selective public and private colleges and universities (as students often equate quality with cost), reconnecting officership with the country’s educational elite, perhaps attracting and retaining even stronger officer candidates, improving their educations, and saving uniformed personnel for other duties and perhaps saving money. This could be tested with a few scholarship winners, but at a minimum, the cost of such a system should be compared honestly with the direct and indirect cost of ROTC.27
Require foreign language proficiency and a foreign area familiarity for commissioning, waived only for rare specialties needed in the Services. Officers undoubtedly serve overseas in their careers in a variety of unpredictable situations. The study of any foreign language and country improves an officer’s ability to understand and respect people of different perspectives, behaviors, motivations, and cultures.
Midcareer Education and Assignments
Require all officers promoted below the zone to earn a graduate degree in-residence at a top-tier civilian graduate school in a war-related discipline in the humanities and social sciences. No matter what their college or undergraduate major, officers headed for high rank need to be challenged intellectually and to sharpen their skills in critical, precise, rigorous, and imaginative thinking and writing. If the Services offer fully funded, in-residence graduate degree study at the country’s most distinguished civilian institutions to all promising officers, retention of the most capable would increase, as would the quality of the officer corps over time.
To broaden experience and deepen their understanding of, and connection to, civilian society, encourage the most qualified officers in the middle ranks to take sabbatical assignments in civilian industry, nonprofits, civilian government, or elsewhere—actual working jobs, not research or study positions—with the opportunity to drop back in year group so as not to fall behind in the opportunity for promotion.
Require application for attendance at intermediate and senior Service schools, and selection by entrance examination administered by the schools in cooperation with Service personnel offices. Too many officers dislike and disparage these educational opportunities, are unprepared for them, approach them largely as necessities for promotion, and expend a minimum of effort during the year’s course of study.
Require graduates of senior Service schools to serve at least 5 years of additional Active or Reserve duty after graduation. Too many war college and fellowship graduates retire within 5 years in the Army (as of 2010, the other Services did not record any data), thus robbing the military establishment and the American people of a reasonable return on the educational investment.
Require a tour teaching on a professional military education faculty for flag rank. Teaching a subject or discipline to college- and graduate-level officers provides time for reflection, sharpens critical thinking and rigorous, precise writing, and reconnects officers bound for flag rank with their disciplinary or military expertise, which are both helpful for the highest staff and command responsibilities.
Finally, loosen the rigidity of required assignments for promotion to the various flag ranks. Must an officer command at every level to reach three or four stars? Marshall and Eisenhower did not. Seed the promotion boards with flags who possess career experiences beyond the operational, and instruct them to select a larger proportion of similar men and women. Extraordinary accomplishment at the tactical and operational level may not always produce the best experience for service at the policy and strategy levels. The serious study of war goes far beyond tactics, operations, leadership, and a host of other, more specialized subjects. Our Services are unmatched in the world today, and are probably the champions of all their American predecessors historically, in waging war. But warfare is broader. The U.S. military has demonstrated weakness in strategy and strategic thinking, which are the translating of national goals and government policy into military operations that will achieve the Nation’s objectives—even those that change—in the shortest possible time, with the least expenditure of treasure and blood, and the fewest harmful unintended consequences.
The Challenge for the Secretary of Defense
As the new Secretary of Defense grapples with the difficult choices involved in reducing military spending, he will need to address important personnel issues facing the Armed Forces. He will need to nurture the military of the future, or what some once called “the military after next.” To assure the strongest, most capable, and most effective force possible, he should think deeply about its leadership: recruiting the best of American youth who can be attracted to the military, educating them effectively, retaining as many as possible, and making sure the officer personnel system develops a large number of them to compete for the topmost leadership positions in their respective Services. Nothing could provide a greater gift of care and support to the men and women serving the country in the Department of Defense, uniformed and civilian. In doing so, he will assure that his successors, and those in the White House and on Capitol Hill, will receive the very best advice the most capable and experienced military officers can offer—the kind of knowledgeable and sophisticated thinking that can either keep the Nation out of war or ensure that it prevails in the quickest, cheapest, and most salutary way for the best interests of the country. If the Secretary can address the broader personnel challenges today and modernize the officer personnel system along the lines suggested here at the same time, his term in office will be consequential indeed.JFQ