The View From Olympus: What it Takes to Win

Last month, President Trump took an important first step toward ending our military’s string of defeats by Fourth Generation opponents: he acknowledged we have lost. The president said, according to the February 28 New York Times,

We have to start winning wars again. I have to say, when I was young, in high school and college, everybody used to say we never lost a war. We never lost a war, remember? And now we never win a war. We never win. And don’t fight to win. We don’t fight to win. We’ve either got to win or don’t fight at all.

Unfortunately, the president followed this important realization with a measure that will do nothing to improve our chances of winning. He increased the defense budget by $54 billion. This is a classic case of doing more of the same and expecting a different result.

If one thing should be obvious about our defeats by Fourth Generation opponents, it is that they did not outspend us. America’s total defense spending, as measured by the Budget Committee’s “National Defense Function”, is about a trillion dollars a year. Hezbollah, Somali warlords, Iraqi militias, and the Taliban have budgets in the millions of dollars, at most. If we graphed their spending and ours on the same scale, theirs would not be visible. But we still lost.

I’m sure President Trump is aware he knows little about militaries. It is logical he would therefore rely heavily on his advisors. But General Flynn, whose departure I think a loss to the country, understood the real problem. Before his military retirement, he testified to Congress that our weakness is that we are fighting Fourth Generation wars and we have a Second Generation military. Secretary of Defense Mattis is very well-read in military history and theory. Surely he recognizes that more money, a quantitative solution, will not fix qualitative problems such as outdated doctrine, over-officering, and institutional cultures that range from merely dysfunctional to downright poisonous (the Army and Air Force).

To win, we need military reform. The agenda laid out by the military reform movement of the 1980s remains largely valid. It begins by setting priorities straight: to win wars, people are most important, ideas come second, and hardware is a distant third. Current policy inverts that pyramid, with hardware (and the budgets it justifies) first and the other two hardly visible.

Putting people first means reforms such as promoting different kinds of men (more leaders and risk-takers, fewer ass-kissers and bureaucrats), reducing the number of officers above the company grades by at least 50%, getting rid of the horde of civil servants and contractors that now clutter up our armed services, ending all-0r-nothing retirement vesting at 20 years (which undermines moral courage), abolishing the up-or-out promotion system (which forces officers to be careerists), and revamping both officer and enlisted personnel policies to create cohesive units with long-term personnel stability. A curse that has fallen on our armed services since the 1980s must also be lifted: get women out of the combat units and out of any roles in which combat might find them. The way we incorporated women in World War II offers a workable model for current policy.

In terms of ideas, we need to move our doctrine from the Second to the Third Generation: from dumping firepower on opponents in a contest of attrition to maneuver warfare. Maneuver warfare must, however, be real doctrine, what our Marines, soldiers, sailors, and airmen actually do, not just words on paper. Nor is that enough: once we have institutionalized the culture of maneuver warfare, with its outward focus on combat results, we must tackle the difficult intellectual challenge posed by 4GW. That will be a long-term effort, because 4GW is itself evolving in a process likely to take most of this century.

In hardware, good design normally yields simplicity, not complexity. Weapons’ designs must be based on combat history, not the self-interested claims of technology hucksters. We must remember that most complex systems have simple counters and that automated systems cannot deal with situations not envisioned by their designers (who are engineers, not soldiers). All major weapons should be chosen by competitive flyoffs and shootoffs and none should be produced until they have passed operational testing and evaluation.

None of this is new. But it is what Secretary Mattis needs to do if he is to give President Trump what he wants: a military that wins. Absent reform, $54 billion just digs the hole we’re in a little deeper.