Tag: military services

Quadrennial Claptrap

Since the mid-1990s, the Defense Department has been legally required to review its strategy and force structure every four years, producing what’s called the Quadrennial Defense Review.

The result has been a series of vacuous documents that commingle vague, unsubstantiated claims about great historical shifts underway (think Tom Friedman but without the empirical rigor) with threat inflation. There is no evidence that these documents have produced much beyond wasted time and effort.

Naturally, the Department of Homeland Security decided to produce a quadrennial homeland security review, which is underway. Last week, ForeignPolicy.com reported that the State Department will get in on the act with a Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review.  Apparently grand strategy documents have great allure to policy-makers. So it’s worth reflecting on why the QDR has failed.

I say it’s because strategy is overrated. The idea is that government is a scientific enterprise where smart people get together, figure out the wisest course, and then marshal their bureaucracies to the new objectives. The trouble with this view is that government is political; it is about competing bureaucratic interests or ideologies trying to impose their preferences on each other.  Strategy documents have no inherent power over these forces.

In practice, because the military services participate in the QDR’s production, it is an output of the politics it is supposed to guide, a logroll that justifies existing realities. The services all employ manpower to defend their prerogatives. Consultants get hired. A great fuss occurs. Compromise language carries the day, and the thing winds up vapidly endorsing the existing force structure and programs.

A better way to go would for the Office of the Secretary of Defense to use strategy documents to give its views official heft; one more way to impose their preferences on the rest of the Pentagon. That argues for civilian authorship, not service inclusion. Of course, this method is only as good as OSD’s ideas.

The next QDR is due this year. The document will likely endorse the Secretary Gates’ desire to make the military better suited to counterinsurgency, which is OK, and overstate our ability to succeed in these wars, which is not.

The owner of the document is the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, Michelle Flournoy, who previously founded the Center for New American Security, which has, in its brief life, exhibited great enthusiasm for counterinsurgency campaigns or US military-led nation-building.

Flournoy and a co-author just published a kind of preview of the QDR in Proceedings, the Naval Institute’s magazine. The article not encouraging. It cites the disastrous vehicle of Cold War threat inflation, NSC-68, as an example to emulate. Unsurprisingly it buys into the trendy idea that future US wars will be hybrid wars, mixing conventional and unconventional tactics as Hezbollah did in 2006 in Lebanon. It takes the conventional position that the United States has to police global commons (space, cyberspace, airspace and sea lanes), to protect the “international system.” This apparently means that free trade requires US military hegemony, a common claim with a hazy causal logic. The article makes the curious argument that because the commons are a public good, other nations have “powerful incentives” to help the United States police them. I am all for burden sharing, but this misunderstands the meaning of public goods, which are notoriously underprovided. Powerful incentives encourage free-riding, not mutual aide.

Worst of all, the article buys into the idea that the United States needs to fix failed states, which is a recipe for empire.

The good news is that there is time to fix all this. Maybe the Pentagon will embrace restraint. You never know.

Cooper vs. the Services

Congressman Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) has a fairly radical proposal for reforming defense acquisition in Politico.

Cooper wants to put the military services’ acquisition staffs under the direct control of the Secretary of Defense. The idea is to liberate the staffs from the parochial perspectives that cause various pathologies in acquisition programs.

The oped implicitly blames large and consistent cost overruns in weapons programs on the services’ interests, which manifest in excessive requirements for platforms. For example, the Air Force’s religious attachment to the over-designed and thus wildly expensive F-22 has its origin in a peculiar self-image, one that sees the establishment of air superiority for strategic bombing as the Air Force’s main mission. You can tell a similar story about another contender in the Pentagon’s biggest white elephant sweepstakes: the Marine’s amphibious Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle.

Cooper is rejecting the more popular view that the trouble in acquisition is the lack of independent cost estimates and other failures in the contracting process. That technocratic view underlies the acquisition bill that just became law. Cooper is saying that the trouble is more what we want than how we buy it, and what we want is a consequence of the services’ power. To deal with that, you must either change the services’ conception of their interests (and note that such efforts are arguably underway, especially in the Air Force) or take power from them. He’s pushing for the latter.

The weakness in the oped is a failure to explain how moving the military’s acquisition personnel to OSD would change the incentives that cause officers to do their service’s bidding. They would still work for a service, after all, and face its promotion board. A more radical proposal would be to hand more power over acquisition to the civilians in OSD and remove redundant positions from the services.

Cooper also takes (another) shot at constant service shares – the tradition, dating to the Kennedy Administration, where the Army, Navy and Air Force all get consistent shares of the budget each year. That tradition stifles interservice competition and therefore innovation. Giving the lion’s share of defense spending to the ground forces would be a sensible outgrowth of our current defense strategy, which is manpower-intensive. The Navy and Air Force might then be forced to scramble for relevance, causing them to initiate many of the reforms to their procurement programs that Secretary Gates has proposed. (An even better tact would be to cut the defense budget massively but give more of it to the Navy, given that our current strategy encourages dumb wars).

Note that the suggestion to enhance service competition relies on decentralized institutions competing, whereas the main suggestion of the oped is to heighten the centralized authority of the Secretary. Whether these are contradictory ideas is academic, for now, because at least one is not going to happen soon. The service’s would go the mattresses to protect their control of their acquisition programs, and there is a no sign of a political constituency willing to pick that fight.