Culture, Budget, and the Virus

  • by Pete O'Brien
  • 05-10-2020
Mr. Braithwaite, nominee to be the next Secretary of the Navy, noted that: “the Department of the Navy is in rough waters due to many factors, but primarily the failure of leadership.” He went on to say that: “It is my No. 1 priority, if I am confirmed, to restore the appropriate culture in the United States Navy.”
Certainly there’s something to be said for the idea that changes in society have undermined the culture of war fighting and especially war winning in the last 25 years or so. But how the services responded to those changes rests with the words and actions of the senior officers in all the services; in many respects they failed to respond properly. Now it needs to be fixed.
Meanwhile, as we face the ongoing problems of the Wuhan virus and now seriously damaged economy, we’re hearing cries for a reduced defense budget, and that, of course, the DOD’s lack of preparation for the virus is a demonstration that the DOD had once again failed to prepare for the next threat, and focused on the wrong thing. Hmmm…
Before we look at that, consider this: in the early 1980s the US had 20 aircraft carriers; by the early 90s that number was 14. Now we have 11. The talk is that perhaps that number should shrink to 9.
I’m not going into the issue here of whether or not we need carriers anymore, I’m just using those numbers as an example. Similar shrinking can be found in virtually every major weapon system in the US, from destroyers and submarines to tanks, bombers, fighters, and artillery pieces. From nuclear bombs to portable latrines, the US military as a whole has been shrinking for decades. After just 4 years of expansion during Reagan’s first term, US forces have pretty much been on a diet for 35 years. Yes, there was an increase in size and funding in the 4 years after the attack on September 11th, with total spending reading almost 5% of GDP. Then it started down again. It’s worth noting that the national security budget under Reagan was a bit more than 6% but under Kennedy was 9% of GDP. For the last 5 years it has remained under 4% and seems to be settling towards 3%.
And, for the last 20 years we have been using these ships, aircraft, men and all the associated gear at an increased rate. Much of it now needs replacement. 
Meanwhile the services keep having troubles: the Navy in particular seems to have spent much of the last two decades going from one miss-step to another, collisions at sea, procurement overruns, ships not ready for sea, repeated readiness issues; the latest being the situation on USS Roosevelt.
And elsewhere…
Last week General Charles Brown, USAF, Commander US Air Force Pacific, and soon to be Chief of Staff of the Air Force, was asked a simple question: Was the Air Force large enough (did it have enough squadrons) to carry out its missions in the national defense strategy? Gen. Brown answered “To an extent.” Hmmm… The AF maintains it needs 386 squadrons to meet all its missions; it does not have 386 squadrons. In fact, it probably won’t reach 386 squadrons any time soon. But it can carry out its missions — to an extent. So less than 386 is enough to meet the missions assigned — which require 386 squadrons. Huh?
Admirals and generals are often asked this sort of question (Do you have enough?) when they find themselves in front of some senator. And they always answer a la Gen. Brown: “Sorta! But we need more.”
So, which is it?
In fact, the right answer is another question: “How much risk are you willing to accept?” In combat more risk means sinking ships, dead sailors, and all the rest.
And what about the virus and bio warfare? You can easily find articles that lambaste the military for not being prepared for biological warfare. This is more or less true. And there are reasons for that: it’s very difficult, it’s very expensive, there are trade-offs, and it comes with a great deal of baggage. 
For the sake of brevity, just remember the hullabaloo that followed the effort to vaccinate everyone in DOD against anthrax…
Which leaves us where? Three major points (there are many more):
1) National Security is complex, every element is related to every other piece. So every choice is tough. And potential enemies are as well aware of that as we are. Said differently, if you build the best air defense grid in the world, they’re not going to attack you with airplanes. Then the arm-chair field-marshals will opine: “What a waste, you guys are SO stupid. Everyone knew the real threat was from dolphins with laser beams.”
2) The world of intelligence has been undergoing massive change in the last 50 years and the pace is accelerating. If you want evidence of that, take a look at what’s available in a commercially available product like Jane’s Intelligence Review. And so, there is very, very little about the militaries of the West, and all our training and intentions, that aren’t fully known by our enemies and potential enemies.
3) The DOD needs to do a much better job understanding Americans. The generals need to both understand what is going on, on Main Street, AND they need to learn to communicate with Main Street as to what the services are doing and why; they need to listen MUCH better to the civilian side of things, particularly to the average American, whether in El Paso, Little Rock or Halliday, North Dakota. 
There’s a final point: there’s an old saw that you don’t fight a war with the army you want, but with the army you’ve got. The problem is that that’s only partly true. You obviously start any war with the army you’ve got, but in every war we’ve fought we’ve ended that war with new weapons, new tactics, new technologies, new organizations, new understanding. Even in as short a campaign as Desert Storm new technologies were developed and fielded in a matter of just a few weeks.
Why is that important? Because we need to resist the idea that we need to come up with all the right “technologies” right now, that these technologies will win the war. We can’t and they won’t. We need to remember that things are not the most important part, people actually are. And that means we need better leadership in uniform.

Pete O’Brien is a Senior Fellow at the London Center for Policy Research, a retired Naval Officer and a successful business owner.