Time for different path to military reform

Summary: A vignette shows why our military has become dysfunctional, unable to win the wars we fight today – and probably tomorrow’s, as well.

Time for Change - Dreamstime-21994337
Time for Change – Dreamstime-21994337.


Army estimates $45 billion total price tag –
or $11 million per vehicle – for OMFV.

Inside Defense, 12 October 2019.
“The Army estimates the Bradley replacement program will cost $45 billion to develop and procure …the Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle.”

For comparision, the German’s proven Puma Infantry Fighting Vehicle costs $9.4 million (we could probably buy them for less). Long bitter experience suggests that the final cost for the Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle will be twice (or more) than the initial $11 million each. And it has high odds of grossly underperforming its specs, or being canceled. But this is not why our military cannot be reformed.

This story provoked the usual comments, such as the one billion six million nine hundred thousand and sixty-second version of this: “Stupidity on stilts!” That is why the military cannot be reformed: reformers refuse to understand how the system works, let alone identify the weak points that allow it to be wrecked.

The system works just fine for the people in it: Congressfolk get campaign donations (and other perks), military officers working the machine get rapid promotion plus lucrative post-retirement careers, and defense contractors get profits. Saying that these people are “stupid” is both inaccurate and ineffective. Mocking these successful people is like throwing spitballs at an Abrams tank. No matter how enjoyable, it accomplishes nothing. As they say in Silicon Valley when people mock their giant unprofitable companies: “you just don’t get it” (that’s a similar game, with everybody at the top, from bankers to executives, well-rewarded).

Our trillion dollar “defense” budget is another example of America’s grifter economy. Other examples are Wall Street, much of the tech industry, and (especially) health care (we pay twice or three times as much for health care as our peer nations, with similar outcomes). But there is a deeper level to this game than building ineffective “weapons systems” such as the F-35 and the Ford-class aircraft carriers.

Why they do it

“When dishonest carnival game operators found someone who they could entice to keep playing their gaffed (rigged) game, they would “mark” the individual by patting their back with a hand that had chalk on it. Other game operators would then look for these chalk marks and entice the individuals to also play their rigged game. {From Wikipedia.}

The big question is, as usual, “why?” Why are the people running the military-industrial-complex doing this? Are they monsters, strip mining the treasury and putting America at risk? As every marriage counselor knows, we can only guess at why people behave as they do. But we can work backwards, finding an explanation that justifies their actions. They see us as marks.

“Never give a sucker an even break or smarten up a chump.”
— W. C. Fields in You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939).

What is the result of these defense boondoggles? Will the Ruskies stream through Poland, breach the Fulda Gap, cross the Rhine, and conquer Europe? NATO forces are vastly superior to Russia’s, no surprise given their greater population and GDP. Even paid hawks, like RAND, see even a limited war (e.g., Russia attacking the Baltic States) as unlikely. By “unlikely” they mean with high odds of failure, perhaps catastrophically – and small gains (which is why the Soviet Union gave up Eastern Europe).

Will China attack Taiwan, with our Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicles fighting the PLA? Will the OMFVs, F-35s, and Ford super-carriers allow the US to reverse the near-perfect record of local insurgents defeating foreign armies? So we pay taxes, and the MIC shifts that money into the pockets of people smarter than us.

“If God didn’t want them sheared, he would not have made them sheep.”
— Calvera, bandit leader in the movie The Magnificent Seven (1960).

As Lion King Mufasa tells his son, Simba – there are predators and there are prey. This is the Great Circle of Life. But unlike animals, for us being prey is a choice.

See all those antelope? It is our right to eat them.

The Lion King

Military reform

Reformers have played this game for decades, condemning each new generation of ineffective reforms and expensive equipment. In Alcoholics Anonymous they describe this: “Insanity is repeating the same behavior but expecting a different result.” Apparently the Academy no longer teaches basic game theory.

Chess or Go?

What are alternative approaches to power military reform? First, organize. From the Founders through the Civil Rights Movement to today’s Leftist revolutionaries, organizing is a requirement for success. It can be an alliance of groups working together. In the real world, Lone Rangers lose.

Second, develop a common vision about the purpose of the military. What is the mission? Now it is military Keynesianism, taxing and borrowing to fund government spending that generates profits and jobs (with due rewards for those who make the system work). It is the fiscal stimulus that even conservatives love. It works well, with immense stability.

You cannot beat something with nothing. There are many other visions out there. Pick one, or develop a synthesis. Here are some books rich with ideas about the missions of the military and how best to accomplish them.

Third, find the weak point in the MIC. My guess: describe it as corrupt. Message discipline is another key to success. Every analysis should focus on the corruption of the process and the people involved. That it does not build a military capable of victory.

Fourth, build alliances. Some are obvious. Find groups who want to either reduce or redirect government spending. The vast amount of military spending makes the MIC power. But it makes the MIC vulnerable to other special interests who want some of that cash – and who will ally with military reforms to get it.  Also, find groups who benefit from a new vision for the mission of the armed forces.

Most importantly, show people that the grifter economy can be defeated and that America can be reformed.

For More Information

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 generals, about our officer corps, about ways to reform the military, and especially these …

  1. Overhauling The Officer Corps to build a military that can win wars – by David Evans (Lieutenant Colonel, USMC, retired).
  2. Reforming the US Army: can be done, must be done – by Don Vandergriff (Major, US Army, retired).
  3. Careerism and Psychopathy in the US Military – by G. I. Wilson (Colonel, USMC, retired).
  4. How the US Army decayed. Does anyone want to fix it? – by Douglas Macgregor (Colonel, US Army, retired).
  5. About the US Army’s leadership problem – by Don Vandergriff.
  6. A path to desperately needed reform of the US military.
  7. The Left will reform our military until it breaks.
  8. America’s military needs reform, but few can say why.

An example of successful military reform

Against the Tide: Rickover's Leadership Principles and the Rise of the Nuclear Navy
Available at Amazon.

Against the Tide:
Rickover’s Leadership Principles and
the Rise of the Nuclear Navy

By Dave Oliver (Rear Admiral, USN, retired).

See my review: Admiral Rickover’s gift to us: showing that we can reform America’s military. From the publisher …

Against the Tide is a leadership book that illustrates how Adm. Hyman Rickover made a unique impact on American and Navy culture. Dave Oliver is the first former nuclear submarine commander who sailed for the venerable admiral to write about Rickover’s management techniques. Oliver draws upon a wealth of untold stories to show how one man changed American and Navy culture while altering the course of history.

“The driving force behind America’s nuclear submarine navy, Rickover revolutionized naval warfare while concurrently proving to be a wellspring of innovation that drove American technology in the latter half of the twentieth-century. As a testament to his success, Rickover’s single-minded focus on safety protected both American citizens and sailors from nuclear contamination, a record that is in stark contrast to the dozens of nuclear reactor accidents suffered by the Russians.

“While Rickover has been the subject of a number of biographies, little has been written about his unique management practices that changed the culture of a two-hundred-year-old institution and affected the outcome of the Cold War. Rickover’s achievements have been obscured because they were largely conducted in secret and because he possessed a demanding and abrasive personality that alienated many potential supporters. Nevertheless he was an extraordinary manager with significant lessons for all those in decision-making positions.

“The author had the good fortune to know and to serve under Rickover during much of his thirty-year career in the Navy and is singularly qualified to demonstrate the management and leadership principles behind Rickover’s success.”


11 thoughts on “Time for different path to military reform”

  1. I first read Against the Tide when I was initially hired a nuclear test engineer at the Newport News Shipyard. They loaned out copies during my lockout/tagout training

    I wish Donald Rumsfeld and Ray Mabus had read it haha.

  2. The people in the military also include the troops. They – and their role – cannot be excluded from any discussion of the military industrial complex.

    The over glorification of the troops and of veterans is no small part of the problem.

    Their various benefits are no small part of the military Keynesianism to which you refer.

    1. Duncan,

      “The people in the military also include the troops.”

      There are a thousand and one factors to consider. This is a thousand-word essay, not a book. It looks at the conceptual basis of military reform. It is not a detailed discussion of the moving parts.

      “The over glorification of the troops and of veterans is no small part of the problem.”

      I doubt that. They’re certainly not overpaid, so that “overglorification” is much like calling the guys that collect garbage “sanitary engineers.” They like the glory of that fine title, but would prefer more money.

  3. Of course you cannot discuss all moving parts. I was merely trying to chip in.

    Regarding over-glorification of the troops, it is a recognized topic. Here is the google search. People may browse the numerous articles on point.


    Regrettably, I cannot debate this matter further. I need to log onto Orvis to buy a sweater. Regrettably, I will have to grind my teeth, as I do not qualify for the veterans’ discount they offer. Still, that is better than shopping at the mall, where I would have to duck around the special veterans’ parking spaces.

    1. Ah, the occasional 5 percent discount and non-existent veteran’s parking spaces.
      Livin’ the dream!
      You’ll just have to wait until you get those much better senior discounts.

    1. Chet,

      Thank you for posting that. It sounds fascinating; I’ll read with interest.

      It reminds me of the classic Star Trek episode, “The Corbomite Maneuver.” In it, their opponent is playing chess. Kirk decides that his move will be to bluff with four of a kind.

      KIRK: What’s the matter with them out there? They must know we mean them no harm.
      SPOCK: They’re certainly aware by now that we’re totally incapable of it.
      KIRK: There must be something to do, something I’ve overlooked.
      SPOCK: In chess, when one is outmatched, the game is over. Checkmate.
      KIRK: Is that your best recommendation?
      SPOCK: I regret that I can find no other logical alternative.
      KIRK: Not chess, Mister Spock, poker. Do you know the game? Ship to ship. …

  4. Behind Enemy Lines

    The system works just fine for the people in it.

    This is the first part of the problem. The next part of the problem is that, in a practical sense, the people in the system are the only ones who get to make a decision about the system. The final part is that the system includes most of the legislature and large swathes of the executive.

    Consequently, reform (other than marginal patches and bandaid ‘solutions’) is impossible without replacing the system and the people in it.

    Meanwhile, arguing about it, making policy suggestions, writing letters and editorials, organizing and influencing . . . this is not a new path. This is the same old path and it’ll make the same old marginal progress.

    I’m not a complete pessimist, but my impression is that it will take a catastrophic military defeat to serve as a wake up call to fix what is wrong with defense and defense procurement. Witness WWII, Korea, Viet Nam . . . well, the list goes on, doesn’t it.

    However, unlike the slower-paced world of the past, I don’t think the US can still take such a defeat and still have the depth of time, geography and resources to fall back, regroup, fix things and return to the offensive.

    It is just barely possible that an RMA could be sparked by an RPA (Revolution In Political Affairs). But if fixing the grifter economy in the defense sector is next to impossible . . . how much harder to fix the grifter economy as a whole?

    I don’t suggest giving up. We just need to be realistic about what we’re up against.

    1. Behind Enemy Lines,

      “The next part of the problem is that, in a practical sense, the people in the system are the only ones who get to make a decision about the system.”

      Absurd. Elections are held every two years. Congress has total control over these processes. The people involved will change their behavior instantly when the rules change, from Congress down.

      “Consequently, reform (other than marginal patches and bandaid ‘solutions’) is impossible without replacing the system and the people in it.”

      I get this with every single discussion about reform in America. People define the problem in grossly exaggerated form. My guess (guess) is that this is our way of surrendering.

      1. Behind Enemy Lines

        No, not absurd. We have self-selected, self-sustaining system of defense planning and procurement.

        Every two years the vast majority of standing representatives are reelected. The relatively few replacements come mostly from within the political system’s farm teams. Those who don’t get with the program don’t end up with serious committee positions, while guys like Ike Skelton remain inside the tent for generations. Meanwhile, public servants right up to cabinet level remain in place year after year. Senior military officers have to pass Congressional scrutiny for promotion. People in the machine routinely shunt between government and private sector defense jobs.

        In other words . . . it’s a system, and the people within the system tend to stay within the system, and they are the ones who run it, and they run it to their own benefit.

        We won’t fix this by doubling down on the letters to Congressmen or writing editorials.

        In theory, we might fix this by collectively replacing Congressmen (etc) with people from outside the system. However, the 2018 elections suggest that’s too long a stretch.

        Now, if you get this sort of answer every time you raise reform in America, perhaps you should consider whether you’re on the right side of the argument. Perhaps the problem really is every bit as big as people are telling you.

        Einstein is quoted (true or not, I can’t say) to the effect that ‘If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.’

        Recognizing the massive wicked problem we have with defense, which has successfully resisted permanent reform since Civil War days, is hardly a case of surrender. It’s an essential first step in developing a practical strategy for fixing things.

        Time for new approaches. Before we get one imposed on us by (for example) China.

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