The Best Defense

Want a better U.S. military? First make it smaller -- because preparedness now is really about adaptiveness, not readiness

Best Defense is in summer re-runs. This item originally ran on December 9, 2013.

Here is a piece I had in the Washington Post on December 6:

"Want a better U.S. military? Make it smaller. The bigger the military, the more time it must spend taking care of itself and maintaining its structure as it is, instead of changing with the times. And changing is what the U.S. military must begin to do as it recovers from the past decade's two wars.

For example, the Navy recently christened the USS Gerald R. Ford , an aircraft carrier that cost perhaps $13.5 billion. Its modern aspects include a smaller crew, better radar and a different means of launching aircraft, but it basically looks like the carriers the United States has built for the past half-century. And that means it has a huge "radar signature," making it highly visible. That could be dangerous in an era of global satellite imagery and long-range precision missiles, neither of which existed when the Ford's first predecessors were built. As Capt. Henry Hendrix, a naval historian and aviator, wrote this year, today's carrier, like the massive battleships that preceded it, is "big, expensive, vulnerable -- and surprisingly irrelevant to the conflicts of the time." What use is a carrier if the missiles that can hit it have a range twice as long as that of the carrier's aircraft?

Indeed, if the U.S. Navy persists in its current acquisition course, it runs the risk of being like the Royal Navy that entered World War II. As ours is today, the British navy then was the world's biggest and could throw more firepower than any other sea service. Yet it proved largely irrelevant in that war because its leaders had missed the growing significance of submarines and aircraft carriers, not grasping how both had changed the nature of maritime warfare. They thought of carriers as scout ships, providing far-seeing eyes for battleships, when, in fact, carrier aircraft had replaced battleships as the striking arm of the fleet.

Yes, the Royal Navy won the Battle of the Atlantic -- but that's partly because the United States gave it destroyers and other escort ships the admirals had neglected, as well as some crucial long-range land-based aircraft. (One-third of U-boats sunk were hit by aircraft, with another third knocked out by combined air and surface-ship action.)

The issue, therefore, is how to have not the most powerful military today but rather the most relevant military at the point of necessity -- a point that cannot be known. To have that, the United States needs a military that is not necessarily "ready for combat" at any given moment but instead is most able to adapt to the events of tomorrow.

The wrong way to prepare is to try to anticipate what the next war will be and then build a military -- on land, sea and air -- that fits that bill. Guesses about the future will almost certainly be wrong. In 2000, no one thought we would invade Afghanistan the following year. In 1953, Vietnam was a faraway country about which Americans knew little. In 1949, Korea was thought likely to be beyond our defense perimeter. And so on.

The best form of preparedness is to develop a military that is most able to adapt. It should be small and nimble. Its officers should be educated as well as trained because one trains for the known but educates for the unknown -- that is, prepares officers to think critically as they go into chaotic, difficult and new situations.

Eugenia Kiesling, a professor of history at West Point, observed that in the period between the world wars, "Smaller forces brought fewer logistical constraints and more rapid adaptation to changes in technology." That observation is an argument not for a big jack-of-all-trades military but for one that is smaller and optimized through its spending to be nimble.

My point is not to beat up on the Navy. All branches of the U.S. military face the same issue. By and large, the United States still has an Industrial Age military in an Information Age world. With some exceptions, the focus is more on producing mass strength than achieving precision. Land forces, in particular, need to think less about relying on big bases and more about being able to survive in an era of persistent global surveillance. For example, what will happen when the technological advances of the past decade, such as armed drones controlled from the far side of the planet, are turned against us? A drone is little more than a flying improvised explosive device. What if terrorists find ways to send them to Washington addresses they obtain from the Internet?

Imagine a world where, in a few decades, Google (having acquired Palantir) is the world's largest defense contractor. Would we want generals who think more like George Patton or Steve Jobs -- or who offer a bit of both? How do we get them? These are the sorts of questions the Pentagon should begin addressing. If it does not, we should find leaders -- civilian and in uniform -- who will."

via CNAS

The Best Defense

NDU: An investigation, MPs at the door, sudden leave and command climate Qs


You may remember that we've discussed troubles at the National Defense University before, and especially those involving its president, Maj. Gen. Gregg Martin. Here is a hair-raising update from an insider:


"1- MG Martin is under investigation, as directed by the Joint Staff, by an officer of equal or greater rank.  The nature of the investigation is undeclared but likely involves:

a. The placement of MP guards at his quarters based on perceived threats.

b. Was placed on leave and directed not to engage in official university business. Has been attempting to hold meetings off post/at his quarters.

c. NDU command climate survey; I guess the results were pretty damning.

d. A privately owned weapon may have been involved (not fired, but present); on University grounds.

e. Was directed to have a mental health evaluation; unknown diagnosis.

2- NDU-P is on leave now for an undeclared amount of time. Type of leave unknown (Emergency, Convalescent, Regular, etc)

3- AMB Nesbitt (NDU Senior Vice President) is serving all NDU-P administrative functions until further notice (hiring actions, awards, etc).

4- The BO-JET will continue this year as planned/briefed...we are simply too close to execution to turn the ship around. JSOMA is still unaffected."

Tom again: On Friday, I wrote to General Martin asking for his comment on this. He promptly responded, "thanks for the note. Am on leave, so passing this on to key leaders." (None of those key leaders responded.) When I wrote back to ask what kind of leave the general is on, he declined to say.  I also asked spokesmen for NDU and for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for comment. None so far.

So I poked around and was told that things are bad, but probably not as bad as the note above makes it look. General Martin apparently has some family problems, and that, combined with the stress of the job, compelled him to take leave. (And that strikes me as the right thing to do--for himself, his family, and NDU.) The investigation, conducted by a Marine three-star, was completed in a day. He concluded that there was no personal threat to General Martin. After that inquiry was completed, the MP guard was removed.

The command climate survey is still underway, and the results aren't likely to be good. The National Defense University is not, I think, a happy place. "NDU is in catastrophically bad shape," one employee told me. "It is the most dysfunctional organization I've seen in three and a half decades years of working for DoD, and steadily getting worse."   

Not a happy place. And new class arrives in a few weeks. I can't imagine a civilian university being run this way.