On War #286: America’s Defense Meltdown

by William S. Lind
15 December 2008

America’s Defense Meltdown is the title of a new book on military reform, edited by Winslow Wheeler and published by the Center for Defense Information. In it, some of the leading figures from the military reform movement of the 1970’s and ‘80’s update their work and relate it to today’s challenges, including that posed by Fourth Generation war.

The book is timely. For years, Chuck Spinney and I have said that there will be no reform until the money simply isn’t there anymore. If that day has not yet arrived, it is on the calendar. The combination of a severe recession or depression and vast New Deal-type public works programs means something has to give. As the largest element in the discretionary federal budget, defense spending is an obvious target. More, it is a worthy target, in that much of what we spend buys little or no capability. The problem is not only mismanagement, but outdated and fundamentally wrongheaded approaches to war.

The latter are the focus of America’s Defense Meltdown, although the book addresses financial and managerial issues. Here, I want to focus on three chapters, the three most innovative (I leave my own two chapters, on the Marine Corps and the Navy, for others to weigh). The first is Chet Richards, “Shattering Illusions: A National Security Strategy for 2009-2017.”

In its first incarnation in the 1970’s and 1980’s, the military reform movement deliberately avoided the subject of strategy. It did so because the Cold War locked the U.S. into worshipping the great clay god NATO, which is to say into a continental strategy. Then as now a maritime strategy made better sense, but anyone who questioned the holiness of NATO was cast into outer darkness. So we bit our tongues and bided our time.

Now, with the Cold War over and the challenge of 4GW upon us, a debate over strategy is urgent. Chet Richards launches it con brio, arguing that we must determine what state militaries can and cannot do in a Fourth Generation world. Then, we must stop asking our armed services to do things that are impossible for them, like turning fly-blown, flea-bitten Third World hellholes into Switzerland. More, we should stop buying forces that are useless or worse for the types of conflicts we are likely to face.

Chet may disagree, but I think that in his chapter he moves closer to what I have advocated for years, namely a defensive rather than an offensive grand strategy. In any event he puts the subject of strategy on the table, which is vitally important. Because a higher level of war dominates a lower, if you don’t get your strategy right, no matter what you do at the tactical and operational levels, you lose.

The book’s second brilliant chapter is by Pierre Sprey and Bob Dilger, “Reversing the Decay of American Air Power.” In it, the authors chop up the idea of “winning through air power,” aka strategic bombing, and flush down war’s cloaca maxima.

More, they explain in detail how we can build an air force that can really make a difference in wars’ outcomes and do so for less money than we are spending now. The key idea is simple, and well supported by military history: build an air force that works in close union with ground forces.

A personal anecdote: Years ago, I was asked by a thoughtful SAC commander (yes, there was one), “What am I supposed to do with 18 B-2 bombers?” I replied, “Tow them around to county fairs and charge admission.”

My favorite chapter in America’s Defense Meltdown is Bruce Gudmundsson’s, “The Army National Guard, the Army Reserve, and the Marine Corps Reserve.” Bruce is the highly talented author of Stormtroop Tactics, the history of the development of Third Generation war in the German Army in World War I. Here, he shows how to take the classic European reserve system and adapt it to American conditions. Few transplants work “straight,” as direct imports. Adapting them requires great insight and imagination, and Gudmundsson demonstrates both in proposals that would improve the usefulness of our Guard and Reserve forces by orders of magnitude. His chapter alone is easily worth the price of the whole book.

Is anyone listening? Maybe. Interest is growing on Capitol Hill in reviving the Military Reform Caucus. Both Republicans and Democrats see major cuts in the defense budget are coming, and they know that left to its own devices the Defense Department will cut combat forces while preserving the bureaucracy and the money flow to the contractors. I suggested to a Hill staffer last week that the motto of a revived Reform Caucus should be, “Preserve the combat units, cut the bureaucracy.” That slogan could quickly gain bi-partisan support.

America’s Defense Meltdown is available immediately in Kindle Edition and will be published in hard cover on March 20.

Note: This will be the last On War column for 2008. Best wishes to all for a holy Christmas and a safe and prosperous new year!

William S. Lind, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.

To interview Mr. Lind, please contact (no e-mail available):

Mr. William S. Lind
Free Congress Foundation
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Alexandria, Virginia 22314

Direct line: 703 837-0483

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