The View From Olympus: Asleep on the Beach?

The Trump Defense department is dominated by Marines. The Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, was until recently a Marine General. His number two, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work, as a Marine captain was one of my students in the seminar that put together maneuver warfare for the Marine Corps. The Chairman of the JCS, General Joseph F. Dunford Jr., is a Marine, as is his J-5 (Strategic Plans and Policy), Lt. Gen. Frank McKenzie.

All these Marines were exposed to maneuver warfare and military reform from their earliest days in the Corps onward. As the best the Marine Corps has produced, it is reasonable to think they are readers of serious military history and theory. General Mattis is notably so.

So why are we hearing nothing about military reform from any of them? So far, all the Trump administration has done in defense is add $54 billion to the budget to do more of what has not worked. Friends inside the Pentagon say it’s all just business as usual. There has not been so much as a hint of reform, a word about leading all our armed services toward Third Generation maneuver warfare.

It is not as if a well-developed agenda for military reform is lacking. That was put together in the 1980s, and most of it is relevant, mainly because we have remained as firmly stuck in the mud of Second Generation war as we were then. It begins with setting the basic components of military strength in the right order: people, ideas, and hardware. So far, DoD’s Marine leaders have continued to put hardware first with people a long way second and ideas invisible.

In personnel policy, needed reforms include vesting after ten years instead of all-or-nothing retirement at twenty; ending up-or-out promotion, and reducing the vast surplus of officers above the company grades, along with the hordes of civil servants and contractors who gum up the works. Instead, it appears that the service personnel strength increases DoD now plans will give us few if any new combat units. They merely perpetuate a personnel system that has created a Brontosaurus with three teeth.

And a brain the size of a walnut, because those Marines at the top of the system seem to have forgotten that, for about twenty years, the Marine Corps was the most intellectually innovative of our armed services. While still in uniform, General Michael Flynn testified to Congress that our problem is that we are fighting Fourth Generation wars and we have a Second Generation military. Was he the only senior official who knows this? How can Mattis, Work, Dunford, and McKenzie not know it? The Four Generations framework was first laid out in the Marine Corps Gazette in 1989. It has since echoed around the world. Did none of these Marines read it, or even hear of it? Did they all drink from the rive Lethe on assuming their current offices?

Nor is there any sign of improvement in our miserable process of weapons’ design and procurement, which continues to give us one unaffordable turkey after another, with the F-35 fighter/bomber the most egregious. President Trump himself criticized that aircraft; instead of taking advantage of his criticism to kill the program, DoD seems to have fed him the usual lies so that he now supports it.

It all brings to mind the title of the best book on the origins of World War I: The Sleepwalkers. If key DoD leaders were the usual bureaucrats and technology-hucksters, I would expect nothing else. But why are we getting business as usual from Marines? Are they asleep on the beach?

Business as usual has already given us four defeats at the hands of Fourth Generation opponents. It will give us more such defeats, plus, perhaps, defeat by state armed forces that have an OODA Loop faster than ours (and ours is glacial). With the Marine Corps now running DoD, it will bear primary responsibility, before the American people and the world, for more defeats, defeats proceeding not from what Marines did but from what they did not do. As General Hans von Seekt said, military leaders who are brilliant but who will not make decisions and act are useless. Das Wesentliche ist die Tat–the important thing is action.