The Best Defense

The Royal Navy failure was one of imagination, so cutting the size of the U.S. military might not force innovation

By Michael Horowitz
Best Defense guest columnist

I read your recent Washington Post column on the adaptability of U.S. forces with great interest, since building a force that is adaptable for the future, rather than just prepared for one particular future, is essential for U.S. forces to remain the best in the world over the next generation. Your key argument is that a smaller U.S. military would be more adaptable and innovative.

But will resource constraints lead to more innovation? For smaller to lead to "smarter," the Department of Defense will have to respond to budgetary pressure by allocating more resources to innovative experimentation -- both in terms of operational concepts and technology, among other things.

The problem is that established powers like the United States often face pressure to do the opposite -- to double down in favor of status quo platforms and planning, because those are what people know. As I argue in my book on military innovation, new technologies and operational concepts, lacking built-in constituencies and powerful institutional support, can often end up as the first on the chopping block, rather than as a focal point for the future. Wrestling with this challenge will be critical in the years ahead.

Turning to history and thinking about U.S. forces during the inter-war period, it is not clear that the small size of the U.S. Navy, relative to the British Navy, is what drove adaptability on the American side. The U.S. Navy was actually quite sizable, in a relative sense, after WWI. Until it collapsed, the Washington Naval Treaty locked in relative naval tonnage equivalence for the United States and Great Britain, with the other powers required to lag behind. Yet the U.S. Navy was committed to experimentation and lacked the sclerotic commitment to the battleship that the British generally demonstrated. Supported by the leadership of Admiral Sims and others at the Naval War College, and Admiral Moffet at the Bureau of Aeronautics, the U.S. Navy learned how to exploit the advantages of the aircraft carrier through real world experiments and tabletop exercises. More generally, U.S. forces in the inter-war period demonstrated a significant capacity to innovate, not only with carriers, but in other areas as well (amphibious warfare concepts, for example). Essentially, it is not clear that resource constraints primarily drove that innovation by U.S. forces.

Along with innovation by U.S. forces in the inter-war period came planning -- even planning for a particular adversary. The post-World War I U.S. military created a series of "Color Plans" to plan for potential future wars. Included among these was "Plan Orange," which sketched out plans for a war against Japan (see the Edward Miller book on the topic or the relevant section in Ronald Spector's excellent book on the Pacific theater of WWII). Yet rather than constraining U.S. forces into a box that undermined their performance during the war, historians and scholars of military innovation tend to consider this planning a success. After the war, Admiral Chester Nimitz said, "The war with Japan had been enacted in the game rooms at the War College by so many people and in so many different ways that nothing that happened during the war was a surprise -- absolutely nothing except the kamikaze tactics toward the end of the war. We had not visualized these."

On the British side, from the perspective of my research, the key factor that drove the British understanding of the aircraft carrier prior to World War II was not necessarily size, per se. Instead, in some ways, the British were victims of their own past success (a crucial lesson for the U.S. military today). With a track record of naval dominance and powerful institutional interests that funneled most thinking about new technology towards how they could support the battleship, the British experienced a failure of imagination. It was a combination of their high organizational age due to past success (which expanded the number of veto points that could block innovative change), and their narrow critical task focus (viewing success as delivering steel on target through gunnery), that meant the Brits had low "adoption capacity." This made it extremely difficult for them to adopt carrier warfare in the inter-war period and early years of World War II. Size certainly mattered -- but the British Navy's struggles with the aircraft carrier were due to more than size.

Michael Horowitz is an associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. He is spending the 2013 year as an international affairs fellow, funded by the Council on Foreign Relations, working for the deputy assistant secretary of defense for force development in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the U.S. government or Department of Defense.


The Best Defense

Hey, New York Times: For the military you want, pay should be the last thing cut

By Matthew Cancian
Best Defense bureau of military compensation and cultural affairs

The New York Times recently ran an editorial titled 'Putting Military Pay On The Table', a title that conveniently suggests both the subject and the position. I must admit some puzzlement that the left-leaning Times would criticize the most socialist pay structure in our country. For our servicemen there is job counseling for dependents, child care, subsidized food, and single-payer health care to name some benefits, all of which would be more at home in Scandinavia than in America (a fact that I hadn't quite appreciated when I was in).

The critique by the Times is made more baffling because it follows the recent circulation in New York Times-reading circles of a Bloomberg piece on the ratio of executive pay and compensation to those of the median employee; McDonald's, America's third largest employer (behind the DOD and Walmart), has a ratio of 351:1. With E-5 being the median pay grade in the military, assuming six years of service, the ratio of base pay between an O-9 and the median is just below 6:1. This is in keeping with a shared ethos of brotherhood and entirely appropriate when those at the bottom of the pay scale are in greater danger than those at the top. Additionally, in support of their position, the Times editorial cites a study by the Congressional Budget Office that states that "between 2001 and 2012, when private-sector wages were effectively flat, basic military pay rose by 28 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars." It's almost as if something significant occurred during these years for our military that made higher pay both practically necessary and morally imperative...

All this being said, there are some areas where changes are not only acceptable, but even advisable. The current structure of paying for dependents incentivizes premature marriages that cost the military money, distract from personnel readiness, and most importantly often ruins the lives of young servicemen (to quote a battalion JAG: "I swear to God, if I have to process one more divorce with a woman named 'Cinnamon'..."). Eliminating the dependent bonus for grades E-1 through E-3 (and, to be fair, O-1 and O-2) would help to reduce the number of these premature marriages while still providing benefits to those servicemen who are more mature.

Another measure that would reduce pay and compensation expenses is the decentralization of separations procedures. As the Marines did with the Expeditious Discharge Program of the late 1970s, the authority to grant honorable or general discharges should be delegated to O-4s; other-than-honorable discharges should be delegated to O-5s (as the Navy already does). Servicemen with disciplinary problems would be separated faster and commanders would have more control over their personnel. While we would prefer not to pay to train servicemen just to kick them out in their units, this procedural change admits that the initial screening process isn't perfect and instead looks to save money by not paying for an unmotivated troublemaker to finish his or her contract.

The best defense for our country is not having bleeding edge technology or huge stockpiles of munitions; it's having the best minds in our military, a point that is made throughout Tom Ricks's book The Generals. Cutting military pay across the board directly attacks what should be the cornerstone of our defense policy by reducing the financial incentives that ensure that the military gets the best material it can. To go to extremes, if the Marines I deployed with traded gear with the Afghan soldiers we advised, I have no doubt that the Marines would still be the superior force. Some tweaks will help keep it that way; major reductions will not.

Matthew Cancian deployed to Sangin, Afghanistan in 2011 with 1st Battalion, 5th Marines. He currently resides in Triple A Pawtucket, RI. He has left active duty and is applying to grad school, and would be glad to help with your research until he matriculates.