The Best Defense

Picking fights: 1. with West Point . . .

Dunno why, but I've managed to pick fights with parts of the Navy and the Army at the same time. On the ground, I recommended in the Sunday edition of the Washington Post that West Point and the other service academies be closed. Here is what I wrote:

Why We Should Get Rid of West Point

By Thomas E. Ricks
Sunday, April 19, 2009

Want to trim the federal budget and improve the military at the same time? Shut down West Point, Annapolis and the Air Force Academy, and use some of the savings to expand ROTC scholarships.

After covering the U.S. military for nearly two decades, I've concluded that graduates of the service academies don't stand out compared to other officers. Yet producing them is more than twice as expensive as taking in graduates of civilian schools ($300,000 per West Point product vs. $130,000 for ROTC student). On top of the economic advantage, I've been told by some commanders that they prefer officers who come out of ROTC programs, because they tend to be better educated and less cynical about the military.

This is no knock on the academies' graduates. They are crackerjack smart and dedicated to national service. They remind me of the best of the Ivy League, but too often they're getting community-college educations. Although West Point's history and social science departments provided much intellectual firepower in rethinking the U.S. approach to Iraq, most of West Point's faculty lacks doctorates. Why not send young people to more rigorous institutions on full scholarships, and then, upon graduation, give them a military education at a short-term military school? Not only do ROTC graduates make fine officers -- three of the last six chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff reached the military that way -- they also would be educated alongside future doctors, judges, teachers, executives, mayors and members of Congress. That would be good for both the military and the society it protects.

We should also consider closing the services' war colleges, where colonels supposedly learn strategic thinking. These institutions strike me as second-rate. If we want to open the minds of rising officers and prepare them for top command, we should send them to civilian schools where their assumptions will be challenged, and where they will interact with diplomats and executives, not to a service institution where they can reinforce their biases while getting in afternoon golf games. Just ask David Petraeus, a Princeton PhD.

Photo: Flickr user: Hourman

The Best Defense

. . . and 2. with the Navy

On the water, I responded to various naval officers who noticed that I questioned in my latest book whether the Navy has had any impact on national strategy in recent years. I see raising issues like this as part of my job-that is,  speak up when I think the emperor has no clothes. The commonality in these discussions is that the denunciations are posted on blogs and websites while the attaboys are sent privately by e-mail. As David Halberstam once said to me, "That's the nature of the business. [pause] Suck it up."

Responding to my question of why the Navy hasn't had much effect on national strategy since 9/11, a friend who is a defense expert shot this back:

I would disagree with Tom; naval officers and thinkers have had a profound, but entirely negative, effect on American post-9/11 strategy: think of Mike Mullen, Fox Fallon, Giambastiani and Bill Owens.  The first two fought the surge, fought COIN (and Mullen still is), wanted to bug out of Iraq, favored a "light footprint" and "offshore balancing," etc. etc.  The latter two were apostles of "transformation" of the "transparent battlefield" variety, which led us down a very bad and wrong path.

Meanwhile, here's a comment from an active-duty Navy officer whose name cannot be used here:

The reason the Navy doesn't have the sorts of folks like H.R. McMaster or John Nagl is that our personnel system is set up to discourage folks from taking the opportunities that would give them the knowledge base they need to do it. When I was selected to go to a fellowship at RAND I was counseled that it would negatively impact my chance to screen for command, primarily because the tour would result in a not observed fitness report, which doesn't look good up against the guy that goes and works in an office somewhere, but gets an observed fitrep. I decided that 9 months at RAND couldn't really be that big of an impact, and I would volunteer to go back to sea again after to make up for it, but it was a big impact, despite co-authoring two studies and participating in several project teams. Then when I was accepted to the PhD program in security studies . . . , I was all but told that I would not select for command if I came here, again because of the not observed fitness reports.  We are never going to have warfighters and strategists with the requisite knowledge skills in both sides of that coin if folks have to choose one or the other.  When people point out that Admiral Stavridis managed to get a PhD, from Fletcher no less, and still say competitive up the chain--this is an argument I've heard--I'd say it's not fair to point to one of the most brilliant naval officers in decades as the example, and there are very few others, of how the system works well. 

 . . . I wish we had more naval officers engaged in the national debate over grand strategy, as I think the Navy has a big part to play in it, and our skills sets as naval officers tend to be a bit broader than in some of the other services as we are routinely forward deployed working with allies and friends, engaged with activities beyond the limits of traditional warfighting.  Unfortunately, the best contribution the Navy's added to the national security debate in years might just be the three unnamed snipers who took out those teenage pirates on Easter Sunday.  However capable we are at completing the mission given us, if we don't have a voice in the debate over what the right mission is, or what the right strategy and policy should be, we are selling ourselves short.

Photo: Flickr user Amanda M Hatfield