Our Military Today comes from Yesterday
As I covered in my last post, not a lot has changed in our military structure since President Truman signed into law the National Security Act of 1947. This organization divides our expertise and military doctrine around the three primary domains of operation: Land, Sea, and Air. Everything from training, to procurement, strategic thinking, knowledge capture, administration, and resource allocation gets channeled by this seam.
The day-to-day fighting and operational use of the armed forces fall under the control of “Unified Combatant Commands.” The generals in charge of the different branches of the military allocate their forces to the different combatant commands under the direction of the secretary of defense.
But Yesterday’s Military is not Ideal for Today
This structure developed through a lot of debate and compromise that planted inherent weaknesses in its design. The military has adequately overcome the design challenges to come-off victorious in its primary tasks. However, a design that had foundational imperfections in the time the government created it will not have become perfect almost 70 years later. As U.S. security continues to face new challenges and come under criticism for its failures (real or perceived), defense leaders cannot continue ignoring the systematic weaknesses of its organization.
Others have written extensively on the challenges inherent in the current organization, but I’ll highlight three.
The division of the 4 branches creates some of the worst kind of turf wars. One of these turf wars comes through procurement. The Air Force ostensibly has command over things that fly, but the Army would love a bit more command over its support from the skies.
The debate over the A-10 Warthog is a perfect example. The Army has loved the A-10, and has tended to speak in favor of keeping it operational. The Army has also expressed greater interest in replacing the A-10 with similar concepts instead of the with the multi-role F-35. That has not persuaded the Air Force to keep it, however, and as soon as congress allows it (ie, doesn’t beat back repeated attempts by the Air Force to squash it), the A-10 will likely enter retirement.
Why not give the A-10 to the Army if it likes it so much? Because the Army doesn’t fly planes. Or, at least, that’s how the politics and negotiations work out. As soon as the Army gets some tactical fixed-wing aircraft, the Air Force’s turf will be far less-well defined, and can expect further encroachments.
Modern war requires tight integration of land, sea, and air capabilities. Having a different branch in charge of each domain makes certain types of coordination difficult. The military tries to overcome this issue through the Unified Combatant Commands, but coordination needs to come long before operations begin.
The A-10 and the Air Force’s history with Close Air Support (CAS) further demonstrates this issue. The Air Force takes charge of procurement, training, and planning. Since generals pushed for the creation of the Air Force as a way to put focused efforts on strategic bombing and nuclear deterrence, CAS naturally falls to the side. Regardless of how much the Army wants a dedicated CAS aircraft, the Air Force has decided to fulfill this role with a multi-role aircraft, and has entertained thoughts of producing extremely cheap propeller-driven aircraft to cover CAS in permissive environments. The Army and Air Force can train all they want to coordinate CAS missions, but if the established procurement and doctrine doesn’t provide the necessary tools, they can’t hope for optimal efficacy.
Other coordination issues exist besides ones involving airplanes (though, clearly ones with airplanes are my favorite). Some issues systematically infect the Unified Combatant Commands themselves. For example, before taking a post as the leader of a Combatant Command, the general must complete a certain amount of Joint Professional Military Education (JPME). From this, the general should learn and gain experience in coordinated joint military operations. Unfortunately, the branches don’t always take this training seriously – the Navy often even waives this requirement for its generals taking a combatant command post.
I’m going to pull the A-10 and CAS into this one more time. In WWII, Korea, and Vietnam, the Air Force had to relearn how to provide Close Air Support. Without systems to keep the talent and knowledge from each conflict, the institution “forgot” how to provide effective CAS to troops on the ground during the short gaps between conflict. This changed in 1966 with the creation of the A-X program and design of the A-10. In this case, having a piece of hardware and talent to fly it prevented the Air Force from “forgetting” how to perform CAS.
With the retirement of the A-10, the Air Force risks again losing its institutional knowledge on how to perform CAS. Losing the aircraft won’t cause the problem, but losing the people and talent that comes with the aircraft will. The Air Force can make efforts to retain as much of the talent as possible, and systematize its institutional knowledge, but the Air Force has more incentive and interest in maintaining air superiority and strategic bombing than tactical functions like CAS and tactical air-lifts.
We should break free of domains
Dividing military service around domains worked great when domains defined the strategy. This dividing line had largely faded by WWII, but beliefs in the potential for air power to dominate – or even replace – other branches helped sustain not only the prior-existing divisions of the Army and Navy, but enable the creation of the Air Force. As I pointed out in my last post, even outsider suggestions on how to reorganize the military have an ambient focus on domains.
Today, almost all types of warfare make use of almost all types of domains. But although domains have merged, the variety of strategic approaches we need to be capable of has continued to diverge. For example, we need to approach a total war against China and Russia very differently today than yesterday, and very differently than a terrorist organization. Further, we need better capabilities in reconstruction and humanitarian efforts. None of the prior types of military engagements have much in resemblance to nuclear deterrence strategies either.
Indeed, the military already partially dodges the domain issue with its Unified Combatant Commands (UCCs). The UCCs give the military a matrix organizational structure enabling a division across geographies and shared functions.
The UCCs help, but they can be considered a “workaround” rather than a solution. A more complete solution needs to center on functions and capabilities more completely.
I suggest organizing around “types” of warfare
A “customer” centric model
In businesses, a customer centric organization model builds the seams and silos around different types of customers. The customer types are often defined by the different kinds of services they need. This typically positions a company to win when customer relationships and experience have the largest impact on their success.
If you switch “customer” with “enemy,” and “service” with “military strategy and tactics,” this actually works fairly well. We live in a world where we have many different types of enemies, all of which need to be faced with a particular set of strategies and tactics to maintain an appropriate dynamic in our relationship. For example, a war with a nation-state customer like China will require a different set of strategy and tactics than one with an integrated terrorist network like ISIS.
To avoid costly redundancies, some cross-functional services should be shared across the branches.
5 primary branches might do the trick. The 5 branches being:
- Conventional warfare
- Anti-Terrorism/Guerrilla combat
- Short-term Intervention
- Reconstruction/Humanitarian/Stabilization efforts
- Nuclear/Deterrence warfare
- Proxy/3rd party support
Some suggested cross functional capabilities include:
- Cyber capabilties
- Logistics & Transportation
- Purchasing & acquisition
Do I think this division is perfect? No. But it’s a stake in the ground. I’ll elaborate a little on each one to explain what I mean.
This refers to the all-out, total war that people typically imagine when they think of war. The troops in this branch would prepare for and fight the large, “bet-the-country” conflicts. This branch would receive the call to fight a large army like China, Russia, or Iran. This branch must be ready to fight the long-hauls.
This branch would stay pretty busy these days. Most of our active operations involve handling threats from terrorist groups. This will not likely change, so we need to enable a greater level of specialization and development of related skills. Our anti-terrorism efforts would work best when our forces can make a career out of perfecting our ability to respond to these threats, as well as the flexibility to try alternative and innovative approaches to rooting out terrorism from its source.
This branch would also likely stay busy. This branch would look most similar to the marines. They would dedicate themselves to things like pulling out hostages, handling state-sized interventions, securing embassies in emergencies, etc. They would also likely handle many of our regular patrols. This branch would maintain readiness to fight anywhere, anytime, quickly.
The U.S. doesn’t have a great track record with reconstruction. We still conduct operations in Afghanistan, and most people feel that Iraq hasn’t been a wild success. Does this mean we shouldn’t engage in reconstruction efforts? I don’t think so. I think we just need to do better. At the very least, America is better off when certain other countries are stable. Instability has enabled terrorists and other hostile groups to gain footholds and conduct operations. If we dedicate a branch to perfecting our reconstruction efforts, we have a much better shot at success.
The members of this branch would command our “triple threat” of nuclear arsenal. They would decide how to maintain the efficacy and safety of our missile silos, long-range bombers, and submarines. They would also take command of intelligence gathering and monitoring of other nuclear threats. This branch would operate our strategies to ensure that the U.S. deters nuclear threats by maintaining the credibility of our own threat, and protects us if nuclear conflict occurs.
Proxy/3rd Party support
I put this one at the end since I almost prefer not to have it. Fighting by supporting 3rd parties (as the U.S. has done in supporting the Kurds, Syrian rebels, etc.) never seems to work as well as people hope. Having a dedicated branch to this strategy may improve the results, as with other branches. However, 3rd parties will always have incentives and interests different or contrary to our own. This mismatch of incentives often comes back to bite us.
Unfortunately, the idea of getting others to fight our battles for us will always appeal to the public. As such, we cannot expect politicians to give up on supporting this idea. So if we’re going to try this strategy, we should at least dedicate the necessary resources to do it right
Cross functional capabilities
Electronic warfare of all types has grown into an extremely common form of aggression. Reports of hacks from China seem to happen almost monthly. Alleged Russian hackers took a prominent role in the 2016 elections. ISIS made frighteningly effective use of digital innovations to advance their cause. The U.S. certainly responds, but we need to make sure we have the best e-fighting capabilities in the world. Enabling soldiers to make a career of tech-fighting gives us the best chance of success.
Logistics & Transportation
The current structure of the Unified Combatant Commands has a command dedicated to transportation, and I wouldn’t change that. However, I would give them more control over the training, procurement of equipment, and hiring. Centralizing transportation into USTRANSCOM has proven beneficial, and should continue.
Purchasing and acquisition
I wouldn’t put a shared service in charge of choosing what to buy – that should be the purview of the branches. However, consolidating the purchase activity and providing a centralized body to provide input on what & how to acquire equipment provides significant leverage for getting stuff cheaper and faster.
My suggestion certainly isn’t right (I had drafted a section on the weaknesses of this proposal, but you’re probably already screaming them at your computer). However, I think the lack of non-domain thinking in our military structure overlooks critical weaknesses that have hampered our ability to shape conflict the way we want. I offer an alternative perspective on how we might design our military if we were to start from scratch. Our leaders should make an effort to think about the same, and develop a path to get us closer to the ideal without sacrificing readiness during the transition.
Keep seeking truth.
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