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Shaping U.S. Military Forces: Organize, Train, and Equip to Do What?

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Even before the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union, the post-Cold War military force drawdown had begun. In the summer of 1992, the highly respected Senator Sam Nunn addressed the Armed Services Committee urging a thorough overhaul of the uniformed services' roles and missions.

We should not go into the future with just a smaller version of our cold war forces. We must prepare for a future with a fresh look at the roles and missions that characterized the past forty years. We must reshape, reconfigure, and modernize our overall forces--not just make them smaller.

A decade later, after multiple failed reform attempts, the U.S. entered Iraq and Afghanistan with a smaller Cold War force. The initial invasion forces defeated the organized military forces rapidly and decisively. Then the force was given a mission it was not designed for -- nation building under fire. A decade of war temporarily arrested the post-Cold War drawdown, transformed the force under fire, and with the wars winding down, the drawdown has resumed. It appears that reshaping for the evolving geostrategic environment is not a priority. The Defense Secretary's Strategic Choices Management Review suggests that the fight will be between the size of the force and the purchase of weapon system programs.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel's responsibilities include both advising and assisting the president on the use of military force (force employment policy) and working with Congress on the development of military force (force development policy). His force development responsibilities include both maintaining the force (readiness for the present) and developing the future military force (readiness for the future). How the force will be used now and then, however, is anything but certain.

Employment policy makes the evening news and is the subject of confirmation hearings. It's photogenic. Development policy isn't glitzy enough until a multi-billion dollar weapon program goes off the rails or someone buys a $500 toilet seat. The meager public debate is about the size of the Defense budget, an input to the force development process. To a much lesser degree, the discussion centers on the size of the force measured in end strength -- the number of troops on active duty at the end of the fiscal year. A better indicator than cost, end strength is an output of the process, but it is a poor measure of the military capability purchased. Rarely discussed is the shape of the force -- the missions the force is organized, trained, and equipped to carry out. Size of the force, discussed in an earlier article, and shape of the force are different things.

While the president guides the use of force, Congress guides its development. Here's the first disconnect. There's little reason to believe that Congress and the president agree on what military is needed. And the requisite expertise lies in the uniformed services, not in the White House and not on the Hill. The services put the options on the table, Congress authorizes and appropriates, and the executive branch establishes and executes the resulting programs. Once established, programs develop a political constituency and life of their own.

Political capital spent on force development policy will not benefit the sitting president. Due to the lengthy development times, the president will be out of office before new military capability is delivered. The president can only use or misuse the force on hand. If the president does engage in force development policy, the uniformed services know they can undermine or even overturn presidential policy by appealing directly to congressional committees for relief.

And this is the position Hagel now faces. He can marshal all of his resources and ally with the three military departments and the four uniformed services to preserve the budget status quo. Or he can accept the inevitable budget reductions, oppose the entrenched Pentagon bureaucracy, and set about to produce the best military that can be had within budget realities and aligned with the geostrategic environment. Tough job.

National Security Act 1947. Today's national security apparatus was designed in 1947 incorporating the lessons learned prosecuting World War II and preparing for the Cold War. It was designed for major war -- war between major powers with access to large populations, large economies, and state-of-the-art technology. In contrast, small wars are major power interventions into the affairs of small powers -- typically failed or failing states. Rather than the direct combat between the military forces of states, forces of states interact with the irregular and militia forces of non-state actors that act without regard to international boundaries and laws of war all the while propping up the existing or installed government. Major wars are fought by the military; small wars require a whole-of-government response to strengthen the legislative, executive, judicial, and security capacities of the failing state and put it on a sustainable path of economic development.

The original goal of the postwar "unification hearings" was to unify the State, Navy, and War Departments with a new central intelligence agency, but that proved to be a bridge too far. Instead, the four services were unified under a single Defense Department. The NSC was established to coordinate across the independent departments and agencies.

Held together by Cold War pressures, artificial states like Yugoslavia (1991), Afghanistan (1992), and Somalia (1993) collapsed and fell into civil war. When called upon to defeat the forces of states, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, military forces designed for state-on-state warfare responded decisively. Those same forces then engaged in years of a type of warfare they were not designed for. Beyond the military, the broader national security apparatus was unprepared to provide the necessary whole-of-government response, and the larger effort fell to the military that had been organized, trained, and equipped for major war.

Since the end of the Cold War, three administrations (Bush 1989-1993, Clinton 1993-2001, and Bush 2001-2009) attempted but failed to transform the force. The industrial-age force designed to go toe-to-toe with the industrial-age forces of the Soviet Union shrank and the smaller force was used with increasing frequency for a kind of war it was not designed to fight -- forced regime change followed by nation building under fire -- sometimes called counterinsurgency, low-intensity conflict, irregular or asymmetric warfare.

What these reform efforts had in common was a reliance on the assumption that U.S. armed forces must be configured to win two nearly simultaneous major wars against regional powers rather than a global war against a superpower. The needs of small wars were assumed away. More accurately, small wars were considered "lesser included cases." I.e., a force designed to win major wars could handle small wars, a demonstrably bad assumption as evidenced in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

Goldwater-Nichols 1986. In 1958, Eisenhower declared that warfare by element -- air, land, and sea -- was over. Future warfare would require unified effort across the elements. But the Army, Navy, and Air Force were divided by element, and evidence accumulated that achieving unity of effort from the four services was problematic. The 1983 invasion of the tiny island of Grenada shined a spotlight on the problem. Senators Goldwater and Nunn initiated the most significant Defense reform since 1947. Still resting on Cold War assumptions, the law made major inroads elevating joint over service warfare.

Nunn-Cohen 1987. The services have a long history of neglecting forces for special operations and low-intensity conflict preferring instead to concentrate on their core competencies in major war. The 1979 failure to rescue hostages from Iran offered painful evidence and the misuse of special operations forces in Grenada added fuel to the fire. Nunn-Cohen legislation required establishment of a Special Operations Command to act as a fifth service (a force developer), designated Special Operations Forces and assigned them to the new command, required an assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict to represent the "service" in Pentagon processes, and required a board for low-intensity conflict in the National Security Council staff to establish national policy for whole-of-government response for small wars. After its initial meeting under Bush 41, the board never met again. No policy was produced, and the departments and agencies were on their own.

Goldwater-Nichols directs the JCS chairman to review roles and missions at least every three years. The first review in 1989 was rendered irrelevant with the abrupt end of the Cold War. Nunn delivered his address in 1992. The incoming JCS chairman, Colin Powell, took up Nunn's challenge, but his 1993 report dealt with restructuring at the margins. The entrenched institutional forces in the Pentagon rallied to defend the status quo and successfully captured the process.

Goldwater-Nichols also directs the president to deliver a national security strategy. The elder Bush initiated a wide-ranging national security review in 1989. President Bush's national security strategy and Chairman Powell's national military strategy reflected major adjustments to put the system on a rational post-Cold War track. Iraq invaded Kuwait the day Bush was to announce the shift. The speech was never given, and the strategies never acted on. The decisive victory over Saddam was used by some to argue that the shape of the Cold War force was just fine. But the size of the force shrank almost 20 percent under Bush and another 19 percent under Clinton. The result was what Nunn said we should not have -- a smaller Cold War force.

Frustrated, Congress established an independent Commission on Roles and Missions of the Armed Forces to take reform out of the hands of entrenched bureaucratic forces in the Pentagon. The 1995 report again dealt with reform at the margins.

Nineteen-ninety-six legislation directed the Defense Department to conduct a Quadrennial Defense Review in a new administration's first year, and it established an independent National Defense Panel to review the results. Again, the effort was ineffectual. The Bush 43 administration's QDR fizzled almost immediately lacking civilian direction from Rumsfeld even though transformation was declared the priority. Briefing slides for major weapon acquisition programs, initiated to satisfy Cold War requirements, were redrawn to emphasize the transformational effects. The programs, part of the long-term technological competition between East and West, continue today. Modernization of equipment is a constant, but transformation requires something more than new weapons.

In 2003, U.S. forces invaded Iraq with the smaller Cold War force that Nunn warned against. The organized forces of Iraq were defeated quickly and decisively. But then the real war began, a type of war that the U.S. military and the larger U.S. national security apparatus had systematically ignored. Armored divisions left their tanks at home, fighter pilots and artillery officers were tasked to establish a banking system, and the troops trolled the streets for IEDs. When asked by a soldier in Iraq why they didn't have the equipment they needed, Secretary Rumsfeld explained, you go to war with the army you have. The system to organize, train, and equip had failed the troops.

Congress established the Commission on the National Guard and Reserves in 2005 to be the most comprehensive independent review of the reserve component for over 60 years. The relationship between the active component and reserve component of the armed forces -- codified in law and policy -- was defined during the Cold War. The reserve component was a strategic reserve. Maintained at a relatively low level of readiness, it would be mobilized, undertake considerable training, and follow on to the active component engaged in major war. Reserve forces would be mobilized once in a generation. To maintain its readiness, its minimum training was established in law as two days per month and another two weeks per year. The end of the Cold War initiated a drawdown of the force, particularly of the active duty force. Simultaneously, demands for the total force rapidly increased. After 9/11, demand for forces accelerated again. The strategic reserve became an operational reserve out of necessity, an "unplanned evolution" not the product of deliberate legislation and policy reform, and not subjected to public discussion.

And here's where we stand today. The national security system designed for the Cold War, a major war, and a military shaped by a decade of counterinsurgency, small wars.

The military will be called upon to execute a wide range of missions, not just one. Nonetheless, choices must be made, priorities set, and scarce resources allocated. There is no consensus on what missions U.S. military forces should be organized, trained, and equipped for.

  • Some argue that the primary threat will be major-power competition over resources and that a U.S.-based force should be designed primarily to defeat the forces of major powers deployed to fight in the third world.
  • Some argue that the primary threat comes from non-state actors operating from failing and failed states and that the force should be designed primarily for small wars in the third world.
  • Some agree that the primary threat comes from failed and failing states, but believe nation building is too costly and that the force should be designed primarily for standoff warfare emphasizing the ability to project destructive force from a safe distance and the ability to conduct quick in-an-out strikes, raids, and punitive expeditions.
  • Still others argue that great power war continues to be the primary threat to U.S. vital interests, but future great power wars will be fought not force-on-force but computer-on-computer, and force development policy should emphasize offensive and defensive cyber warfare capability.

To date, there isn't much to suggest transformation of the force. Bureaucrats, past and present, argue for cuts to a "bloated" Pentagon staff and reform of the byzantine weapon acquisition process. Even military pay and retirement are on the table. They have the potential for modest cost savings, but they are not likely to transform the uniformed military. The services have their heels dug in. Budget cuts will be divided equally between the services and across weapon acquisition programs, again, not likely to transform the force. Without a clear vision and masterful leadership, Hagel will likely preside over a reduction in the size of the force without reshaping it, and this will be the fourth post-Cold War administration that failed. Taxpayers and troops deserve better.