Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Wikileaks: So boring I have to either write about it or take a month-long nap (UPDATED)

It is frankly impossible that you would've missed this if you have access to a computer, but just so we're all on the same page: WikiLeaks released a quarter of a million classified U.S. diplomatic cables to the public on Sunday. This is intensely, insanely, almost overpoweringly boring. Here's the top ten reasons why.

10. Top __ Lists. God, I hate this device. Five Biggest Revelations! Ten Most Important Revelations! Top 10 Revelations! Jesus. Seriously, quit it.

9. The repeated insistence by members of the commentariat (and the even more offensive political ideo-idiotsphere) that "this isn't really news." Of course it's news. If I published the archives of your email, it would be news. Just because there's not a whole lot in the email that we didn't already expect -- you hate your mother-in-law, your wife gets on your nerves from time to time, you think your boss is stupid, and you still occasionally talk to a college flame -- doesn't mean we're not gonna squeal and wail when we actually see it in print. This is basically the archives of the State Department's email. (But come on, nobody's getting fired.)

8. The repeated insistence by members of the media that this is HUGE NEWS, that no matter what else you say about the whole thing, you can't say it's not news. Really, who could be happier than the guys who are relieved of the burden of actually having to run anything down or do any research for their stories, but can just do the fun part -- telling you what they think about why this should matter to you, complete with an explanation of how it confirms previous biases, suspicions, and assertions -- without the legwork of exposing the facts? (And then there's the curious case of the journalist who is outraged by the leak, but would have found the whole thing totally acceptable if WikiLeaks had had the good sense to release the information to trained journalists like himself for vetting, filtering, and analysis.) But seriously, there's nothing in there we didn't already know. It's not huge news, it's just a useful resource for you jokers who get paid to sit around and go through this stuff all day.

7. The repeated insistence that this just goes to show you I've always been right.

6. The repeated insistence that this just goes to show you so-and-so has always been wrong.

5. Over-the-top bloviating about the cloak of secrecy under which government operates, and how the destruction of that cover is a worthwhile end that justifies nearly any means, etc. And more broadly, the way that one's analysis of whether WikiLeaks' actions are fundamentally good or fundamentally evil seems to depend not on some objective consideration of ethics or principles, but rather whether those actions facilitate or endanger one's personal ideological or geopolitical priorities.

4. The government's ceaseless argument that the release of diplomatic cables endangers lives and international security, and the handmaid to that argument: the assertion that countries and individuals who collaborate or cooperate with the U.S. in the service of their own interests will somehow find it prudent or plausible to refuse that cooperation entirely now that past instances of it have been made known. UPDATE: Secretary Gates apparently feels the same way, despite what Secretary Clinton has said.

3. The way that a widely-reported news story relating to diversion of classified information leads people who don't really know much about the purpose or function of government information management/protection mechanisms to declaim at length the failures of the system.

2. The hilarious-if-it-weren't-so-boring double-standard that permits journalists and commentators to say either A) that leaks are good and necessary, but this one "seems different" (perhaps because the leaking wasn't to professional journalists) or B) that war/imperialism/executive overreach/foreign policy position X is bad and unnecessary, but there's still something "fuzzy" or uncomfortable about WikiLeaks' actions.

1. This post will almost certainly drive more traffic to the blog than any other in a long while -- several of which were much more original, more thoughtful, better researched, and just generally more compelling, if I do say so myself -- simply on account of the fact that it mentions WikiLeaks.

Now here's why -- despite this story being so obviously boring -- people seem to care so much (and by "people," I especially mean journalists): because there's no story the media loves better than news about the news. This "news" isn't really about content or substance, but rather about the fact that the content and substance that everybody already knows got caught on paper somewhere. It's political theater. It's grandstanding. It's false surprise and false embarrassment. It's the sort of revelation-that's-not-a-revelation that drives political campaigns (Barack Obama probably really does believe that religious gun-owners are somehow mentally or spiritually less advanced; George Bush really did know that there was a difference of opinion about the intended end-use of Iraq's infamous aluminum tubes) and explains the existence of a media organ like POLITICO: inside-baseball coverage that allows the privileged intellectual elite to snicker at the naivete of those who don't understand the way the game is played in the big leagues.

It's a boring waste of time. It's a blank canvas for the sort of Greenwaldian, conspiracist metanarratives that constantly float through the ether, looking for "news" for which they can provide an "explanation." It's about words, not actions. It's the thoughts and feelings and analysis of American personnel abroad (with a few notable exceptions that hinge on the revelation of facts, not just impressions about facts), people who are necessarily offering their expertise and opinions in an effort to meaningfully shape policy. [As an editorial aside, this is actually one of the few really meaningful takeaways from the whole "cablegate" matter: the American diplomat seems far more thoughtful, analytical, and eloquent than his counterpart in the defense bureaucracy.] In some instances, there will be real impact. But the only way to understand that is through detailed examination of specific cables in the context of broader relationships, something that very few people offering thoughts on "what this all means" are willing or prepared to do. (One exception here is Blake Hounshell, who also deserves an exception to the "Top 10 lists are stupid" rule: I'll cut him some slack on his "10 Conversations That Just Got a Little More Awkward," which is the sort of tailored, context-rich, meaningful analysis that -- if it were more common -- could make this subject just a tiny bit less head-splittingly banal.)

So there I go spending a whole bunch of time decrying what a waste of time it is to think, talk, and read about WikiLeaks, and why you should probably be doing something else. I should've opted for the nap.

Monday, November 22, 2010

If you think Loren Thompson is a bad defense analyst, wait 'til you see what kind of financial planner he is!

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and you can tell times are desperate when you see a whole bunch of folks in DC talking about making dramatic cuts to the federal budget. There seems to be a sort of informal competition going on to see who can recommend the deepest, fastest, most un-implementable and politically unsustainable austerity measures. The panel commissioned by the president hasn't even voted on a final report yet, but everyone's already complaining about the direction suggested by the so-called chairman's mark. Jan Schakowsky, who is on the commission, has her own plan. And then there's the Rivlin-Domenici plan, issued by the Bipartisan Policy Center. All have undertaken the necessary work of figuring out how to bring national expenditures more closely in line with national revenues (balance them completely? Let's be serious!), and each of the proposals has now met with the totally inevitable response: Of COURSE we have to cut things, but you can't cut THAT!

It's fair to say that defense spending -- representing as it does more than half of the discretionary federal budget and approximately 20% of total outlays -- will not escape scrutiny. The Simpson-Bowles recommendations, for example, slash defense to the tune of $100 billion. Sarah Palin and Buck McKeon may disagree (and so too does the SECDEF), but most serious advocates of fiscal restraint recognize that any approach to budget-balancing that refuses to consider defense cuts is simply a waste of time. Several dozen national security experts made precisely this point last week, signing a letter to the fiscal commission's co-chairs (pdf) that argues that "the defense budget can bear significant reduction without compromising our essential security."
Granting defense a special dispensation puts at risk the entire deficit reduction effort. Defense spending today constitutes over 55 percent of discretionary spending and 23 percent of the federal budget. An exemption for defense not only undermines the broader call for fiscal responsibility, but also makes overall budget restraint much harder as a practical economic and political matter.
But defense spending has its own huge and powerful constituency, so it's fair to say that the defense cuts recommended by the various commissions and proposals are no less controversial than those recommendations related to Social Security, Medicare, and other entitlements.

This is probably going to come as a shock to you, but Loren Thompson is "not here to defend the current level of defense spending." He sees which way the wind is blowing, just like the rest of us.
When the current decade began, the United States accounted for about a third of global economic output and a third of global military spending.
Today, it accounts for a quarter of global economic output and nearly half of global military spending.
Obviously, the growing gap between these two measures of U.S. power is unsustainable: five percent of the world's population cannot continue funding 50 percent of military outlays while only generating 25 percent of economic output.
Of COURSE we have to cut things...
However, what I want to do in my remarks is explain the consequences of some of the weapons cuts that are being proposed.
...but you can't cut THAT!

Thompson, who is a paid consultant for the defense industry, has a stake in preserving high-dollar materiel programs at the cost of personnel or operations accounts. So you'll have to forgive my yawn when I see him making a speech to the CATO Institute -- as libertarians, already predisposed to any proposal that would limit or even prevent altogether ill-advised, adventurist operations and close expensive bases abroad -- built on the premise that while defense cuts may be necessary, they certainly shouldn't come at the cost of expensive, underperforming, behind-schedule weapon systems. But that yawn turned into a painful guffaw (it sounded like this: LOLOLOLOLOLOL) when I saw Thompson's hilarious rationale, which can be boiled down to these three fundamentals:
  2. Not only are you cutting a weapon system, but you're cutting ALL THE THINGS THAT WEAPON SYSTEM CAN DO!
  3. Now you're going to have to spend a bunch of money building and buying something else to do all the things that you can't do because you cut the old system!
Here's how he actually phrased it in his remarks at CATO, just so you don't think I'm misrepresenting:
But there are consequences to killing weapons that tend to be overlooked in budget-cutting exercises...
-- First, you squander the money that has been spent to date on the programs.
-- Second, you deprive warfighters of capabilities the weapons would have delivered.
-- Third, you have to compensate for the lost capabilities by purchasing something else.
When these realities are factored into plans for terminating this or that weapon, the budgetary and human costs of cutting sometimes end up dwarfing any projected savings.
Thompson uses the rest of the speech to give details about four specific programs that could face the chopping block -- the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, the Osprey, the Joint Tactical Radio System, and the Virginia-class attack submarine -- while coming back to his three fundamentals, but the whole thing mostly relies on an appeal that wasn't outlined in his introduction: the vague but pointed threat that U.S. servicemen will almost certainly die if we fail to continue funding these programs. Want some examples? I knew you did!

On EFV, Thompson charitably grants that the program "is in the cross-hairs of just about every deficit-reduction panel proposing weapons cuts... with good reason, because EFV's [sic] cost over $10 million each and have suffered reliability problems in testing." But he goes on to say that EFV brings "much more speed, range, firepower, and protection" than the AAAVs that currently comprise the Marine Corps' amphibious tractor fleet. "The Marines have been waiting decades to replace their aged vehicles," Thompson said, "and during that time they have become sitting ducks for precision-guided munitions." He's mostly right about this, but the next sentence is total nonsense:
The Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle would solve almost all the problems with the current amphibs, turning the sea from an obstacle into a maneuver space and enabling Marines to come ashore at the places where they are least likely to incur casualties.
Um, no. EFV would similarly be a "sitting duck for PGMs," and nothing about the system's design or manufacture will prevent that. The Navy-Marine Corps team's future littoral power-projection concept won't be based on a Mach 1, stealth amphibious tractor that can survive hits from land-based precision-guided missiles or direct counterfire against coastal defenses from 100 miles away; even if it was, the EFV doesn't offer these capabilities. The new vehicle is undoubtedly a step forward from the aging AAV, but it's not a game-changer -- it does exactly nothing to "[turn] the sea from an obstacle into a maneuver space," and the act of "enabling Marines to come ashore at the places where they are least likely to incur casualties" is far more likely to be accomplished through the development of evolved theater entry and littoral maneuver concepts than by a materiel magic bullet. On top of all that, the EFV is too expensive, doesn't offer significantly more protection than the AAV in a modern threat environment dominated by IEDs (don't ask me, ask the GAO! [pdf]), and doesn't actually meet the space and weight specifications that are a requirement of the system! Yes, AAAVs are old, and yes, we almost certainly need to maintain the capability to get Marines from ship to shore. But to suggest that EFV is the only way to do this, or the best way to do this, or that cancelling the program is tantamount to "wasting the lives of many Marines because they had to go to shore in deathtraps" is just ludicrously disingenuous. The amphib fleet can be sustained until such time as a new, more affordable solution can be found, and the reality of our complete and total disinterest in replicating a Tarawa-style forcible entry/opposed landing means that we're not actually ceding any plausible amphibious landing capability as a result.

I'm not going to spend a whole bunch of time picking apart the specifics of Thompson's other arguments, but suffice it to say that for the most part they're similarly specious, tendentious, and either misinformed or insincere.

"[W]hen you see a budget panel suggest killing" the programs he highlighted, Thompson said, "it's a reasonable conclusion that they either don't understand the program or they don't understand the nation's global security requirements." One might easily say the same thing about Loren Thompson: he doesn't understand the failings of the programs that he uncritically justifies, and he doesn't understand that his conception of the nation's global security requirements is neither universal nor uncontroversial. Not all previously appropriated money has been well-spent, and some of it must be written off as a waste. Not all "capabilities" that ought to have been delivered by ongoing programs or fielded systems constitute real "requirements," and some of them can be undercapitalized or abandoned altogether without grave risk to our national security. (We'll leave aside for a second the reality that many of these weapon systems DO NOT effectively deliver the capability they're meant to, and that those that DO deliver capability often fail to do so within the cost and schedule parameters the government has deemed appropriate.) And finally, those systems that are abandoned will not always need to be replaced; as the nation reconsiders the difference between what can be done and what must be done, it's fair to assume we'll give different answers to the question of what can be bought versus what must be bought.

Secretary Gates may criticize the Simpson-Bowles recommendations as an exercise in "math, not strategy," and he's right. But he's at least interested in engaging in a review of systems and programs in line with strategy so as to develop a budget that is sane, justifiable, and efficient. If you're in Loren Thompson's camp, you have to accept the argument that the government has made no bad decisions, has wasted no money or effort, has a bulletproof rationale for each and every acquisition decision it has ever made, and has correlated those acquisition and procurement decisions to an overall strategic concept that most effectively advances and protects American security interests in a rapidly changing and unpredictable threat environment. I don't have that kind of faith. Then again, my livelihood doesn't depend on it.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Tanks in Helmand: Great idea or greatest idea?

Well, I was going to follow up on this post on strategy, but didn't get to it. And then I was going to comment on this fantastic exchange at Kings of War, but won't be getting to it soon. But then I saw this Spencer Ackerman article at Wired and felt the need to comment.

Spencer apparently doesn't think much of the deployment of a company of USMC Abrams tanks being deployed to Helmand Province. While one of the original article's sources uses some misguided language (I thought we put "shock and awe" in the same discard pile with "mission accomplished"?), the fact is that tanks will probably provide an excellent tool in the COIN fight. I'm going to talk about this from a tactical perspective and then from the population-centric COIN perspective and why this is probably a good idea. As a caveat for our newer readers, I was a cavalryman in the U.S. Army in heavy units in Iraq. While this may cause bias, it also gives me the perspective and experience to understand how this actually works.

Tactically, an M1A1 Abrams tank can give you an edge. I'm not familiar with the terrain in Helmand, but save goat trails and narrow canal roads, these very heavy vehicles can get around surprisingly well. As far as firepower goes, it can put what is effectively an artillery round within a half a meter of where you intend it to go at targets of a few kilometers with relatively unobstructed fields of fire. I'm not sure why Spencer knocks the fact that the M1 is 30 years old and thus that it's precision is questionable. It is a line-of-sight weapon, not a bomb or artillery shell. If you can see it you can kill it. So yes, it brings a lot of highly accurate firepower that limits collateral damage.

You know what scares the hell out of dismounted insurgents? 70 tons of badassery that will make them dead if they mess with it. I could go on and on about this, but I'll cut this short. If the problem in Helmand is a highly-active insurgency that requires a firepower solution, then the M1A1 is what you want to bring to the fight. I'm sure the Marines will be pulling their hair out keeping this company running from a logistics perspective - they suck down fuel, spare parts are bulky and heavy, and recovering them off of the battlefield if they break down is a pain. But they pay professionals to figure that out and I'm sure they have it in hand. The bottom line is that the Abrams provides a highly mobile, well armored platform for long distance, highly accurate fire. To question that is to not understand tanks at all. It seems that the Marines need long distance, highly accurate firepower or they wouldn't be asking for it.

Now for how this behemoth of death and destruction fits into a pop-COIN operation. Tanks are designed to do two things: kill people and break things. That's it. What commenters like Spencer, who is hardly alone in this, often ignore about lessons learned from Iraq is that even the most population-centric COIN requires the killing of people and the breaking of things. Tanks were integral in defeating al Qaida in and around Baghdad in 2007-08, as were dropping bombs, etc. Tanks were often preferred because they could do these things with greater accuracy than bombs and with a smaller surface danger zone. This keeps the people happy, because they know as much as we do that we have to kill some people and tanks do it more efficiently with less impact on locals' lives.

So no, this isn't the opposite of Petraeus' "Get Out and Walk" guidance. This is part of the "kinetic" fight that needs to supplement the "hearts and minds" aspect of the fight. How a commander ties it in to his pop-COIN operations is by following up immediately after the tanks do their business with guys on the ground to take responsibility for anything that went wrong as a result of the engagement and to own the ground and deal with the locals and their issues. Does the Soviet use of their tanks make the use of the Abrams difficult? Yes, but that's why tactical controls are imperative. If the tanks are used for what they're intended - getting rid of the bad actors in Helmand with minimal civilian losses - then the Soviet legacy would become obsolete.

Will these 16 tanks "shock and awe" Mullah Omar into negotiations? No. But it has the potential to make individual Taliban groups not want to go to Helmand to fight the Americans while at the same time keeping civilian casualties to a minimum. Again, go back to the Surge and scrape away all the crap that US tactics were all hearts and minds. It was as violent as it was benevolent. We've tried mostly benevolence for the last year in Afghanistan and before that it was mostly violence. If the tanks are used correctly and commanders follow up the controlled and carefully applied violence with benevolence, then maybe the USMC has a chance of turning Helmand around.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Heroism, sacrifice, and the Medal of Honor

On October 25, 2007, then-Specialist Salvatore Giunta distinguished himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty in action with an armed enemy, which, in case you didn't know, is pretty much what you have to do to be awarded the Medal of Honor. Today SSG Giunta became the first living recipient since Vietnam of the nation's highest military decoration, joining LT Michael Murphy, SFC Jared Monti, and SSG Robert James Miller -- all three of whom were killed in the performance of their valorous acts -- as one of four awardees from the Afghan war.

Spc. Giunta deployed to Afghanistan for the second time with Battle Company, 2d Battalion (Airborne), 503d Infantry Regiment -- battlespace owners of the infamous Korengal Valley. The actions for which he was decorated took place on the valley's Gatigal Spur during Operation ROCK AVALANCHE, and were briefly chronicled in Sebastian Junger's War and the companion film "Restrepo." I'll reproduce the award citation in its entirety here:
Specialist Salvatore A. Giunta distinguished himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty in action with an armed enemy in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, on October 25, 2007. While conducting a patrol as team leader with Company B, 2d Battalion (Airborne), 503d Infantry Regiment, Specialist Giunta and his team were navigating through harsh terrain when they were ambushed by a well-armed and well-coordinated insurgent force. While under heavy enemy fire, Specialist Giunta immediately sprinted towards cover and engaged the enemy. Seeing that his squad leader had fallen and believing that he had been injured, Specialist Giunta exposed himself to withering enemy fire and raced towards his squad leader, helped him to cover, and administered medical aid. While administering first aid, enemy fire struck Specialist Giunta’s body armor and his secondary weapon. Without regard to the ongoing fire, Specialist Giunta engaged the enemy before prepping and throwing grenades, using the explosions for cover in order to conceal his position. Attempting to reach additional wounded fellow soldiers who were separated from the squad, Specialist Giunta and his team encountered a barrage of enemy fire that forced them to the ground. The team continued forward and upon reaching the wounded soldiers, Specialist Giunta realized that another soldier was still separated from the element. Specialist Giunta then advanced forward on his own initiative. As he crested the top of a hill, he observed two insurgents carrying away an American soldier. He immediately engaged the enemy, killing one and wounding the other. Upon reaching the wounded soldier, he began to provide medical aid, as his squad caught up and provided security. Specialist Giunta’s unwavering courage, selflessness, and decisive leadership while under extreme enemy fire were integral to his platoon’s ability to defeat an enemy ambush and recover a fellow American soldier from the enemy.
Specialist Salvatore A. Giunta’s extraordinary heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, Company B, 2d Battalion (Airborne), 503d Infantry Regiment, and the United States Army.
Sal Giunta and his comrades were ambushed by an enemy element that outgunned them by more than two to one and brought to bear overwhelming firepower with AK-47s and rocket propelled grenades from nearly point-blank range. It may have been only down to the timely, correct, and immensely courageous actions of a 22-year old specialist that an entire American squad avoided being killed to the last man on Gatigal Spur.

The relevant excerpt from Junger's book describes Giunta's actions in similarly cut-and-dry, clinical fashion, concerned as the book is with trying to understand man's reactions when faced with the stress, fear, and danger of combat. It also quotes Giunta in a manner that's consistent with what few other public comments I've seen him make: as a humble, selfless professional, a man who professes not to have done his job because of personal bravery but rather because he understood -- as Junger concludes -- that survival and success are the product of every man doing what's expected of him.
Giunta estimates that not more than ten or fifteen seconds elapsed between the initial attack and his own counterattack. An untrained civilian would have experienced those ten or fifteen seconds as a disorienting barrage of light and noise and probably have spent most of it curled up on the ground. An entire platoon of men who react that way would undoubtedly die to the last man.
Giunta, on the other hand, used those fifteen seconds to assign rates and sectors of fire to his team, run to Gallardo’s assistance, assess the direction of a round that hit him in the chest, and then throw three hand grenades while assaulting an enemy position. Every man in the platoon  —  even the ones who were wounded  —  acted as purposefully and efficiently as Giunta did. For obvious reasons, the Army has tried very hard to understand why some men respond effectively in combat and others just freeze. “I did what I did because that’s what I was trained to do,” Giunta told me. “There was a task that had to be done, and the part that I was gonna do was to link alpha and bravo teams. I didn’t run through fire to save a buddy  —  I ran through fire to see what was going on with him and maybe we could hide behind the same rock and shoot together. I didn’t run through fire to do anything heroic or brave. I did what I believe anyone would have done.”
Giunta did exactly what his own team leader had instructed him years before on his first deployment to Afghanistan, as recounted today by the President: "You've just got to try to do everything you can when it's your time to do it." And he did.

This, ultimately, is what heroism is about: the willfull choice to do one's duty when it would be simple to do otherwise. We recognize differing degrees of heroism in different ways, imagining as those of us who have never faced combat do that it must be infinitely more difficult to do one's duty when gripped with the fear of death. And the particular standard for the Medal of Honor suggests a sort of qualitative difference between qualifying acts of valor and those recognized by other decorations: conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of one's life, above and beyond the call of duty. But recognizing that "duty" is an inherently subjective, movable determination in the complex environment of combat, and recognizing Sal Giunta's own belief that he merely did what was expected, mustn't we acknowledge that all heroism springs from the same root? Heroism, fundamentally, is about sacrifice -- whether it's the sacrifice of one's life or merely the sacrifice of one's literal freedom, the choice to go to the other side of the world in the service of your country, to show up every day to do a job that can be difficult and dangerous simply so that others won't have to.

This isn't, perhaps, a universally accepted definition of heroism, or even a conventional one. I suppose I'd never really thought of it in precisely these terms until today, when I read this load of unapologetically ignorant rubbish (courtesy of Adam Weinstein at Mother Jones). In "The Feminization of the Medal of Honor," Bryan Fischer lauds SSG Giunta for what he suggests is a deserved award (so as to check the "supporting the troop/s" box), before deriding "a disturbing trend in the awarding of these medals, which few others seem to have noticed. We have feminized the Medal of Honor." He continues:
According to Bill McGurn of the Wall Street Journal, every Medal of Honor awarded during these two conflicts has been awarded for saving life. Not one has been awarded for inflicting casualties on the enemy. Not one.
Gen. George Patton once famously said, "The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other guy die for his."
When we think of heroism in battle, we used the [sic] think of our boys storming the beaches of Normandy under withering fire, climbing the cliffs of Pointe do [sic] Hoc while enemy soldiers fired straight down on them, and tossing grenades into pill boxes to take out gun emplacements.
That kind of heroism has apparently become passe when it comes to awarding the Medal of Honor. We now award it only for preventing casualties, not for inflicting them.
So the question is this: when are we going to start awarding the Medal of Honor once again for soldiers who kill people and break things so our families can sleep safely at night?
I would suggest our culture has become so feminized that we have become squeamish at the thought of the valor that is expressed in killing enemy soldiers through acts of bravery. We know instinctively that we should honor courage, but shy away from honoring courage if it results in the taking of life rather than in just the saving of life. So we find it safe to honor those who throw themselves on a grenade to save their buddies.
Leaving aside the fact that this incoherent fool is simply wrong on the facts, and that Sal Giunta didn't throw himself on a grenade but rather direct effective counterfire on the enemy so as to repel an ambush, then literally shot his mortally wounded comrade out of the hands of the enemy, and that SFC Paul Smith was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for actions in Iraq that are believed to have resulted in between 20 and 50 enemy KIA, and also leaving aside the fact that the Medal of Honor has historically been awarded with a variety of justifications and that there is no traditional minimum standard of aggression from which we have recently deviated, and even further leaving aside the fact that the application of Bryan Fischer's obscene, bankrupt conception of "valor" would decorate the pilot and crew of the Enola Gay with Medals of Honor while leaving unrecognized men like MA2 Michael Monsoor... can we take anything meaningful from this silly piece?

Well, I did, and I'll try to explain how. It's only after pausing momentarily to consider this perverse complaint that I've come to really consider why the preservation of life is such an important component of nearly every story of uncommon valor: because without meaningful sacrifice, without that "selfless disregard for his own safety" that seems to grace every MOH citation, without that fundamental knowledge that a man was willing to trade his life for those of his colleagues in the performance of his duty -- without all that, and without our collective belief in all of that, soldiering is just another profession, and the soldier's "duty" is no more glorious than a mercenary's job.

"Stripped to its essence," Junger writes, "combat is a series of quick decisions and rather precise actions carried out in concert with ten or twelve other men. In that sense it's much more like football than, say, like a gang fight. The unit that choreographs their actions best usually wins. They might take casualties, but they win." One of the great paradoxes of war is that a commander must be willing to risk his men in order to best serve them; he must often be willing to sacrifice his men to win. A fighting man's confidence in the commander not to trade his men's lives too cheaply is the bedrock on which good order and discipline are built. But universal belief that no man is more important than the mission, that everyone has a job to do, and must do it as best he can to effectively execute Junger's concert or football game or choreography -- the continuation of this belief is why it matters so much that our conception of heroism forever entails self-sacrifice. So long as men fight and sacrifice and die in the performance of their duty and in defense of their fellow man, those who remain can be confident in fighting and winning. And that's why those Medal of Honor recipients who do live to wear the decoration will likely forever remain the fortunate exceptions, those whose impulse to self-sacrifice was foiled by good fighting and good luck.

I got to thinking about this subject after spending some time recently talking with a guy that I was only peripherally acquainted with prior to last weekend. His name is DJ Skelton* -- he's an Army captain, an '03 West Point grad, and he's preparing to deploy to Afghanistan in command of a company. That in itself is nothing unusual, of course, but here's what is: he's doing so six years after being very seriously wounded in Fallujah, just a month into his first deployment as an infantry platoon leader. DJ was struck in the chest with an RPG and riddled with AK fire before he'd even hit the ground, lost an eye, much of the bone in one leg, and fine motor function in one hand. Most people would be looking forward to civilian life just as soon as they'd come through emergency medical care, justifiably focused on themselves and how to cope with permanent disability. Not only did Skelton fight through a long and arduous recovery process, but he fought to hold on to his Army career in the face of innumerable institutional obstacles, all the while spending what he must have feared would be his final months in the Army working to make sure his fellow wounded veterans got the care they deserved from the Pentagon. Now he's back in the infantry, ready to deploy again and lead soldiers into combat. You know what he said to me? "I'm just blessed to be there serving with so many great men, combat veterans, guys who have been deployed four or five times and keep coming back." Here he is going back into combat after surviving a horrific experience his first time there, and all he can think about is how much the others are giving up to be there.

Why do I bring this up now? Because DJ's story is one of heroism as well: the heroism of keeping going, of staying committed to the task in spite of pain and difficulty. This isn't a guy who's bereft of options in life. He's exceptionally well-educated, fluent in extremely difficult languages (he spent five years as an enlisted Chinese linguist before going to West Point and earning a commission, and was on track to become a China Foreign Area Officer before talking the Army into letting him go back to the infantry), charismatic and connected at the highest levels of the Defense Department. There are easier lives to lead than at the head of an infantry company, in Afghanistan or anywhere else, and DJ could easily pursue them without a hint of criticism or approbation. And yet he chose to stay -- not just to stay, as if it were the default option, but to fight his way back from the apparent end of his Army career, fight his way back into the line, and fight his way back to combat. Rather than take what the Army was offering -- to acknowledge that he was "too broken," leave the service and take with him the tremendous investment the government had made in his training -- he persevered, found a way back, and made an example of himself for other wounded veterans to follow. Like Sal Giunta, DJ Skelton is doing his job because it's his job, because it's what he signed up to do. Because he knows the whole thing only works if everybody does his job. He's overcoming pain and fear, sacrificing his own personal comfort to make use of his talents in the service of other people. That's heroism -- heroism of a different kind, and in the face of a different challenge, but heroism just the same.

[*Note: in the original version of this post, I avoided mentioning DJ by name or giving some very specific identifying information only because I hadn't yet sought his permission. I've since spoken with DJ, and he's happy to have his story told as a way to give other wounded vets hope and encouragement. You can read more about his experiences in this article, written two years ago while he was a company commander at the Defense Language Institute.]

Frequent mention of "the heroes in our armed forces" can sound like so much patronizing pablum to the ears of a cynic, easily dismissed for the failure to distinguish between the fat FOBbits eating Burger King in the desert and those who spend long deployments in austere conditions and near-constant danger, like the men of Battle Company. But before we dismiss that more expansive definition of heroism, it's worth remembering that there are thousands of greater and lesser sacrifices being made every day by those who serve our country. A young man charges into automatic rifle fire to link two elements of his scattered squad. A wounded veteran returns to combat in command of a company, unwilling to let his talent and training go to waste in garrison or the civilian world. A young veteran like Matt Valkovic, who apparently didn't get enough of war-torn countries while on active duty in west Baghdad, joins a nonprofit like Spirit of America (stay tuned -- more on this in a later post) to try to get downrange again and enable the counterinsurgency effort. Or even closer to home, and perhaps the reason I'm thinking so much about service and sacrifice today: my twin brother, husband and father of two young children, put to sea this afternoon to begin his third six-month deployment on a fast-attack submarine, accessing all your anti-access environments and defending American primacy in the briny deep.

"If I am a hero," the president quoted SSG Giunta as saying, "then every man who stands around me, every woman in the military, every person who defends this country is." To which the president added, "and he's right." That's why I'm sanguine where Amy Davidson is wistful, on the question of just what exactly it is that got young Sal Giunta from a sandwich counter in Iowa to a photo op with the president: without war, she suggests, the country would never have had use of this man. "One feels, when one hears that [Giunta's enlistment was not motivated by patriotism, but rather by curiosity about the world], not that war is ennobling but that there is potential in this country that we're missing, or not using as fully as we could. How can we satisfy and make use of that curiosity? It shouldn't take a war to get Sal Giunta out of Subway." And she's right -- it shouldn't take a war. But it may take the military -- after all, it's not just a job, it's an adventure! -- and I don't see much of anything wrong with that. Whether it's a couple of years as an enlisted Air Force fireman on a frigid missile base in North Dakota or a junior officer tour on an Aegis cruiser or a peacekeeping hitch in Kosovo, there will continue to be opportunities for service, and through service, opportunities to learn the meaning of sacrifice, selflessness, and responsibility. And that's where heroism is born.

War didn't make Sal Giunta into a hero -- genetics, parenting, and the Army did. War merely reminds us of what heroism really means by calling on men like Giunta to demonstrate their selfless, reflexive impulse to service.

Monday, November 15, 2010

History repeats itself: AK-47-hawking car dealer edition

I'm just getting going on The Gun, a comprehensive history of the automatic Kalashnikov by blog favorite and New York Times war correspondent C.J. Chivers. The book traces the history of automatic weapons and tries to separate fact from fiction in the story of the development and proliferation of the world's most recognizable small arm.

On a what at the time seemed like a completely separate note: there was some buzz last week on Twitter about a Florida car dealer who is offering a $400 voucher toward the purchase of an AK-47 as part of a truck-sales promotion (advertising: "Free AK-47! See dealer for details"), ostensibly in honor of Veterans Day. One can fairly question -- and many have -- how American veterans are honored by the subsidized purchase of a weapon that has killed or wounded tens of thousands of U.S. servicemen, but more on that in a second.

This was interesting enough on its own, but then last night I came across this passage in the prologue to Chivers' book:
In Missouri in mid-2009, when Mark Muller, the owner of a car dealership, wanted to generate interest and lift flagging sales, he offered a voucher for an AK-47 with the purchase of every pickup truck. The offer was a gimmick. True AK-47s cannot be legally owned by most people in the United States, and the dealership offered a coupon worth only half the price of the semiautomatic version sold in American gun shops. Once again, as is often the case in conversations related to the Kalashnikov, facts did not matter. Nonsense prevailed. Muller's sales promotion generated international attention: a broadcast team from Al Jazeera turned up, as did another from Russian state television news. The coverage triggered old arguments. What does this weapon mean? Is it the sinister product of sinister forms of government, set loose on the world via dark processes that were, and often remain, all but unchecked? Or does its reliability and simplicity make it a symbol of the virtue of our best tools, a companion to the utility of a well-performing pickup truck? Muller was pleased. He appeared before the cameras brandishing a Kalashnikov in its semiautomatic form, enjoying free publicity while spurring business and tweaking the anti-gun crowd at the same time. Like many a man who has used a Kalashnikov, he held up his rifle for the cameras and grinned--the rascal's pose. The Kalashnikov was put to yet another use. (p. 15)
Makes you wonder whether the manager of this Florida dealership is a fast reader, or just unoriginal.

So why choose to promote the Kalashnikov? Why not advertise a free M1911, the .45-caliber handgun developed by Browning and first produced by Colt almost 100 years ago, the U.S.-issue service pistol for three-quarters of a century? For me it seems clear that -- as Chivers suggested about the Missouri promotion -- the choice of an AK-47 is designed to tweak anti-gun folks. The ship has basically sailed on handgun ownership, but the question of the Second Amendment and assault rifles is still a charged and controversial one. By selecting the AK, the car dealer is not only saying "I support gun ownership by private citizens," but is also taking an assertive stand in the more controversial part of the Second Amendment debate.

But then why an AK and not an M-16 or an M-4, U.S.-produced and -fielded assault rifles? For one thing, the ubiquity of the Kalashnikov makes it instantly recognizable. But a combination of myth and fact makes the Eastern bloc's weapon of choice the ultimate in workmanlike reliability in the public mind, and probably makes it a more appropriate match to the truck owner's blue-collar, working-man's self-image than the uniquely military Colt firearms. Basically, it's just as Chivers tells us: the AK-47 and its derivatives have become Everyman's Rifle, for good or ill, around the world.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

In memoriam, thanks, and happy birthday

First: today is Remembrance Day, so try to pause for a quiet moment and think of those who have sacrificed so much in defense of their families, their neighbors, and those they'd never met.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old; 
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
Second: here in America, it's Veterans Day, where we thank all those who have served, drawing no distinction between sacrifice of comfort and spilling of blood. To those who chose to serve, who chose to suspend their own freedom and comfort to maintain those same privileges for their countrymen -- we're in your debt. Hope you've all had a great day, and that you had at least one moment where you were reminded how much your service means to so many others.

And third: yesterday was the 235th birthday of the U.S. Marine Corps. Happy birthday, devildogs, and long may the Corps continue. Check out the commandant's message for some goosebumps moments, and read Bob Work and Frank Hoffman on the reasons why we'll need Marines no matter how the operational environment may shift.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Dumbest idea of the day and why we should never, ever change our CO policy

I know I don't usually post twice in one day (or often in one week), but this article really fired me up. According to it, the Truth Commission on Conscience in War is lobbying to expand the government's definition of conscientious objection (CO) from objection to "war in any form" to allow service members to decline to deploy to wars they feel are immoral. By doing so, they feel that it "would allow for greater religious freedom in the military and improve morale among the troops."

Undoubtedly it would. But it's still so very wrong on two levels. At the lower level, how would the government be able to adjudicate a real, moral opposition to a particular conflict from a soldier that just doesn't want to go. The standards to obtain CO are high under the current definition and they should be. I realize I'm quite hawkish on this issue, but if you get through bayonet training during basic training (during which the answer to "What makes the grass grow?" is "Blood! Blood! Blood!") and you don't realize that maybe killing isn't your thing, I have a hard time believing that the time to realize it is when your unit is getting on a plane to go to war. Granted, it happens, but rarely and it's very hard to prove. Allowing soldiers to opt out of wars they don't like, but stay in the military or deploy to wars they do is so counter to the idea of good order and discipline that words could barely describe it. Soldiers don't get to vote on the wars they want to fight in or not. That is not how an all volunteer force works nor should it be the way that a non-volunteer force should work.

The second level is at a more strategic level. It's preposterous, but what if this definition existed in 2003 and every soldier in the Army decided that they were morally opposed to the Iraq War and refused to deploy. Readers know I don't feel that the rationale for war was made, but I also don't like the idea that the uniformed military could possibly decide which wars it should fight and which it shouldn't. That is antithetical to our understanding of civil-military relations. What would happen if high-ranking officers started applying for CO status because they felt a particular war was wrong. How many lower ranking officers and soldiers would follow suit, if only out of some sense of fairness? Our military has a contract with its government and citizens which does not allow for political opposition to wars. This expanded definition would allow for just that to occur.

This proposal doesn't seem to have much traction anywhere and thank goodness for that. This organization makes some highly dubious assertions and claims. I'm not terribly sure why the NY Times highlighted the cause in the first place. This is a terrible, terrible idea that would adversely affect our military services and its interaction with the nation it serves.

Josh Foust's book launch - a couple takeaways (UPDATED)

For those of you who didn't know, yesterday Josh Foust (of Registan fame, Central Asia expert, and a great guy) held a launch for his new book, Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. I bought the book at the event and thus haven't yet read it, so hopefully a review will happen once I've finished it. However, the event was very good, with Ambassador Ronald Neumann (US Ambassador to Afghanistan 2005-2007) conversing with Josh. Their discussion covered off on a number of topics related to Afghanistan: the Human Terrain System (HTS), the Afghan people, Karzai and the presidency, the ANA, and US policy and operations. All of which was very interesting. As was the idea of Just World Books turning his blog and other writings into a book.

There are a couple of things that stood out for me from this talk that were probably peripheral to the main talk. The first was Josh talking about the inability of the military to transition their records and knowledge of their area of operations to their follow-on units. Josh recounted that the U.S. Army's Center for Lessons Learned has to send people to units that had rotated home to get copies of their hard drives to provide data to units in the field. This simply blows my mind. I hope this info is dated and doesn't still occur, but the idea that transfers of authority are or have occurred in Afghanistan without digital records is damned near criminal on the part of both units involved. The outgoing needs to provide that info and the incoming needs to ask for it if they don't get it. It's simply common sense. Hopefully, some of you who are there now or recently can let us know if this has changed and transferring data is SOP in a transition.

The second topic that really hit me was the discussion of the HTS and their Human Terrain Teams (HTT) embedded at the brigade level. Josh had worked for them until 18 months ago and had some interesting perspectives. Like all organizations have to deal with, he reported that some teams were really good and some were really bad. Recently, DoD has been moving from a contractor solution to an institutionalized civilian solution to propagate HTS beyond our current wars. I'm actually slightly distressed at this.

I'm a big supporter of the work that the HTS does even if I never had them supporting my units in Iraq. Understanding the locals seems like a pretty good idea to me in any conflict. However, I do question the need to keep large numbers of civilian personnel on the rolls to study areas that we may have conflicts with in the future. Some regional or cultural experts, sure. But not lots. It seems to be a large expenditure that has a small likelihood of ever being practically used.

This may be the former military side of me, but I've always looked at "human terrain" as an intelligence function. Intelligence used to assist the unit commander in making decisions on what activities his unit should conduct. Understanding that a lot of intelligence agencies employ cultural experts, this needs to be done in the military at the unit level. Military intelligence needs to be able to analyze non-combatant locals like they do the enemy. We don't keep civilians who are experts on every enemy we might face and deploy them with BCTs - we train our intel folks to be able to analyze an enemy, however he is and irrespective of that analyst's previous knowledge of them and their organization, so that analyst can give the commander the best information he has. I don't understand why the military is still failing to do this with human intelligence. Granted, there are my intel officers who are leaning forward in the saddle and are doing this on their own, but it needs to be an institutionalized process. Otherwise all that touchy-feely human stuff will remain a civilian role and quite possibly civilians who don't necessarily understand the commander's intelligence needs.

So those are my take aways from the talk. There was, of course, much, much more. Followed by even more engaging discussion at the after-party (#foustfest for your twitter types) with lots of smart and fun people. It was great to meet all of you who I've only conversed with over the interwebs and to see some old friends. Now go buy the book.

UPDATE: Josh has posted a very helpful and insightful response to this post at Registan.

"Cheating" for acquisition cost savings? Or: Contested procurement -- An allegory

Dumb, tl;dr allegory here. Skip ahead for the actual news.

Because composing idiotic, overly drawn-out metaphors at 0100 is a way better idea than going to sleep, I want to share a story with you today. (Seriously, fight through it, and at least fake a chuckle.) Once upon a time, there was a family with two sons. The older one -- let's just call him "Army" -- has gotten a lot of good gifts in the last few years, as his folks have been making good money and wanted to spoil him. The younger one -- I know it's weird, but his name is "Air Force" -- gets plenty of good loot, too. But he's the younger kid, and we all know what happens with younger kids: sometimes you have to settle for hand-me-downs.

Seriously, though: Army and Air Force have pretty generous parents. The kids get all kinds of toys and clothes and balls and bats and whatnot, but on top of that, they even get an allowance! "Do whatever you want with it," their folks say, with the usual warnings about spending it all in one place. But what happens when you spoil your kids? Well, you know how this goes: the kids spend their money like damn fools. They buy crap that's too expensive. They buy crap that doesn't work. They buy crap that never shows up in the mail. Basically, they buy a whole bunch of crap, but Mr. and Mrs. Congress -- that's the parents, weirdly enough -- they just keep on bumping up that allowance.

Then one day, completely out of the blue, disaster strikes: Mr. Congress loses his job. Worse yet, summer's coming, and  Army and Air Force are wee little ballplayers. Army's been at it for a couple years, so he's got all the gear, but you know kids -- he's looking for the flashy new model. And Air Force is growing up quick, so he can't even get his little tyke's paw into last year's glove, and he definitely needs a new one. Rough timing, though, with dad getting sacked and all. But those crazy kids managed to stash some cash away in their piggybanks, so they're off to the sporting goods store.

Momma didn't raise no fools, and you just wouldn't even believe the price tag on a Mike Young Hot Corner Synthetic Leather Web Gem Special these days. But Army's got an awesome idea: "hey little bro, I've got this perfectly awesome glove that I don't even really want anymore, and I'm getting a new mitt anyway. And look, this glove is WAY TOO BADASS for some little joke t-ball league, and it's probably a little bit too big for you, and man, Air Force, you little t-ball kids don't even catch the ball with your gloves anyway! But I've got a deal for you: gimme your allowance, and I'll give you my big boy glove. It's a hell of a deal."

This sounds pretty good to Air Force. Sure, Army's right: the glove is way too big, and it's way too fancy for a t-baller. But he'll grow into it, and it saves him spending all day in the mall trying to find a glove he can afford with his meager savings. (No, obviously, he didn't use the word "meager." He's a kid, FFS.) Plus, mom and dad are gonna love this, right? Two allowances, two gloves, no old, unwanted gloves get thrown in the trash.

But then you're never going to guess what happened: DAVID AXE CAME ALONG AND CALLED THIS INNOCENT LITTLE T-BALL KID A "CHEATER" FOR BUYING HIS BROTHER'S OLD GLOVE AND SAVING IT FROM THE TRASH HEAP WHEN ARMY WAS GONNA GET A NEW ONE ANYWAY. And he puts pressure on Mr. and Mrs. Congress to continue needlessly enriching the sporting goods store, because after all, they haven't bought and replaced enough expensive crap from that joint already, and good god, can you even imagine how much more cash they're going to drop in there when these kids get old enough for football? But the parents relent in the face of media criticism, Air Force gets spanked for "cheating," he learns the lesson that it's a bad idea to try to keep your cash in the family instead of pouring it into the sporting goods racket, and the natural order of things is restored when Mr. Congress gets a new job and spends a silly sum on 83 sets of Callaway X-24s for Air Force to play China Golf and Country Club when let's be serious, the damn kid doesn't even like golf in the first place.

Semi-serious, reasonably legitimate content below this point.

Acquisition folks can't win for losing these days. Programs must adapt to unstable, shifting requirements. They fall behind schedule, run over cost, and don't perform up to expectations. Some buys get slashed or cancelled altogether. (Some get shitcanned even without cost/schedule/performance problems when Capability Portfolio Reviews [pdf] decide that the capability on offer isn't affordable in present circumstances.) In light of expected budget stasis, the SECDEF tasks the services with figuring out ways to squeeze out a few extra bucks, pledging that those savings will be applied to the modernization accounts that are likely to get short shrift as a result of reduced topline budget growth. You get criticized for spending time and effort on systems that aren't tailored to the specific challenges of ongoing conflicts. You get criticized for wasting money on crap that doesn't work. You get criticized by industry for not spending enough time, effort, and money on crap that's useless for today's fight, but might come in handy when the balloon goes up with China. Put it this way: It's a hard-knock life if you're in the business of developing or acquiring new weapon systems.

So if you're a senior Air Force acquisition official, it must be particularly galling to click around the interwebz today and find that your efforts to satisfy mission requirements in the most effective legal manner are being described like this: "U.S. Military Cheats Gets Creative for Cost Savings." Defense News covered this in a more charitable manner a couple of weeks ago, but here's the basic story: the Air Force needs to replace some old helos that it uses to monitor its own ICBM sites from the air. Typically, when the military makes a major acquisition, the law mandates that requirements be specified and bids solicited from a number of competitors so as to ensure that the best system is procured for the lowest price -- that is, that the government is getting the best value for the taxpayers' dollar. (There are exceptions to this, but that's the general idea.) In this instance, it seems the USAF is going to take advantage of a 1932 law that allows government agencies to do a sole-source -- that is, noncompetitive -- acquisition if it's filling its need with goods from another government organization. Makes perfect sense, right? One agency gets rid of unwanted gear, another satisfies a requirement, there's a minimum of fuss and delay, and everybody's happy (except the industry guys who feel entitled to pitch their system any time a new buy is made), right? Seems like it to me, but David Axe feels differently.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Is a clear and equal enemy necessary to develop a valid grand strategy?

In times where powerful nations have had clear, and often equal, enemies, developing a real and viable grand strategy has usually happened. Necessity has dictated this requirement. One could argue that we have a clear enemy - al Qaida, terrorism, whatever - but is it really? We can't find their leadership (well, other than their #3 man repeatedly) or them massed on the battlefield which we could then use our military against. So it's not really clear. And it's certainly not equal. While today's enemies could hurt us, they are by no stretch of imagination an existential threat to the United States or any other western nation.

This question came to me after reading the passage I'm about to quote at length. It is from Winston Churchill's The Gathering Storm and in it Sir Winston is quoting an address he gave in March 1936 (it's on page 207 for those of you with the 1948 U.S. edition).
For four hundred years the foreign policy of England has been to oppose the strongest, most aggressive, most dominating Power on the Continent, and particularly to prevent the Low Countries falling into the hands of such a Power. Viewed in the light of history, these four centuries of consistent purpose amid so many changes of names and facts, of circumstances and conditions, must rank as one of the most remarkable episodes which the records of any race, nation, state, or people can show. Moreover, on all occasions England took the more difficult course. Faced by Philip II of Spain, against Louis XIV under William III and Marlborough, against Napoleon, against William II of Germany, it would have been easy and must have been very tempting to join with the stronger and share the fruits of his conquest. However, we always took the harder course, joined with the less strong Powers, made a combination among them, and thus defeated and frustrated the Continental military tyrant whoever he was, whatever nation he led. Thus we preserved the liberties of Europe, protected the growth of its vivacious and varied society, and emerged after four terrible struggles with an ever-growing fame and widening Empire, and with the Low Countries safely protected in their independence. Here is the wonderful unconscious tradition of British foreign policy. All our thoughts rest in that tradition today. I know of nothing which has occurred to alter or weaken the justice, wisdom, valour, and prudence upon which our ancestors acted. I know of nothing that has happened to human nature which in the slightest degree alters the validity of their conclusions. I know of nothing in military, political, economic, or scientific fact which makes me feel that we might not, or cannot, march along the same road. I venture to put this very general proposition before you because it seems to me that if it is accepted, everything else becomes more simple.
Observe that the policy of England takes no account of which nation it is that seeks the overlordship of Europe. The question is not whether it is Spain, or the French Monarchy, or the French Empire, or the German Empire, or the Hitler regime. It has nothing to do with rulers or nations; it is concerned solely with whoever is the strongest or the potentially dominating tyrant. Therefore, we should not be afraid of being accused of being pro-French or anti-German. If the circumstances were reversed, we could equally be pro-German and anti-French. It is a law of public policy which we are following, and not a mere expedient dictated by accidental circumstances, or likes and dislikes, or any other sentiment.
There's more if you want to read it, but that is the most coherent grand strategy I've ever read. Once could conjecture that the menace of Soviet communism was a strong and potentially dominating tyrant on the Continent. So this policy, this strategy, continued for another 50 years after this speech was given. Now there were no more threats to the peace and stability of Europe - and certainly none to the Low Countries. No wonder the UK National Security Strategy was so vapid. The strategy that had been used for 450 years until what is comparatively just recently became somewhat useless.

What about the United States? I wouldn't say that we've had the same strategy for 200 some odd years. At least I wouldn't say we've had a coherent one - possibly to improve our status in the world or our economic condition or something else so nebulous as to be of no value. But we did spend the first hundred years "taming" the land and consolidating the government's power over it. After that things get a little messy except for the World and Cold Wars (the latter of which I would argue was the longest we've ever gone with a single grand foreign strategy). So now what?

Are the UK and US unable to make a strategy because the thing that worries us most (an existential threat) just doesn't exist anymore? When we had enemies with grand strategy, we countered with a grand strategy (or in the quote above have an overarching grand strategy that most everything else fits in). But now we have an enemy that uses a strategy of tactics, which we've met with a strategy of tactics. Having an enemy whose abilities we exaggerate doesn't help - we create operational plans for tactical gains but just come up empty with grand strategy. Is that because we just haven't done it yet, that it's too hard, or that there just isn't one to be had? Why don't we have some overarching theme to our foreign policy like the Brits did for 450 years(!)? Once we get past the platitudes we usually use maybe we'll get there, but I'm not holding my breath. But we need to get there soon, because for the past 100 years in the US and the past 20 years in the UK, we've been letting our enemies dictate the level and validity of our strategic thinking - or even dictate that we shouldn't use strategy at all. I can only imagine what Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, KG, OM, CH, TD, PC, DL, FRS would think of that. I'd guess not much.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

More mystifying speculation about the Republican congress and the defense budget

You're probably tired of this story already, but the defense media can't stop talking about how much/little things are going to change now that there's a new sherriff in town. Lots of coverage of industry folks saying "God, Mackenzie Eaglen was SO WRONG about Republican willingness and ability to protect topline growth." Lots of coverage of Buck McKeon's comments on how just 1% budget growth over inflation will impoverish modernization accounts (though very suggestion that he's going to do anything about it except bitch, and very little analysis of how the politics would work even if he wanted to).

In today's edition of Politico's "Morning Defense" newsletter, Philip Ewing reports on one industry consultant's takeaway from McKeon's brief remarks.
The message was clear: The new Congress will drive the conversation back to the wars, just as Obama’s planned pullout deadlines approach.

THAT MEANS BIG BUDGET QUESTIONS, said defense consultant Greg Kiley of Potomac Strategic Development, a former top SASC staffer. Even if the top line stays flat or grows, and big acquisition projects stay in the picture – both likely – a new emphasis on Iraq and Afghanistan will force lawmakers and the DoD to face those continued costs as well, he said.

One example: Iraq effectively doesn’t have an air force, and can’t control its own air space, Kiley told Morning Defense. The U.S. won’t just abandon it, so that means even after Obama’s 2011 withdrawal (if it happens), Iraq will still need American air bases, equipment, thousands of airmen, jets – and billions of dollars.

“As long as we’re still staying engaged, which we’re committed to, that’s a budgetary question that is not being addressed now,” Kiley said.

I find this argument curious, to say the least, for a number of reasons.

1. First of all, what does it mean to say there will be "a new emphasis on Iraq and Afghanistan [that] will force lawmakers and the DoD to face those continued costs, as well"? Will this "new emphasis" and its attendant costs (whatever those may be; I'm really not sure what he's trying to suggest) be more or less palatable to this new Congress than the $159.3 billion the White House requested earlier this year for Overseas Contingency Operations (pdf) -- that is, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) -- in fiscal 2011? And let's not forget the $33 billion supplemental to the FY10 budget, the one that was presented to Congress as necessary to the president's own "new emphasis" Afghanistan over the past year.

In short: If presumptive Chairman McKeon does "drive the conversation back to the wars," and does put "new emphasis on Iraq and Afghanistan," is McKeon going to "force lawmakers to consider [some] continued costs" beyond the better part of $200 billion that they were almost certainly already expecting to spend to fund the war?

2. Building on my first point, I find it impossible to believe that a former SASC staffer is unaware of medium- to long-term plans for U.S. security assistance to Iraq. Does Mr. Kiley really imagine that the Defense Department, the HAC-D and SAC-D, and the HASC and SASC have failed to consider ways in which the American contribution to Iraqi security can and must be sustained beyond such time as U.S. troops are withdrawn?

As early as the summer of 2009, GEN Odierno spoke to the press about assessing potential options to build Iraqi air defense capabilities as American operations in the country drew down. At his request, an Air Sovereignty Assessment Team spent time in country doing exactly that.
The team was dispatched by U.S. Air Force Central at the request of the Multi-National Forces-Iraq commanding general to determine how to best bridge the gap between U.S Air Force’s departure and Iraq achieving the organic capability and capacity to monitor, control, and if necessary defend its airspace.
During their visit to Iraq in early September [2009], the Air Sovereignty Assessment Team met with the Iraqi minister of defense, the deputy commander of the Iraqi Air Force, the Iraqi Air Force staff, and U.S. advisors attached to Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq Iraqi Training and Advisory Mission- Air Force.
“The goal is to make sure Iraq maintains sovereignty by bridging the gap after we leave,” said Lt. Col. Daniel E. Rauch, deputy advisor from ITAM-Air Force to the Iraqi air staff for planning. “The accelerated schedule of the Security Agreement creates a period of time when Iraq does not possess the foundational capability to ensure air sovereignty or defend against the perceived threat.”
On top of that, the Iraqis have been talking about buying American F-16s for more than two years, and the Defense Security Cooperation Agency formally notified Congress in September of this year of a proposed sale of 18 of the aircraft (pdf) -- a buy that could total as much as $4.2 billion when all is said and done.

3. Acknowledging all of that, I suppose it's possible to look at U.S. statements to the effect that Iraq won't be capable of maintaining sovereignty of its own airspace before the departure of American ground troops and conclude that this means we'll need to retain a costly air defense presence in the region in the meantime. Could this be what Kiley means when Ewing writes that "Iraq will still need American air bases, equipment, thousands of airmen, jets – and billions of dollars" -- that we're not currently accounting for the operating costs of those U.S. personnel, aircraft, radars, and so on that we'll need to maintain in country/in the region? I suppose it's possible. In which case I'd suggest that a good bit of this air defense mission can probably be accomplished by carrier-based aircraft and possibly by planes hangared in Qatar, Kuwait, and elsewhere in the region. (Look, I'm not gonna BS you: I don't know a damn thing about USAF force posture in the CENTCOM AOR or anywhere else.) The big ask is going to be maintaining an air defense radar network, I'd expect, until such time as the Iraqis develop their own capability.

4. When I read Kiley's suggestion that the "billions of dollars" that Iraq will still need for air defense is "a budgetary question that is not being addressed now," it seems more likely to me that he's saying we're going to have to pony up some cash to buy them airplanes. And I'm not going to say that that won't happen, or even that it's unlikely, but I want to present a few facts about the whole thing.

For one thing, the administration requested $2 billion for the Iraq Security Forces Fund in FY11 (pdf), and if the trend holds, about 20% of the money that gets appropriated will go to materiel (that accounts for both MoD and MoI equipment, in case you're wondering). So even after the Senate slashes that ISFF request in half as they did this year -- and the Washington Post editorial board just thinks that sucks, for the record -- we're still talking about $200 million in free cash money for the Iraqis to spend on gear.

Second of all, the Government Accountability Office wants everybody to know that the Iraqis are actually running a freaking budgetary surplus, you guys. And they've got some of that skrilla set aside for U.S. weapon systems, believe it or not.
Iraqi government data show that Iraq's security ministries--the Ministries of Defense and Interior--increased their spending from 2005 through 2009 and set aside about $5.5 billion for purchases through the U.S. Foreign Military Sales program.
One of the things they coughed up real Iraqi cash dinars for is tanks: in August, the GoI took delivery of the first 11 of a total of 140 M1A1s that it purchased from the U.S. (pdf), using its very own money. Another relevant detail here: the U.S. Congress has already passed a defense authorization bill (for FY09, if it matters) that included an expression of the strong legislative preference (and by this I mean "statutory requirement") that "the United States Government shall take actions to ensure that Iraq funds are used to pay the costs of the salaries, training, equipping, and sustainment of Iraqi Security Forces." We can all speculate that a Republican Congress wouldn't pass a bill with a similar provision, and that they'll listen to Odierno and Crocker, but let's just take a moment to reflect on the fact that this and the ISFF reduction are suggestive of a general sentiment that it's time for Iraq to pony up for its own defense.

Now what the hell does this have to do with airplanes?, you're wondering. Well, about that budget surplus... Earlier this year, the Deputy Chief of Staff of the Iraqi Joint Forces stated that investment priorities in the MoD would be shifting after years of budgetary bias toward the Iraqi army, and in the future, 70% of the defense budget would go to the air force. All of which is pretty good news if you're an air force that's trying to spend a few billion dollars on American F-16s, or if you're the patron that wants them to have those F-16s but doesn't want to drop a planeload of cash to satisfy the GoI's tab with Boeing. I don't actually know how much of the proposed F-16 deal will be financed with country funds versus U.S. assistance, but considering the Abrams buy and the spending shift, I think it's possible that this isn't going to require any additional (or at least any unexpected additional) cash in the U.S. defense budget.

So in the final analysis, is some purported "new emphasis on Iraq and Afghanistan" going to increase defense outlays, or place any unexpected additional strains on the budget? It just seems really unlikely to me, especially when we consider Congress' consistent annual complicity when the SECDEF comes over to the Hill and says "uh, hey dudes, we need some extra flow for this war, because we ran out. Or we just didn't really budget for it, I'm not sure. Or, uh, we want to place 'renewed emphasis' on things over there. Because, duh, obviously, it's really important -- it's a war. So, uh, can you help us out?"

Are there really "BIG BUDGETARY QUESTIONS" on the horizon "that [are] not being addressed now"? Nah.

Oh yeah, and P.S.: Mackenzie Eaglen's wrong.

"This piece of junk did, in fact, signficantly contribute to an unknown -- and pathetically large -- loss of innocent lives."

You might want to sit down for a minute, because I have some shocking news: the explosives-detection equipment that the Iraqi interior ministry spent up to $85 million purchasing via shady no-bid contract, and which one American officer described as "nothing more than an explosives divining rod" that "works on the same principle as a Ouji board"... well, it doesn't detect explosives at all. That's not really the story, though, because most people already knew that: Americans have been warning Iraqi police that the device was useless for over a year, and the British government has imprisoned the manufacturer and banned further exports. But the Iraqis have continued to insist that the wand works, at least those Iraqis charged with making public statements on the matter. (A number of not-for-attribution quotes suggest that Iraqi policemen are more circumspect.) That is, until the Special Inspector General for Iraq's October report to Congress, in which the inspector general of the Iraqi Interior Ministry, Aqeel Al Turaihi, "reports that many lives have been lost due to the wands' utter ineffectiveness."

One might imagine that such a revelation would cause a wave of recriminations throughout the Iraqi government, and that things surely wouldn't end well for the guy responsible. After all, that's why you have an IG in the first place, right? Well, the Interior Ministry "shelved the report and quietly granted immunity to the official who signed the no-bid contracts," the Times reports. All of which is even more horrifying if you look back to January of this year, when the leader of Iraq's Supreme Board of Audit announced that the device's procurement would be investigated, with specific focus on those officials who had previously insisted to auditors that the equipment was technically sound. Or when you see the comments of Iraqi MP Ammar Tuma, a member of the parliament's Security and Defense Committee:
“This company not only caused grave and massive losses of funds, but it has caused grave and massive losses of the lives of innocent Iraqi civilians, by the hundreds and thousands, from attacks that we thought we were immune to because we have this device.”
It now appears that such an investigation either never took place or was successfully concluded, then ignored. We can say that there's a culture of impunity and corruption, that this kind of thing happens in the developing world, that people will always find opportunities to steal and enrich themselves in time of conflict. And all of that may be true, but it doesn't make it less appalling or noteworthy. Surely the failure to form a government in Baghdad has impacted the effectiveness of legislative oversight on matters like this, too.

I hope you'll click through the links and read about this if you missed it the first time around or don't remember the details, because the story is almost literally unbelievable.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Election roundup: telling you what you already knew

The Democratic majority is no more. Some of the highlights/lowlights, depending on your persuasion (oh, no, wait, it's pretty low for everyone, considering the depressing takeaway from all of this: on the issues that inform about one-fifth of federal spending, basically all candidates for public office agree with one another, differing only in which company to enrich with the spoils of the public treasury):

Ike Skelton, chairman of House Armed Services, lost to Vicky Hartzler, whose campaign got a boost when Republican leader John Boehner pledged to get her a seat on the committee if she won.

Gene Taylor, chairman of the HASC Seapower subcommittee -- who bragged during a debate that he was "that [Northrop Grumman] shipyard's salesman in the House of Representatives" -- lost to Missisippi state Rep. Steven Palazzo, who distinguished himself from Taylor by arguing that "at all cost, we must protect Northrop Grumman's shipbuilding capacity." He also criticized his opponent for recommending "going to an all nuclear fleet."
Northop Grumman does not have the capacity or the overhead to actually go nuclear. That would devastate our shipbuilding industry. And, you know, obviously conventional ships fight better. Or at least I have to say that so that it won't look like I'm shamelessly recommending the government-funded sustainment of a less-capable production line out of simple loyalty to deep-pocketed potential campaign donors and a commitment to pork.
Ok, I actually made up everything after "shipbuilding industry." But you get the idea.

Glenn Nye (D-VA) lost. His opponent, as we talked about yesterday, made the case that the "planned closure of JFCOM is a direct reflection on Glenn Nye's leadership." Whatever that means.

Randy Forbes (R-VA) won. He had criticized the Defense Department for the JFCOM decision, while in almost the same breath saying "the most important thing we can do with our defense spending is make sure we're spending our defense spending based on defense needs, not domestic wants." Oh yeah: his opponent was an atheist. In southeast Virginia.

Todd Akin (R-MO) won. Patrick Murphy (D-PA) lost. Bill Young (R-FL) won. John Boehner (R-OH) won, and so did Jim Clyburn (D-SC). So too Norm Dicks and Adam Smith, both Democrats from Boeing... I mean, Washington state. Republicans Roy Blount (MO) and Jim DeMint (SC) won their Senate bids, and Democrats Blanche Lincoln (AR) and Kendrick Meek (FL) lost theirs. What do all these folks have in common? Not much, except that they were the recipients of max donations from either Boeing's or Lockheed's political action committees.

So that's a quick look at the way that stark, substantive choices on defense issues helped to inform this year's election. These results were a clear reflection of the voters' unmistakable preference for candidates who take a lot of money from the defense industry, then talk about how they want to spent a lot of taxpayer dollars on the defense industry. For safety and security, you see.

Todd Harrison of CSBA says -- contra Eaglen -- that if the administration submits a defense budget that's a 1% increase over inflation (as they've said they will), "I don't think either party would produce a significant increase beyond that, given the growing pressure to reduce the deficit." Presumptive HASC chair Buck McKeon argued that this increase would constitute a "net reduction for modernization efforts." The SECDEF, though, insists that cash savings squeezed out of inefficient, wasteful overhead will be reinvested in modernization. (Fancy that: a government agency attempting to make best use of the money it's given rather than begging Congress for more!)

It seems that industry is prepared for cuts from a Republican-dominated Cogress, contra Eaglen. One "senior defense industry executive" told Reuters last month that "we don't see spending falling off a cliff, but we expect real pressure."

And finally: Colin Clark at DoD Buzz agrees with me ("I don't foresee a lot of change in how the HASC handles things military with the ascension of the GOP"). Aviation Week agrees with me. Steve Walt agrees with me. Andrew Exum and Richard Fontaine agree with me. Oh yeah, and I don't know if he agrees with me, but Tom Coburn sure as hell doesn't agree with Mackenzie Eaglen about the safety of that defense topline in a Republican congress. (And really, isn't that more important than agreeing with me?)