A billion dollar budget, 3.2 million employees, and deeply dysfunctional. Reforming the US military is a priority but considered almost impossible by experts. Who can do it and how – hopefully before we need it? Here is a solution, or a sketch of one.
This series discusses military reform as a practical project. The first two posts examined the core problem with the US military, and its cause.
Finding a solution is more difficult. The military is a complex entity. What is the end of the string to pull on so that the ball can be unraveled and unraveled? There are four often cited paths to reform. Let’s examine each.
(1) We need Lone Ranger reformers!
A well-known anecdotes about the late John Boyd (Colonel, USAF) describes role of an officer in today’s military, as described in Robert Coram’s Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War (2002). Told as an upbeat story, but is in fact gallows humor.
“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 bet few did. Perhaps he would have gotten more volunteers for glorious lonely defeat if he had given this speech to samurai. A few Lone Rangers will never reform the Department of Defense, with its billion dollar budget and 3.2 million people. But we will know that reforms have succeeded when young officers need not make the stark choice Boyd offered between career success and pursuing reform.
(2) We need a leader to ride up and save us!
Many in the military hope for civilian leaders to impose reform on the military. That is possible from an Administration willing to commit great political capital to reforms which, if successful, will benefit future Administrations.
But that seldom happens, since presidents always have higher priority political goals and face more urgent crises. For example, the State department broke in the 1950s during the “who lost China” hysteria. . Subsequent Presidents improvised alternative arrangements using the military and the National Security Council. It remains broken today, severely distorting US foreign policy.
The odds are even smaller of Congress rousing itself to press through such a large and complex reform project. The odds are microscopic of civilians outside the government being able to make fundamental changes to our fabulously insular military. Reform must come from inside the military.
(3) We need catastrophic defeat to force reform!
The model for this scenario is the Napoleonic Wars. He kicked the Prussians’ asses at Jena-Auerstedt in 1806. Prussia lost half its territory and paid massive tribute to France. In response, a group of senior Prussian officers – including Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, Boyen, Grolman and Clausewitz –implemented deep reforms to the army. Subsequent generations built on them, eventually leading to their great victories in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.
Perhaps America will, like Prussia, suffer a severe defeat that forces reform of the military. It is the most expensive path to reform. This is a version of a genre popular on both the Left and Right – how a cataclysm brings forth a remnant that build a new and better world. Larry Burkett’s Solar Flare is an extreme example.
I have found many officers that consider this a reasonable scenario, showing how unlikely they consider reform through normal mechanisms. It is a logical belief in the “Not Our Fault” military, even by distinguished and brave officers. This shows the complexity of people’s psychology, how they balance individual responsibility, institutional loyalty, professional obligations, and patriotism. It shows what dreams people use to avoid unpleasant actions.
Let’s not take this path to reform!
(4) The long, difficult path to reform.
Reform of any institution does not begin ex nihilo. It begins when a few like-minded people band together and work to a common goal. When they assume responsibility for the institution. This does not happen today in the US military because most officers have preemptively surrendered, accepting the military as it is — a service which works well for those who make it a career.
There are always reformers. But they are just motes now, working individually or in small groups. Too small to be effective.
What is the alternative to reform from Lone Rangers, civilian leaders, or disastrous defeat? Let’s look to Western history for ideas. Successful movements used collective action, people organizing for pursuit of shared goals as leaders and followers. Reform is a team sport. The tools are simple: networking, mutual support, exchange of ideas, etc. They have produced great results.
Samuel Adams and his fellow activists in 1764 Boston reacted to local problems by taking collective action: organizing the first of the Committees of Correspondence. They reached out to like-minded people in other colonies. Eleven colonies had Committees by February 1774. These groups steadily gained experience on a local and then State scale. They formed the nucleus of shadow governments, which later formed the basis of revolutionary governments.
In 1787 William Wilberforce began his crusade in Parliament against slavery in the UK, he drew upon support from groups such as the Quakers’ antislavery societies and the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, plus informal groups like the Testonites. Full victory came in 1833.
The first women’s rights convention was held at Seneca Falls NY in 1848. The first National Women’s Rights Conventions was held in Worcester, MA in October 1850. The 19th Amendment became law in August 1920 when ratified by the 36th State.
Flash forward to our civil rights movement. Rosa Parks’ act of civil disobedience in 1955 was a staged event, brilliantly developed into the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The Greensboro sit-in in 1960 was unorganized, but used a technique developed during the previous 20 years by civil rights groups. The movement was an intelligently run loose alliance of groups such as the NAACP, Congress of Racial Equality, and Southern Christian Leadership Conference — plus others formed from the energy released by these early protests, such as Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
The context is, of course, different for reform movements in the military, but the organizational principles are the same. Networking among like-minded people, proselytizing, and carefully building links with civilian experts and organizations. Slow and low-profile are the keys to success. Reform might come from pressure over years from field-grade officers — or over decades from junior officers (who eventually become field-grade officers and generals).
Reformers can circulate new ideas and powerful perspectives as levers to gain influence. But there are more powerful tools, nuclear weapons in DoD politics (to be used carefully). For example, admitting the failure of procurement programs such as the F-35 fighter, the Littoral Combat Ship and the quite mad billion-dollar frigate. Most importantly, admitting the near total failure of foreign armies fighting local insurgencies (details here). Admitting failures is dark knowledge. It is impossible to stop once circulating, irrefutable, and can change the course of nations.
An example of a successful reform program
One of the largest reform programs since WWII was the Goldwater–Nichols Act of 1986. – an attempt to get the services to play together on the global battlefield. It mandated structural changes were intended as immediate improvements, and required joint service posts in officers’ career paths to give them exposure to other services and appreciation of the value of joint operations. The architects hopped that this gradually would change DoD’s culture.
This is an example of how effective reform will come. First, by finding the leverage points in the services. That was done by the President’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Defense Management (1985). Reform advocates supported its recommendations, which Congress mandated in 1986. Unfortunately, there was insufficient support within the services for this to achieve its larger goals – although its institutional changes are working well. It was a good first step, but with no follow-through.
What do solutions look like?
Ten years ago this month I first wrote about ways to win modern wars – the wars we have fought since Korea. That is, about the three kinds of solutions to fourth generation war.
- Solutions of the first kind are new things (i.e., robots, autonomous flying vehicles, software to help us understand and manipulate foreign societies)..
- Solutions of the second kind are new ideas about tactics and strategy.
- Solutions of the third kind are new ways to shape our institutions – aka politics — usually by altering how they recruit, train, and promote people.
America’s military has invested much in solutions of the first kind, with little to show for it. There has been some discussion, and less action, on solutions of the second kind. There has been almost no effort in solutions of the third kind. Donald Vandergriff (see below) is one of the few pioneers in this area. Only solutions of the third kind will produce substantial and enduring change.
We can learn from the successful military reform programs in history. For example, the Marian reforms to the army of the Roman Republic in 107 BC, the New Model Army in the English Civil War, the Prussian Army reforms by The Great Elector and Frederick the Great, reforms to the Russian military by Peter the Great, reforms to the Prussian army after defeat by Napoleon, and the reforms to the British army by Prince Albert. None closely fit our needs. All have relevant lessons for us about how to reform our military.
Signals of success
Defining victory is a key for any movement. Success at military reform might mean winning our wars, mostly counter-insurgencies. It might mean fighting fewer ones. I suggest initially targeting easier performance criteria, then shooting for a gold medal at the Clausewitz military Olympics.
- Building aircraft like the F-16 and the A-10 — reasonable performance, reasonable cost.
- Building ships like the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer and Oliver Perry frigates – reasonable performance at a reasonable cost.
- Fewer cheating scandals at the service academies (details here and here).
- Reversing the falling IQ levels of Marine Corps officers.
- Advising the President against a new war, occasionally.
People who actually know something about the military can devise a more useful list of goals.
Reform is limited by the necessary resource that is scarcest.
— Liebig’s Law of the Minimum.
Military reform in the US has been impossible since Vietnam since it has not been realistically pursued. The tools exist. There are people willing to try. The missing ingredient is the knowledge about the methodology of organizing and running reform movements. Once a reformer in the military acquires such knowledge, who know what might happen?
Other posts in this series
- Why does the US field the best soldiers but lose so often?
- Why the US military keeps losing wars.
- Possible solutions, paths to a better future for the US military.
(8) For More Information
- Careerism and Psychopathy in the US Military leadership — by GI Wilson (Colonel, USMC, retired).
- Do we need so many and such well-paid generals and admirals? — by Richard A Pawloski (Captain, USMC, retired).
- Why the Pentagon would rather hire a jihadist like bin Laden than reformer Donald Vandergriff.
- A step to getting an effective military. We might it need soon.
- How officers adapt to life in the Pentagon: they choose the blue pill.
- Why does the military continue to grow? Because the tail wags the dog. — by Danny Hundley (Colonel, USMC, retired).
- Overhauling The Officer Corps. — by David Evans (Lt. Colonel, USMC, retired).
- The cost of too many generals: paying more to get a less effective military. – reports by POGO and Don Vandergriff (Major, US Army, retired).
- William Lind looks at our generals, sees “rank incompetence”.
- How did the US Army’s leadership problem grow so bad? — by Don Vandergriff (Major, US Army, retired).