Category Archives: Our Military

About the operation of our military. It’s strengths and weaknesses.

Why does the military grow? Because the tail wags the dog.

Summary: The great expansion of the US military, begun by Reagan and boosted by GW Bush after 9/11, has shifted into retreat due to the lack of threatening great powers and the end of our mad occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Now begins the equally fierce papers war to determine what gets cut in our vast armed forces. Experience suggests that our dysfunctional military will cut muscle, not fat.

This is the second in a series about the leadership of the US military, the people who will determine the effectiveness of our military in the ago of 4th generation war. (1st of 2 posts today.)

“It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
— Opening sentence of “Parkinson’s Law“, The Economist, 19 November 1955. He describes Britain’s creation of “a magnificent Navy on land” to replace its fleet.

Admiralty Statistics from "Parkinson's Law"

Parkinson wrote using data from long ago. Let’s shift forward to today, with a recommended reading about our billion-dollar-per-year national defense system: “Pentagon bureaucracy grows as troops are cut” by Tara Copp (Washington Examiner, 25 January 2015). To understand this strange but sad phenomenon we have an analysis by a guest author with experience in these matters..

“Why does the force continue to grow?
Because the tail wags the dog.”

By Danny Hundley (Colonel, USMC, retired).


During the 8 years I worked in Manpower (Officer Assignment Branch) at Headquarters Marine Corps I helped develop the Joint Duty Assignment Management Information System. I know that if the military did not have some of the best Manpower processes in the world, the bureaucracy would be much worse than it is now.

So how is the tail is wagging the dog? Manpower is being cut by the bureaucrats without regard to mission. The services attempt to take into account the mission requirements when making cuts but the Congress does not. It just says cut. Also, the Congress continually legislates new requirements that necessitates growing staff to answer the mail. For example, when Goldwater-Nichols became law, the Congress had many requirements for annual reports.

These reports were never required before. To make matters worse, many of the reports required the services to keep data that it had never been required to keep before. Goldwater-Nichols was many years ago but the politics and off-the-cuff requirements still come faster than any physical capability to react. Anyone who understands what is required to maintain proper personnel requirements to meet mission, knows the ability to do a mission is easily destroyed when manpower cuts are required without sufficient time to determine impact to mission.

We can tear down proper manpower structure for military organizations much more quickly than we can build it, especially when we do not properly consider standing down mission requirements as we cut.

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The “global commons” belongs to the world. Should America control it?

Summary: Our DoD has rolled out another master plan. We’re oblivious to how aggressive these strategies look to our rivals; perhaps we’re oblivious even to the idea that our rivals have rights . That’s appropriate to a global hegemon, a role we no longer have the power to fill. The growth of rivals makes that less feasible with each new year. Our unwillingness to accept a multi-polar world makes a fearful transition to more likely.  (2nd of 2 posts today.)

Hegemon Robot

We no longer scare our foes.


  1. We’re number one and tolerate no rivals
  2. What is the “global commons”?
  3. Conclusions
  4. For More Information

(1)  We’re number one and tolerate no rivals

Most Americans have no idea how belligerent our government sounds, especially our military strategy. Read this 9 November 2011 Background Briefing on Air-Sea Battle as would someone in China or Iran (its edited for intelligibility). If DoD’s flacks had written Case Yellow — the Wehrmacht’s plan for the invasion of France it would have sounded something like this (“the Maginot Line is a French anti-access challenge, which we must respond to!”). Goebbels could have learned much from them.

We’re going to talk to you today about the air-sea battle — the anti-access/area-denial challenge. State, regional, and non-state actors have been developing, proliferating, and acquiring modern military technologies that enable anti-access area denial. Things like precision fires, electronic warfare and cyberwarfare, air and missile defense systems. Plus submarines, surface combatants and aircraft all of increasing capability. Combined together they could keep you out of an area or make it very difficult for you to maneuver within an area.

Our {goal} was that U.S. military forces will maintain freedom of action in the global commons. … That demands that U.S. forces be able to turn quickly from a defensive posture to one of offensive posture — to stay in place and operate within an area of the global commons. We must be able to fight in those contested environments across all domains in order to prevail.  We cannot cede a single domain in order to prevail in an environment such as that.  We’re talking about five domains: air, maritime, land domain, space and cyberspace.

This became doctrine in 2010, recently rebranded by DoD as the Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons (JAM-GC; see an early version here).  What does it mean? You cannot understand DoD speeches and documents without proficiency in NewSpeak, but the man who coined this concept spoke in clearer language…

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How officers adapt to life in the Pentagon: they choose the blue pill.

Summary: Our military is the sword of America. As described in the other posts in the series, years of corrosion have taken their toll on the institution at its center — the Pentagon. Amazingly, most Americans remain unaware of this decay. Here’s some eyewitness testimony, and a link to one of the best books describing our dysfunctional Pentagon.

“The sharpest sword will rust when plunged into salt water.”
— Martin van Creveld.

“When I started at the Pentagon, it soon became clear that it was all about courtiership. There was a style combining arrogance to inferiors and posturing to peers with slobbering sycophancy to superiors. Needless to say, I never got the hang of it.”
— A retired Colonel talking about his life in the Pentagon.

The blue pill or the red pill?

One of best known anecdotes about the late John Boyd (Colonel, USAF) describes the decay of our officer corps. It’s often told as a upbeat story, I hope intended as gallows humor. It’s one of the most depressing stories I’ve heard about our Versailles-on-the-Potomac. This is from Robert Coram’s Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War (2002).

John R. Boyd (Colonel, USAF)

“Tiger, one day you will come to a fork in the road. And you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go. If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments.

“Or you can go that way and you can do something – something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference.

“To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do. Which way will you go?”

Boyd didn’t reveal how many took the red pill. I’ll guess not many did. Perhaps if he’d given this speech to Samurai he’d have gotten more volunteers for glorious lonely defeat.

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A step to getting an effective military. We might need it soon.

Summary:  This post about the decayed state of the US military and its prospects for reform brings us full circle, describing the problem and a step on the path of reform. Although losing wars has not damaged America yet, let’s not tempt fate by delaying repair to our lavishly funded and massive forces. We can have the world’s finest military force (pretending that we do makes it less likely). The necessary changes are within our reach. See the posts at the end for links to previous chapters and more information.  (2nd of 2 posts today.)

“People are policy.”
— Old wisdom about organizations.

3D-Broken Cube

The strongest structure can be changed by forces within it.


Chapter 2 in this series described the dilemma of the US military after Vietnam, facing a world of foes using 4GW tactics that often defeat modern armies. Fred Reed explains:

{DoD is} ready for wars past and future, but not present. {T}he current military, an advanced version of the WWII force, is ready should the Imperial Japanese Navy return. It also has phenomenally advanced weaponry in the pipeline to take on a space-age enemy, perhaps from Mars, should one appear. It is only the present for which the US is not prepared.

The Pentagon leadership could have rebuilt from the ground up, as the German army did after defeats in 1806 and 1918. Instead they had two insights of the scale and kind that changes the destiny of nations.

First, our 4GW foes were not existential threats, although they could be exaggerated as such to keep the Homeland docile and the funding lavishly flowing. We could suffer defeats without serious consequences, as we did in Vietnam (the “domino theory was, as many predicted, bogus).

Second, profits come from preparing for the another WWII, or WWIII (no worries what happens after that). The odds of such wars are low, since leaders of nuclear powers have carefully avoided confrontations since the Cuban Missile Crisis (realizing that “it’s good to be King” and bad to die in a mushroom cloud). Therefore weapons need not work well or get built in useful numbers. This process of paying more for less reached an apotheosis with the F-35: costly beyond reason yet of minimal functionality. To top this the next generation of generals must build the BattleStar Galactica (forever earthbound, always awaiting the next software upgrade).

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Why the Pentagon would rather hire a jihadist like bin Laden than reformer Donald Vandergriff.

Summary:  Obama can take a bold step to begin reform of the DoD & so end our series of defeats at 4GW discussed James Fallows’ brilliant idea of appointing military reformer Donald Vandergriff (Major, US Army, retired) to a key post at the Pentagon. Today’s two posts discuss why that would be important, and why it will not happen. Here’s the 1st.


F-35. The most expensive US weapons program ever. Perhaps the most useless.

Let’s start with an easy prediction: although perfect for the job, a potentially transformative leader for DoD, Donald Vandergriff will not get this or any other high post in the Pentagon. Our military’s leadership would rather appoint bin Laden (alive or dead).

Jihadist theology has zero ability to spread through the Pentagon. Vandergriff’s reformist ideas threaten the core values of our military-industrial-complex, where fears of war and war produce profits. Winning wars is incidental to doing the important business.

To understand our dysfunctional military apparatus requires a brief look at the evolution of modern warfare, the Pentagon’s brilliant response to it (“Pentagon” refers to the leadership of our military-industrial-complex), and why reformers like Vandergriff pose a threat to the Pentagon goes to the heart of our.

Who they are, how and why they fight

Military forces are above all about the people who fight it: how they are recruited, organized, trained, and led. America recruits highly motivated men and women in superb mental and physical condition, especially compared to those of past armies.

Our forces are also well-organized. A Roman legion operating modern equipment would get shredded easily by a modern army with its superior organization (broadly defined) — from large features (e.g., the staff system) to small powerful details (e.g., putting time and location on dispatches). By these criteria America has one of the finest forces ever fielded.

But the last two criteria are more problematic. Military forces are trained and led to fight specific kinds of wars, among the countless forms of the past and future. One schema for comparing those of the modern age is as “generations of war”. Here’s a simple description of the 4 generations:

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Obama can take a bold step to begin reform of the DoD & so end our series of defeats at 4GW.

Summary: Our defeats since 9/11 in Iraq and Afghanistan again show the need to reforge the US military for a time when 4GW has become the dominant form of war. James Fallows proposes a bold step for Obama to start that process — appoint Donald Vandergriff (Major, US Army, retired; co-author on the FM website) to a key DoD post. Here’s why Obama should do so.  See the follow-up posts listed at the end.

“People, ideas and hardware, in that order!”
— the late John R. Boyd (Colonel, USAF), quoted in Chet Richard’s Certain to Win.

Power Button

Let’s hit the power button for the US military.


A powerful and insightful article.


Please read this article by James Fallows at The Atlantic:

Today … a thought-experiment solution. In previous episodes, I’ve quoted present and former officers on the perils of group-think and risk-avoidance as aspirants make their way up the military promotion ranks. Suppose Barack Obama, still-SecDef Chuck Hagel, or his successor-designate Ashton Carter wanted to do something to shift this culture. There could be few clearer signs of an intention to shake things up than appointing Donald Vandergriff as the next Yoda.

… This very good review by Carlos Lozada in the Washington Post explains why the name has been attached to Andrew Marshall, who at age 93 is just now stepping down as director of the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment and all-purpose eminence grise in the military world. Now the Pentagon is advertising for his successor — literally, there’s a job description and application form online. Want to signal a change? My candidate, until someone has a better idea, is Donald Vandergriff, who has in fact applied for the job.

Vandergriff spent 24 years on active duty an enlisted member of the Marine Corps and an Army officer. When he retired ten years ago as a major, a relatively junior rank, he exemplified the tensions between an independent-thinking, irrepressible, let’s-rock-the-boat reformer and the “don’t make waves” normal promotion machine.

… such an appointment would be a sign that {Obama was} serious about changing an organization’s course, plus recognizing and rewarding those who had taken risks for the right reasons.

Color me skeptical that Obama or his appointees “want to shift this culture”. Their first term took Bush Jr’s innovations and embedded them in the fabric of the government bureaucracy at all levels — and into our legal system. Nevertheless the idea is, as usual for Fallows, brilliant. It shows us what real reform looks like. It’s been so long that many of us had forgotten.

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Are we chickenhawks and so bear the responsibility for our lost wars since 9/11?

Summary: Now the wars have ended (although some Americans continue to fight abroad) we move to the next and equally difficult phase — retrospective and learning. Too many Americans seek to skip this — looking forward in ignorance rather than gaining something from our past. Here we look at a new article by James Fallow, one of the few exceptions. It’s a long deep look at our wars, the US military, and its relationship to America.  (1st of 2 posts today)

Military spending


The Tragedy of the American Military

By James Fallows

The Atlantic, January/February 2015

“The American public and its political leadership will do anything for the military except take it seriously. The result is a chickenhawk nation in which careless spending and strategic folly combine to lure America into endless wars it can’t win.”


James Fallows’ does some of the best long-form journalism of anyone today. It covers so many subjects (ten thousand words) with so many contradictory cross-currents that it defies easy analysis. Much of it I agree with. However Fallow’s core message is pernicious and his recommendations are almost irrelevant to the problems he so well describes. It points us in the wrong direction to understand and solve our problems.

He opens with description of a speech by Obama in mid-September at Central Command HQ in Florida (transcript here):

If any of my fellow travelers at O’Hare were still listening to the speech, none of them showed any reaction to it. And why would they? This has become the way we assume the American military will be discussed by politicians and in the press: Overblown, limitless praise, absent the caveats or public skepticism we would apply to other American institutions, especially ones that run on taxpayer money. A somber moment to reflect on sacrifice. Then everyone except the few people in uniform getting on with their workaday concerns.

Fallows’ article has received lavish praise from many in the military, active duty and veterans. What would their reaction have been if Obama had criticized the military for the many reasons Fallows (rightly) points to? How many in the military would have said “thanks, boss”? What does Fallows expect us to do after hearing a speech about the military? Although the US faces rivals and foes, as always, today’s threats are small compared to those of the past century.  Also, the level of global violence has been dropping for generations.  We should turn our attention from war and the military to the other important concerns.

The remainder of the article gives the same message, in different forms.

I’m not aware of any midterm race for the House or Senate in which matters of war and peace — as opposed to immigration, Obamacare, voting rights, tax rates, the Ebola scare — were first-tier campaign issues on either side …

After 13 years our war-madness has faded! Oddly, Fallows doesn’t agree. His following analysis is quite backwards.

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