Military Reform

The military Reform Movement of the 1980s, in which I participated, at one point included the Congressional Military Reform Caucus with more than 100 Members of Congress from both parties. Unusually, it was made up of both liberals and conservatives; in its early years, its two most active members were Senator Gary Hart of Colorado and Congressman Newt Gingrich of Georgia. The focus of military reform was improving our armed forces’ ability to win, i.e., effectiveness, not efficiency. But military reform had and still has the potential to save many billions of dollars as well.

The reform movement’s most basic message was that, if we want to have a winning military, people are most important, ideas come second, and hardware is only third. That is a reversal of current priorities. In personnel policy, the reformers promoted three major changes with regard to the officer corps. First, they recommended ending the up-or-out policy which forces officers to continually rise in rank or leave the service. Up-or-out rewards toadyism and careerism and penalizes combat leaders who show strong character. Related to ending up-or-out were reforms to end all-or-nothing retirement after twenty years, replacing it with vesting after twelve years, and cutting the size of the officer corps above the company grades by at least fifty percent. An over-sized officer corps robs field commanders of authority and initiative by centralizing and bureaucratizing decision-making. 

Two other personnel reforms, reaching beyond the officer corps, were important components of the reform agenda. The first was strengthening unit cohesion by stabilizing personnel for three-year intervals. The present policy of having individuals constantly arriving or leaving a unit undermines cohesion, which is the basis of why men fight. It also makes advanced training impossible and costs a great deal of money. The second personnel reform affecting a whole service was greatly raising the ratio of “teeth”, men who fight, to “tail”, people in support functions. At present, we use a large majority of our very expensive military manpower in jobs with no contact with the enemy and, often, little apparent role in giving our few fighters what they need.

That brings us to ideas, because our poor tooth-to-tail ratio is largely a product of outdated military doctrine. The present American way of war, derived from French practice during World War I, assumes that at any given time, most units are in contact with the enemy. Each combat unit therefore requires its own large logistical pipeline, or “tail”, for support. Modern maneuver warfare doctrine, in contrast, assumes that at any given time, most units are in reserve waiting to maneuver. In that situation their logistical needs are small, and a much smaller overall “tail” can be funneled to the few units in contact.

Promoting maneuver warfare doctrine was one of the reform movement’s most basic issues, and also one of its successes: the United States Marine Corps adopted maneuver doctrine in the early 1990s. In the meantime, the firepower/attrition doctrine practiced by the Army and Air Force have failed repeatedly in combat against non-state opponents, despite overwhelming physical superiority. Bringing maneuver doctrine to all our services, not just on paper but in terms of how they actually fight (a transition the Marine Corps is still attempting, holds the promise of much greater military effectiveness from services that can be smaller overall.

Hardware was third in the military reformers’ priorities because very few wars have been decided by technical advantage. However, next to manpower, it is in hardware that the greatest monetary savings are to be found—while increasing our weapons’ effectiveness. The reformers understood that good design yields simplicity, not complexity. Simplicity, in turn, improves reliability under the stresses and strains of combat and also improves affordability, allowing us to acquire the numbers of ships, planes, and tanks we need.

To obtain well-designed, affordable weapons, the reform movement argued that almost all weapons should be chosen through competitive prototyping, the prototypes being used for competitive shoot-offs and fly-offs. When this was done for combat aircraft, for the first time since World War II we obtained aircraft that performed better and cost less than their predecessors (the F-16 and the A-10). A second key reform in acquisition is insisting on independent operational test and evaluation, with no procurement until operational tests are successfully passed. One of the Reform Caucus’s successes was establishing an independent Operational Testing and Evaluation office in the Defense Department. It is of central importance that this office’s director not be beholden to any of the armed services or defense industry (thankfully, that is the case with the current director).

During the 1980s, America’s grand strategy was dictated by the Cold War: containment. The reform movement of those years therefore did not address questions of strategy. Obviously, that situation has changed, and a revived military reform movement should include a change in grand strategy among its objectives. Financially, this is where the greatest savings are to be found.

Regrettably, the Washington Establishment threw away the fruit of America’s victory in the Cold War. With the Soviet Union gone, many people expected America would return to her historic (and successful) grand strategy, in which she defended her own territory and citizens but did not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. Instead, the Establishment adopted an offensive grand strategy, in which America attempted to dictate to the rest of the world and impose her ways on them. The result has been disaster: a series of failed wars that killed and wounded tens of thousands of young Americans and cost trillions of dollars. As Russell Kirk wrote, there is no surfer way of making someone your enemy than telling him you are going to re-make him in your image for his own good.

A renewed reform movement would place returning to our historic defensive grand strategy at the top of the agenda. For what such a strategy would look like, see my cover story in the November, 2004 issue of The American Conservative, “Strategic Defense Initiative”. But in terms of what it would mean for our armed services and the defense budget, we would largely replace the active-duty Army with the National Guard, we would turn the Air Force’s non-nuclear missions over to the Air Guard and Reserve, we would maintain a Navy strong enough to control the seas but greatly reduce our capability for power projection, and we would retain a strong Marine Corps to respond quickly and effectively to attacks, especially by non-state entities, from overseas.

Put together, these reforms could certainly save at least half of the current “National Defense Function”, or about $500 billion annually. That may be an underestimate. Of equal importance, we would avoid wars our offensive grand strategy will end up creating and we would enhance our chances of victory if war is forced upon us. The obstacle to reform is now what it was in the 1980s: the Washington Establishment, which feeds richly from the trough our current defense policies have created. For an anti-Establishment administration, military reform continues to hold great promise.