Monday, March 31, 2008

How Not to Fix the Military

Fred Kaplan and Phil Carter have published ten recommendations in Slate on "How to Fix the Military". I am not overly impressed. It is the same old tired boilerplate that has been around for years, better at finding problems than analyzing them or recommending good solutions.

I suppose my biggest gripe comes from having been employeed as a systems analyst. They are looking at symptoms announcing generic solutions for the symptoms. Of course when the underlying problem is not addressed fixing the symptom is not effective. One of the reasons these sorts of recommendations often go nowhere is that people recognize they are not likely to be effective even if they do not see the actual problem.

Several of their recommendations are directly related to the Iraq War and being prepared to conduct similar wars in the future. Iraq will soon (all fingers tightly crossed) be the last war. At least they did not include the bromide that the military always prepares to fight the last war. Since the M-2 Crystal ball is stuck in development we have to expect that the next war could be any of several types of war, including one like Iraq. Their proposals seem to be for organizing to fight small insurrections, police actions, and campaigns against second rate powers. While that is a real possibility it is not a certainty and I am not certain that these would be the most likely possibilities or the most dangerous threats to the US.

They recommend overhauling the Budget. A good idea. The budget is Congresses. Most of these problems come from the way the Congress likes to manage the budget, which may or may not be a good way to mange civilian agencies. They consider several ideas that might be good ideas if the Congress will approve them but provide no rational as to why the Congress would consider them a good way to manage defense policy. A lot of the overlapping items they comment on are the type of thing that the Congress likes because ovewrlaping forces agencies to go back to the Congress for resolution. A major improvement here has to start with a commitment by Congress to a different way of doing business.

They say there needs to be a “bottom up” review of the defense budget. This is bad systems analysis. The review should be “top down.” To be fair it sounds like they are calling a “top down” review a “bottom up” review. A real “bottom up” overhaul is just the thing to perpetrate the problems they are commenting on.

A top down solution starts with what do we want/expect/need the military to do to be militarily effective in accomplishing national policy Then for each successive level down analyze against that standard.

A bottom up approach looks at all the neet technology (or what factories are in what congressional districts), that is the bottom, and tries to figure out how to build up from that. This sort of approach produces results that are often described as resembling a bowl of spaghetti. This is the method behind former Secretary Rumsfeld’s “transformation” policies. Realistically any review will contain some of both thus someone will get to republish the boiler plate in a few years. Hopefully we will have enough “top down” to get something that works, and enough “bottom up” to gets the votes in Congress to pass it.

A good example comes from the their discussion of the F-22 fighter.

Our whole military war fightning ability depends on maintaining air superiority. Something the US forces have held since 1943 or 1944, so long that we take it for granted.

The F22 fighter is an air superiority fighter. The current F-15 and the F-22 are what will maintain air superiority against any challenge for the near future. A number of foriegn Air Forces are developing fighters that can compete against the F-15. and the F-22 is the standard against which they are developing new planes. Even if what they develop cannont beat the F-22 it will be able to beat the ageing F-15's. A few years ago the Indian Air force bested F-15’s in war games (admittedly under rules proposed by the Indian Air Force.)

A top down approach asks “How do we maintain air superiority in the short term and long term? Is the F-22 the way to do it?” There is a lot of discussion on the issue by people who know a lot more about the question than I do. I suspect the result will be the F-22 as a mid-term solution because the F-15's are getting too old, and some sort of unmanned aircraft (which should be less expensive) for the long run which can't be developed in time for the mid-term. There are other recommendations that address the problem.

The authors are looking at it from the bottom up, F-22’s are expensive and are not much use in street fighting in Baghdad, which is about as bottom as you can get. They comment that one reason the Air Force likes the F-22 is it provides planes for pilots to fly, which is true, but irrelevant to deciding how to maintain air superiority. But with out control of the air, Baghdad would be a very different battle and a future battle may not be winnable.

They have several suggestions that are related to the military personnel systems. They have some good ideas. Some of there suggestions are platitudes. The military personnel system is a complex interrelated labyrinth. It has good features. It has bad features. In many cases the bad feature is a side product of the good feature. You can’t fix the bad feature without possibly hurting the good feature. The system comes from decisions made starting in the 1920’s and especially after WWII. I think a good look at it is necessary, but a change with a hope to be effective will have to be a root and branch change, not the modest changes they are proposing, and which may only bring a new set of equally difficult problems.

One of the things the next adminsitration will have to do is a major look at long term defense policies and programs. These authors have done better in the past. This is not helpful.

HT: Diodotus of Elected Swineherd who has a recommendation that is always cogent.

Update May 10, 2011
See Also
Carriers in the West Pacific
Book Review: Echof Battle


Diodotus said...

Hank, thanks for the link, and for ripping apart Kaplan and Carter's proposals. I have added a linkback from my post on Slate's fix-it list. Cheers. D

El Jefe Maximo said...

This is an excellent post: and I will follow your links and check out Diodotus's piece, as well as the original offending Slate article, which I had missed.

In particular, your Top Down point is spot on. The missions must be defined; an evaluation made as to what is needed to perform them (and the doctrine for employing and committing them); and,finally studies on how we get the whats -- such as the F-22 -- that we need.

Anonymous said...

as you mentioned it, i think one of the issues the next administration must look at is the CIA.
i don't know if it's in the defense budget or not, so this may be an off topic comment.
shut it down.
but replace it with what?
rebuild it.

hank_F_M said...


Welcome back

Yes the CIA needs a good look.

I think the first thing that needs to be is more realistic (down sized) view of what even tbe best intelligence agency can accomplish.

Roy said...

I like what you say about fighting the next war/last war. The whiplash from Iraq is really starting to hurt now. The Army and the rest of the military is writing new doctrine and is slowly retooling based on our actions in both Iraq and Afghanistan. "Experts" are calling for advisory brigades and an emphasis on making soldiers statesmen. Making soldiers more cognizant and accepting of different cultures is a fine idea and very necessary, but decreasing emphasis on the military's primary mission is dangerous. The F-22 is necessary. So is a new Main Battle Tank. So is a new primary artillery system. I just want to look across the chessboard that is our world and ask, "Hey, are those tanks and missiles over there? Shouldn't we be worried about them?"

Man, somebody please give me a traditional state-based enemy to fight. Or world peace. Whichever.

hank_F_M said...

Roy thanks for the comments, they are right on.

There is an old observation that the Army fights two kinds of wars. The general conventional war, and various small wars. These require different and overlapping skills. While the Regular Army has spent far more time fighting guerilla wars than conventional wars it is the conventional war that is the most dangerous to the country so the peace time army concentrates on those.

I some times think the Militaries biggest intelligence failure is guessing what type of war or politicians will get us into. : -)

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