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.
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?
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.
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.
- “Amphibious Vehicles Are the Military’s Latest Tax Dollar Sinkhole” — “Forty-six years and billions later, they are back where they started.”
- “40 Years Ago Today: When Solzhenitsyn Schooled Harvard” — “The famed, exiled author of the “Gulag Archipelago” took the West to task for, of all things, too much liberty.”
- If the Democrats Want Socialism, They Should Go Local — “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wants to push socialist policies through Congress. Why doesn’t she start back home?”
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.
- 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.
- A look at our military threats – and at our greatest foe.
- We ended the Cold War by lying to Russia. They remember.
- Learning from the Cold War to prevent war with Russia today.
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.