A Captain describes our broken military & how to fix it

Summary: A retired Marine Captain writes about the mess that is our military strategy, how we got into this expensive hole, and an easy first step to fixing it. It just requires us to act like citizens.

Memories of the Cold War

The Military Readiness Crisis is Not in Dispute – But…

By J. L. “Bigsby” Groom (Captain, USMC, retired).
At the Small Wars Journal.
Reposted with the author’s generous permission.

The military readiness crisis has become a focal point of current policy debates. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, testifying before the House Armed Services Committee in 2017 stated “it took us years to get into this situation. It will require years of stable budgets and increased funding to get out of it.”

The Republican Congress obliged and convened in April 2018 to lay the groundwork for the FY19 defense budget. All policy proposals rhyme with more: more troops, more weapons, more ships, and more planes.

Implicit in these proposals is the axiom of both past and present American national security strategies: size matters. Whoever has the most soldiers and highest quality equipment wins, right?

Why are the streets of Paris lined with trees? So the Germans can march in the shade. The German Army put that idea in its grave in May of 1940 by out maneuvering a larger and better equipped French Army that had 8 months to prepare for war and had a home field advantage. The conflict lasted 43 days.

The readiness crisis is not in dispute. But what should be investigated is from where have we fallen? And more importantly, to where should we return, and why? Or more simply, what is the proper size of the military to achieve readiness and assigned missions?

Relive the cold war

Historically speaking the United States never had a military that was very large. On the eve of World War 2 the United States Army was 250,000 strong. Once the sleeping giant was awoken however, things quickly changed and by August 1945 12 million men were under arms.

As the Soviet Union consolidated its position behind the Iron Curtain, the United States deliberated how to react. President Truman tasked the U.S. Department of State’s Policy Planning Staff to review national security strategy.

Under the leadership of Paul Nitze, the staff created National Security Council Paper 58 (NSC-68), released in April 1950. Citing the “hostile design” of the Soviet Union and rejecting isolationism and outright war, the policy recommended the “the rapid building up of the political, economic, and military strength of the free world.” The strategy was one of deterrence and containment backed by a credible capability to fight and win in the event of war.

Defense spending as a percentage of GDP tripled between 1950 and 1953 from 5% to 14%. In the words of President Eisenhower, “we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions.”

The key takeaway is that the starting point for Cold War strategy began with the enemy and necessitated creating a large military capability to counter and deter Soviet aggression. Or as Israeli historian Martin Van Creveld notes in The Transformation of War, “nothing is more characteristic of strategy than its mutual, interactive character.” A strategy without an opponent is meaningless.

With the fall of the USSR the Cold War came to a close. And in the American tradition base closures and cutting the size of the military soon followed. But the conflict with communism didn’t run a few years like World War 2, it was on the order of decades. Shuttering an armaments industry in business for 45 years with yearly budgets in the hundreds of billions wasn’t the same as closing a seasonal Halloween store. As diplomat and historian George Kennan saw the problem in 1987 …

“Were the Soviet Union to sink tomorrow under the waters of the ocean, the American military-industrial establishment would have to go on, substantially unchanged, until some other adversary could be invented. Anything else would be an unacceptable shock to the American economy.”
— From his forward to The Pathology of Power by Norman Cousins.

By 1992 the USSR had dissolved, but what remained intact was the capability to fight the USSR. And as the old saying goes, “if you don’t use it you lose it.”

Wasting little time, in 1993 the Pentagon under Defense Secretary Les Aspin came up with the workaround: The two Major Regional Contingency (MRC) strategy. The idea was that the military would be sized to fight two major regional conflicts simultaneously.

Reporting in 2012, Mark Thompson described the two MRC “as a floor on just how much of a military we need to buy; if we need X to wage and win one war, it sounds logical that we need double that – 2X – to prevail in two places.” Summarizing, it “isn’t a strategy at all, but merely a capability.”

So, the answer of from where have we fallen is just that: the capability to fight two MRCs simultaneously.

The premise for Mr. Thompson’s article was the revelation of then Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s plans to shrink the military’s budget in the face of fiscal austerity. No longer would the military be sized for two MRCs.

Of course, the defense establishment would not go quietly. Writing for Heritage in 2013, Daniel Goure of the “pay-to-play” Lexington Institute authored a paper titled “The Measure of a Superpower: A Two Major Regional Contingency Military for the 21st Century.” Citing a Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) from 1997 (i.e. old news) that reaffirmed the commitment to the two MRC posture, he argued for “resources above the levels proposed by the Obama Administration.”

In October 2017 the Heritage Foundation completed their yearly assessments of all the military branches. Their work analyzed capacity (ie troop levels), capability, and readiness, and gave an overall score using the qualitative metric of very weak, weak, marginal, strong, and very strong. Against what standard were the assessments graded? For capability, unsurprisingly, it was the ability to fulfill the simultaneous two MRC “requirement.” Even less surprising where the overall grades for the services. The Army and Marine Corps were rated weak and the Navy and Air Force were marginal.

In December 2017 the Trump administration released its national security strategy. In Pillar 3: “Preserve Peace through Strength,” the strategy focuses on the return of “great power competition” with Russia and China. With enemies defined, the strategy states the United States must “retain overmatch-the combination of capabilities in sufficient scale” and also “must reverse recent decisions to reduce the size of the Joint Force and grow the force while modernizing and ensuring readiness.”

What type of capacity is required for a military capable of fighting 2 MRCs? For the Marine Corps, by far the smallest service, it means possessing more combat aircraft than Great Britain. And as noted in the Heritage assessment, only 40% of those aircraft could fly as of December 2016.

With the recent uptick in fatal military aviation mishaps, Congressmen such as Mike Turner (R-OH) have beengrilling senior military brass for answers. Through the lens of the 2 MRC policy, the crisis is fairly straightforward. By law the Marine Corps must fly and maintain enough aircraft to fight two big wars at the same time. This combined with 17 years of war and continuous power projection, there simply isn’t enough money given current deficits to maintain them all. This sorry state of affairs led the Commandant , General Neller, to declare in 2018 that the Marine Corps had “too many airplanes.”

A similar story plagues the other services. In the Army, 21 Brigade Combat Teams (BCT) of 4,500 soldiers apiece are required for one major contingency. And in 2017 only 3 of the 58 are considered ready for combat.

Reform button

Finally, then, how should the problem be solved? Rather than throw more money at a broken system, the Congress should establish a reform commission on par with the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 to resize and refocus the military starting with a realistic enemy threat assessment, followed by an appropriate and affordable military capability.

In layman’s terms, the Congress should shrink the size of the military and spend the savings on buying bullets, bombs, and parts for aircraft and vehicles instead of on personnel, bases, and failed weapons programs .

But realistically, as the spending spree continues, what is the most likely outcome? Will the investment be worth it? Not likely. The system doesn’t work.

The successful containment strategy of the Cold War began with the enemy and necessitated a capability. Today we have taken that same capability and attempted to “fit” it to enemies. Attempt being the key word.

In practice it looks like this: to seize Crimea, rather than roll in a column of tanks as in Hungary in 1956, Russia simply marched in unidentified “green men” and claimed the peninsula. The USSR lost, but Russia learned. Our response? In addition to sanctions, 200 million dollars in the FY18 defense bill to upgrade European air bases to deter Russia. Upgrading air bases in Norway, Iceland, and the UK seems similar to the Cold War strategy of containment. The USSR has come and gone, but the capability to deter and fight an industrial state enemy remains, unchanged and unchallenged.


About the author

J. L. “Bigsby” Groom (Captain, USMC, retired) describes himself as a Christian, artist, writer, and Ohio State Alumnus. His interests are Latin dance, piano, and motorcycles. He is the author of American Cobra Pilot: A Marine Remembers a Dog and Pony Show (below). Also see his articles at The American Conservative.

For More Information

For an amazing demonstration of our dysfunctional military in action, see the Air Force’s long and burning hatred of an essential and successful aircraft – the A-10 “Warthog” ground support jet. See Chuck Spinney tell the history, and the latest chapter of this sad story: “Close Air Support Fly-off Farce” by Dan Grazier at POGO — “F-35 Versus A-10 Fly-off Tests Designed to Mislead.”

Ideas! For shopping ideas see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about our militaryabout our long war, and especially these…

  1. Why does the US field the best soldiers but lose so often?
  2. Why the US military keeps losing wars.
  3. Possible solutions, paths to a better future for the US military.
  4. A look at our military threats – and at our greatest foe.
  5. We ended the Cold War by lying to Russia. They remember.
  6. Learning from the Cold War to prevent war with Russia today.
American Cobra Pilot
Available at Amazon.

See Groom’s book

American Cobra Pilot:
A Marine Remembers a Dog and Pony Show

by Jeff Groom (2017).

“Think the Marine Corps is a war-fighting organization? Think again. A Marine Cobra helicopter pilot finds himself off the coast of Korea taking part in a political exercise known as Ssang Young. The goal is to conduct a Marine amphibious landing. However, Captain Groom soon learns amphibious assault in practice is a dog and pony show parade, the likes of which even the Westminster dog show would envy.

“The following tale covers one Marine pilots journey through the lead-up, execution, and aftermath of this epic tale in the pivot, uh, I mean shift, to the Pacific. Pivot means we turn our backs. It was replaced with shift.”

For more about this book see this essay at Pacific Book Review.

15 thoughts on “A Captain describes our broken military & how to fix it”

  1. Its broken and only going to get worse because American society is broken. It would be like trying to fix the Roman army in 300 ad but ignoring how broken Roman society had become. The only solution was to cut off the weaker part. Look at how affirmative action laid waste to the military leadership and replaced them with incompetence. Its not about the equipment. Its the people in the army. Unless you propose to replace them with a computer trusted to run it all. Then we just need an army of robots. I mean what can go wrong.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      “Look at how affirmative action laid waste to the military leadership and replaced them with incompetence.”

      Do you have any evidence for that astounding statement?

  2. Why can’t we go to a Swiss style regimental system where men under 50 drill with their region, keep their weapons at home, light artillery locally and have a national guard take care of air defense and Corbett-style naval operations. Our entire force is set up to be a large standing military designed to attack other nation-states when the nation-state world order is crumbling at an accelerating pace. Meanwhile, 4th generation irregular forces are exponentially increasing, but we have no answer for them. We must close our borders, round up the cartels and gangsters, and send the Muslims back or we’re not going to have a country worth defending with a military. In addition to this new Swiss style force structure, certain non-commissioned officers should be deputized to gather HUMINT and make arrests of local 4th generation forces using their squads and fire teams.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      “Why can’t we go to a Swiss style regimental system where men under 50 drill with their region,”

      Because modern military has little use for short-term enlistees. It takes a year to train a new recruit to the point of borderline utility. Releasing most after 2 years (the max usually considered feasible) is insanely expensive. The Swiss 300 day enlistment is an outlier. If they ever fight, it would be interesting to see how well they do.

      “Our entire force is set up to be a large standing military designed to attack other nation-states”

      That’s one way to look at it. Another is that it is better fight foes overseas than here. That’s was the British system, and it worked well for many centuries.

  3. Larry,

    I get your point about short-term enlistees. I was trying to promote what Bill LInd suggested in “On War” – a collection of his essays. We could go to a system of mandatory service of 2 years followed by another 2 – 20 years of drilling reserve. Men in our society are simply too far removed from their own defense both militarily and in policing. It has made us soft and weak. We need to take more responsibility for and be more involved in our own defense. As it stands right now, we have a professional military caste where only 1-3% of our population ever serves. Defense is every man’s duty. If conscription is bad, so is a professional military caste.

    As to fighting them overseas, yes it’s better but per our national policy of “Invade the World, Invite the World, In Hoc to the world,” we’ve already let too many people move here who will compose 4th generation forces. Our military really doesn’t have an answer to 4th generation forces either at home or abroad. Lind suggested we at least develop a 3rd generation military.

  4. As apposed to promoting people based on skill? You would have to be blind or cucked not to notice the impact lower standards are having. The fact that other ships fear the navy from ramming them than their military power is a good start.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      “The fact that other ships fear the navy from ramming them than their military power is a good start.”

      You’re just making stuff up to justify your racism. The Navy’s shiphandling problems result from decisions to save money on training — the typical DoD focus on capex (which makes Congress happy and gains lucrative second careers) over training, operations, and maintenance. This has been well-documented for decades.

      There are many articles explaining how the Navy reduced training in basic shiphandling. Such as this in the Navy Times. The key section:

      For nearly 30 years, all new surface warfare officers spent their first six months in uniform at the Surface Warfare Officer’s School in Newport, Rhode Island, learning the theory behind driving ships and leading sailors as division officers.

      But that changed in 2003. The Navy decided to eliminate the “SWOS Basic” school and simply send surface fleet officers out to sea to learn on the job. The Navy did that mainly to save money, and the fleet has suffered severely for it, said retired Cmdr. Kurt Lippold. “The Navy has cut training as a budgetary device and they have done it at the expense of our ability to operate safely at sea,” said Lippold, who commanded the destroyer Cole in 2000 when it was attacked by terrorists in Yemen.

      After 2003, each young officer was issued a set of 21 CD-ROMs for computer-based training — jokingly called “SWOS in a Box” — to take with them to sea and learn. Young officers were required to complete this instructor-less course in between earning their shipboard qualifications, management of their divisions and collateral duties.

  5. The Man Who Laughs

    The military divides funds between current operations (Salaries, fuel, replacing expended ordnance, etc) R&D for future weapons, and procurement of new weapons, hardware, etc. We’re spending a lot on current operations, and even if the Taliban folds next week, we’re still pretty deep in the hole. Sixteen years of high intensity operations haven’t left us enough for procurement, training, R&D, etc. Napoleon said it’s war that ruins armies. You’re seeing that in action. Whoever the enemy is going to be, Russia, China, some insurgent group in Central Booga Booga, or space aliens, we aren’t going to be ready unless we dial back on combat operations for a while.

    Realistically, I think you have to look at the largest operations we’ve mounted since Vietnam for a guide to what we might need. I think Iraq was five divisions, give or take, and the British provided part of that. Desert Storm was larger. Seven divisions, or something close to it. If the balloon went up in Korea, the South Koreans are providing nearly all the ground forces. Our contribution to that is tiny, although we;d do a lot of bombing. The point is that if we can’t do it on, say, an army of, say, seven divisions, give or take, we probably can’t do it short of full national mobilization. That probably rules out any more long term occupations or multigeneration counterinsurgencies, but those really need to be ruled out anyway. So figure on five deployable divisions, and a couple left over for contingencies.

    The Marines might evolve into more of an airmobile/special ops/4th generation warfare type force.

    We direct the savings into R&D, building up a war reserve of ammo, ordnance, spares, training, etc, and replacing worn out equipment. Maybe we can’t do two simultaneous major wars, but avoiding that then becomes a problem for the statesmen, assuming we have any left. I think we can afford what we need,

    Standard disclaimer: I am not now, have never been, nor have I ever claimed to be a military professional.

    1. Hi Larry,

      I understand given your background why you might be sensitive to racism. Affirmative action is one of the things ailing at least the Navy. Bear in mind that the biggest beneficiaries of it are white women, and we’ve definitely seen crashes where white women were OOD and conning officer. I’ve heard that the female officers directing damage control during the Cole attack froze and had to be pushed out of the way. That said, there were definitely racial aspects to AA in the Navy also. I’m sorry, but it’s true. And you’re much more likely to get lenient NJP being of one race than the other. It grates on officers and enlisted alike. The senior NCOs (chiefs) figured they’ll just retire rather than deal with the problem. Younger officers were of course trained in the same liberal universities as the blue-hairs rioting nowadays and it has had an effect. Is this the Navy’s biggest problem or even a big problem? I think the issue requires some honest study by an independent third party. What are the odds of the Navy allowing that? It is extremely corrosive to an organization when there are different standards for different sets of people.

      I remember SWOS in a box. I never used it. I don’t know what happened to the CDs. Once you’re on a watch rotation, there’s little time for it. You can work on all of your quals and try to get your OOD letter without it. I don’t think the British navy ever had anything equivalent to SWOS in its heyday but they did a lot of OJT. I saw very little interest in that where I was. Everyone worked an 18-20 hour day. If you couldn’t train yourself, too bad. You can do without SWOS by exchanging it for deliberate OJT. Deliberate OJT.

      1. Larry Kummer, Editor


        “we’ve definitely seen crashes where white women were OOD and conning officer.”

        You lost me there. We’ve definitely seen crashes where white men were OOD and conning officer. What does that mean? We they affirmative action promotions, too?

  6. Groom’s solution sounds a lot like the old “Blue Ribbon Commission”–get a neutral party come up with ideas for reform, then they can take the flack. Meanwhile, Congress implements the ones they like and can agree upon, which means “the policies that please their donors.”

    Then Groom says, essentially, downsize and fully fund O&M. But how do we know that cutting current forces is the right solution?

    Based on the current 2017 and proposed FY2018 budget, cutting the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) (primarily Afghanistan) would eliminate about 10% of the DoD Budget need. If you can provide a strategic rationale for U.S. forces fighting in Afghanistan, by all means, please tell me–I’ve been looking for one since 12/01.

    Personnel costs account for 23-24% of the budget, depending on the year. Much of the cost of military personnel is driven by large general/flag officer staffs, which generate a “need” for even larger numbers of lower ranking staffs and their associated personnel. We had about 1100 general/flag officers at the end of WWII, with some 12 million men and women under arms, resulting in a 0.01% ratio. Today with a much smaller force we have somewhere around 800-850. With about 130,000 active duty and reserve forces, that comes out to a ratio six and half times that
    in WWII, .065%. I don’t have an estimate for the savings by reducing all but the highest -ranking 4-stars (combatant commanders and joint chief/service chiefs) by one star, but it would eliminate multiple staffs, aide jobs, and free up numerous requirements for officers who could otherwise be flying (the services are complaining of pilots shortages) or steaming at sea. Regardless of whether or not flag billets are cut, we clearly can do more in improving the tooth/tail ratio without necessarily slashing fielded forces (always the easy solution to save money).

    Procurement is about 20% of the budget. I agree that the F-35 is the wrong jet to be buying. It’s range is too short, it can’t carry squat, and it’s trying to do too many things to be good at one thing. Also, in 2018 we are supposed to procure 70 aircraft for an astounding $10.8B, when every other procurement program save Ballistic Missile Defense costs between $1 and $3 billion. Surely with an inventory where most of the aircraft are approaching 30 years old, the Air Force needs to recapitalize, but the F-35 ain’t the solution.

    So there’s some low hanging fruit, but of course we haven’t really begun to address reshaping the military to defend against the more modern and asymmetric threats facing us–chemical and dirty bomb threats from terrorists, border security, Electromagnetic Pulse Weapons, cyber attack, etc.–this is where a defense review by reformers could really be invaluable, but I fear that without a shakeup in DC the same games will be played.

  7. Sorry, that’s 130,000 active duty only. And yes I know the difference between its and it’s. I need an editor!

  8. interesting fact: in world war 2 just over 16 million u.s. citizens served in the military. they were commanded by under 1500 generals and admirals for a command ratio of about 11,000/1. today, our military consists of 1.4 million of whom just under 900 are generals and admirals for a ration of 1500/1. before pouring more and more money into the military to meet threats that may or may not exist it would be very helpful to know just what all these generals and admirals actually do. i have a suspicion that much of what our military does has little to do with national security and much to do with the care and feeding of the command staff.

  9. “You lost me there. We’ve definitely seen crashes where white men were OOD and conning officer. What does that mean? We they affirmative action promotions, too?”

    Women are only 10-20% of the officers but seem to be involved in many of the aviation mishaps, ship crashes, etc. We don’t have this data in hand. The Navy seems to be trying to let us think women are serving as well as the men, but I know from firsthand experience this is not true. It’s a problem to be eliminated. Martin Van Creveld talks about women in the military all the time.

    It’s like crime in America: 12% of the population who happen to be of one race commits 50% of the murders and violent crimes. I’ve confirmed this in my own neighborhood. White men commit murders too though, right? So what about the minority committing 50% of the murders?

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