Friday, January 28, 2011

The Russian army sucks. But should we care?

Last week the Center of Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, an establishment-connected Moscow think tank, published a series of reports on the state of Russian defense reform in a book called The New Russian Army (pdf). It's available online, but my Russian was crap even when I was studying it, so I'll just trust Pavel Felgenhauer's analysis.
The book lists a number of technical, strategic and personnel problems that bedevil the present Russian armed forces: including a lack of modern weapons, vague military doctrine that does not distinguish precisely what threats Russia faces and the military means that must be developed to counter them. Russia is an isolated power with no significant allies, while the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), comprising Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, depends on Russia’s limited defense resources. According to CAST experts, CSTO allies are weak and disloyal and unprepared or able to support Russia politically or militarily, while these countries require constant commitment and investment. Additionally, an acute manning crisis has diminished the combat readiness of the so called “permanent readiness brigades.”
Felgenhauer's summary focuses on the personnel aspects of the book, recognizing that Russia's other strategic challenges are of secondary importance when viewed in light of an army that can neither deploy nor fight effectively.
According to “The New Russian Army” authors, the main strategic mistake was the transition to one year conscript service in 2008 from the previous two year term. The idea of the reform was to man combat units mostly with contract soldiers or kontraktniki, while conscripts form a trained mobilization reserve are also used as a pool for recruiting additional kontraktniki.  From 2005 to 2007 more than 50 percent of the defense budged was reportedly spent on the federal program to form a contract armed force, which was later declared to be a failure: the number of recruited kontraktniki was inadequate and their quality – dubious. In 2009 and 2010 contract units were replaced by a predominantly conscript force – mostly to save money.
Today, officially the Russian armed forces have 85 brigades, but according to the “New Russian Army” authors their combat readiness is dismal. Sergeants and specialists are 3-months trained conscripts. Unit combat readiness fluctuates twice a year as during the spring and fall drafts trained soldiers are discharged after one year service and units are left with six-month serving badly-trained conscripts and fresh recruits with no training. These brigades are officially fully combat ready, but in reality they may send into combat one or two battalion tactical groups of six-month-trained conscripts.
The crux of all this: the Russian army has perhaps five battalions that can fight worth a damn. What's it to us?, you might be wondering. Well, fair question. NATO's force-sizing construct was based for nearly half a century on the eastern threat, and some folks would still base U.S. military force structure and concepts on a country they view -- along with China -- as a military (if not economic) peer competitor. And for the purposes of our new-ish NATO allies, this may be a noteworthy revelation: Poland and Estonia, for example, will welcome Russia's struggles to field capable expeditionary landpower, and a better understanding of a potential adversary's capabilities can help them to tailor their own forces within a broader NATO defensive framework. But what about for the U.S.: should signs of Russian military weakness meaningfully inform our strategic approach vis-a-vis Russia? As far as I'm concerned: not a bit.

First of all, the way the U.S. understands and behaves toward Russia as an international actor has never been about landpower capabilities -- at least not since the demise of the Soviet Union. Force projection and deterrence are a job for the navy, the air force, and the strategic missile fleets, not conscript infantry battalions. NATO's responsibility for territorial defense still holds, and those nervous smaller states only recently emancipated from Warsaw Pact serfdom are of course interested in Moscow's ability to send an armored column over the western frontier. As a matter of force planning for the Big One in Europe, latent capability is perhaps just as important as who's currently in uniform and manning the guns, and Poland will never be sanguine about Russia -- underpaid, underfed, over-officered conscript force or not. And these revelations aren't exactly earth-shattering or surprising, either: the poor performance of Russian troops in Chechnya and, more recently, Georgia justifiably posed questions about whether the bear had lost his fangs.

So: if the Russian army's weak, it's time to press for advantage, yeah? Time to add more members to NATO, push 'em around on the Caucasus and central Asia, bully them in the near abroad and disregard their red lines, right? Not exactly. Moscow still bears influence far out of balance with its expeditionary landpower capabilities by dint of nuclear weapons, a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, and Russia's status as a willing partner and supplier of armaments to a great many states in both the developed and developing worlds. Medvedev, Putin, and their successors can still exert a great deal of pressure on U.S. interests both in Eurasia and elsewhere, as Russia's shifting relationship with Iran has clearly demonstrated. NATO still depends on Russia and her one-time vassals for logistics cooperation in OEF, not to mention the affinity our little counterterrorist and counterinsurgent buddies have for Russian helicopters.

What does all this mean to us, then? Not very much. Russia still swings a big stick, and it doesn't mean much that in an imaginary battle for Antarctica, we could put roughly nine times as many well-trained, well-equipped ground forces in place. Russian weakness will perhaps pose a greater problem to western interests than strength would: instability in the north Caucasus or elsewhere on the southern periphery is probably our biggest security worry with regard to Russia, and a state that's not capable of conclusively settling its own border troubles and insurgencies is more likely to take unsettling and destabilizing actions than one that's geographically and demographically secure. Beware of those who celebrate this trend: over the long term, a worried, impotent Russia makes for a worrying, unstable Eurasia.

The most awesome project in the history of the internet, publishing, and internet publishing, and it's not even close

Earlier this week, Twitter friend @caidid started a new blog to document her progress on a new project: The Children's Illustrated Clausewitz. I'll let her explain further:
A couple of months back, Jason Fritz said this on Twitter:
To which Adam Elkus replied:
This led to a brief conversation among me, Jason, and Adam about the dearth of good strategic training tools for the playground set (however strong their tactical skills might be, and it sounds like the younger Mr. Fritz’s are pretty solid), and concluded with an agreement that a children’s book version of Clausewitz would be awesome.
It happened that I had just started reading On War when we had this conversation. This was the first time I had read Clausewitz through, front to back. I work three jobs, and don’t have nearly enough time to read, so I get most of my reading done on the train as I travel to and from and between works, meaning that I was carrying a 900+ page book in my bag for about two months, as I read closely, pausing frequently to re-read segments or to take notes. The weight of it on my shoulder made it more of a presence than the average book, and I began referring to it simply as Carl, as if it were a sentient being accompanying me on my commutes. (I was also inspired to get an e-reader). I like to think that Carl and I got pretty tight during this experience, and I hope that we will continue to get closer as we work together on this project (albeit through the much lighter-weight electronic version I purchased once I got that e-reader), but really Adam and Jason (as well as many, if not most, of the people with whom I interact on Twitter and whose blogs and such I read on a regular basis) are much more experienced scholars of Clausewitz and of strategy than I am.
What I bring to the table here is a lifelong commitment to being one of those people who actually does those silly things you talk about doing but never do.
Read the whole post. (As a tease, the story that immediately follows this quoted excerpt is hilarious and awesome.) Monitor the blog. Enjoy the final product.

This is gonna be awesome.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Support for the democratic aspirations of all people: why more talk, less action is the right way to go

In last night's State of the Union, President Obama made brief reference to the anti-totalitarian struggle of democracy activists and protestors in Tunisia, and also to recent elections in South Sudan. He failed to mention the burgeoning unrest in Egypt, something for which he was criticized as a sort of front-runner ("notice he mentioned Tunisia after the whole thing was settled, but didn't say anything about Egypt!", blah blah blah). Here's the bit from the transcript:
Recent events have shown us that what sets us apart must not just be our power -– it must also be the purpose behind it.  In south Sudan -– with our assistance -– the people were finally able to vote for independence after years of war.  (Applause.)  Thousands lined up before dawn.  People danced in the streets.  One man who lost four of his brothers at war summed up the scene around him:  “This was a battlefield for most of my life,” he said.  “Now we want to be free.”  (Applause.)
And we saw that same desire to be free in Tunisia, where the will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator.  And tonight, let us be clear:  The United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people.  (Applause.)
After eight years of the Bush Doctrine ("The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world"; " is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world"; "All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know the United States will not ignore your oppression or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you"; etc.), there's been a lot of justifiable anxiousness to see how the Obama administration would shake out on the question of democracy promotion. The signs have been encouraging, at least from my perspective: repeated assurances that America favors liberty and democracy, but a steadfast refusal to let the perfect be the enemy of the good -- to let our inability to shape the world to our will frustrate us into bleating disengagement, or worse, aggressive war.

So how about the president's comments last night? They're the sort of thing that will surely disappoint (and perhaps outrage) folks on both sides of the democracy-promotion argument: realists and isolationists will contend that we ought not concern ourselves with the political struggles of others, while neoconservatives and liberal hawks will complain that the president wasn't concrete enough about the ways that our "support" will manifest itself (as they did during the Green protests in Iran). Unromantic as this parsing may be, the whole thing really comes down to what you think "support" means, and what it ought to mean. I happen to think that selective engagement -- that is to say deeper involvement in instances where we've determined that American influence can be meaningful and have predictable results, with a continuation of nice, flowery words about freedom and liberty and democracy, plus a helping of public-diplomacy and Radio Free _____, in all other instances -- is the right approach. I don't think a blanket expression of guaranteed material support for all pro-democracy movements in authoritarian countries is a great idea, and I'm happy that neither this president nor any other (even George W. Bush) has made any such pledge.

As Elliott Abrams has said, there is genuine continuity in U.S. foreign policy on this question.
Let me just say a few things first about the first question: Should we be promoting democracy? My answer is yes, we have been for decades under presidents of both parties.
But again, there have been some significant differences on what exactly "promoting democracy" ought to constitute. (I feel confident that Abrams and I disagree.) The real continuity is in rhetorical support, in the way American leaders formulate our counry's self-image. I've always loved this speech given to the House of Representatives by John Quincy Adams on July 4, 1821, when he was Secretary of State (a section of it was the epigram to my graduate thesis). This is the kind of "support [for] democratic aspirations" I can get behind:
America, with the same voice which spoke herself into existence as a nation, proclaimed to mankind the inextinguishable rights of human nature, and the only lawful foundations of government. America, in the assembly of nations, since her admission among them, has invariably, though often fruitlessly, held forth to them the hand of honest friendship, of equal freedom, of generous reciprocity. She has uniformly spoken among them, though often to heedless and often to disdainful ears, the language of equal liberty, of equal justice, and of equal rights. [...] Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.
To repeat a theme I've touched on in past weeks: if our foreign policy serves to destroy or disfigure beyond recognition our own constitutional republic -- even in the service of liberty for others -- then it has failed.

And so I pose a question to Elliot Abrams and Jennifer Rubin and those who criticized the White House and Congress over a "failure to act" during the Iranian elections and the Tunisian revolt and the current Egyptian troubles: what would you have us do? What is it that's expected of us? Hell, let's even forget about the comparatively simple case of Iran, where the government generally opposes U.S. policy aims and the populace seems predisposed to democracy and liberalism; what about in places where our foreign policy and security interests are generally served by an oppressive or even totalitarian government, as in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and in many cases even China? Shadi Hamid gets at the root of the problem in The Atlantic:
The Middle East just got more complicated for the Obama administration. The January 14 popular revolt in Tunisia, the first ever to topple an Arab dictator, has called into question a basic premise of U.S. policy in the Middle East - that repressive regimes, however distasteful, are at least stable. They can also be counted on to support key American interests, which is part of why the U.S. provides them with substantial assistance. Tunisia was considered one of the least likely to fall, but it fell. Across the region, opposition groups, hoping to repeat Tunisia's successes, are emboldened and increasingly active. For the first time, they know what change looks like. More importantly, they now believe it can happen in their own countries. But in the growing battle between Arab autocrats and popular oppositions, the U.S. is finding itself torn between the reliable allies it needs and the democratic reformers it wants.
I've added the emphasis at the end. Hamid continues:
But the problem the U.S. faces currently is the same it faced during the short-lived "Arab spring" of 2005: For now, it is difficult, if not impossible to have both a democratic Middle East and a pro-American one. Because anti-Americanism is so widespread (in part because the U.S. supports reviled autocrats), and because Islamist groups represent the largest oppositions, any freely elected government will want to distance itself from U.S policies.
And here's where we get to the crux of the whole democracy-promotion dilemma: free people do not define their own interests in the same ways, and those interests will not always stand in peaceful harmony with those of other free people around the world. Freedom may be a universal good, but universal freedom certainly will not result in universal peace. One more from Hamid:
The U.S., then, finds itself in the unenviable position of being a status quo power in a region where so many detest the status quo, wish to fight it, and may - or perhaps inevitably will - one day bring it crashing down.
I think this is a vitally important observation, because it helps tie democracy promotion into the broader context of U.S. efforts to shape and manage the international system -- that is, the broader context of U.S. foreign policy. The fact of the matter is that the U.S. is a status quo power on the global stage, and in almost every way: we benefit unequally from the international system as it is presently constituted, and in many respects it's in our interest to maintain it. This isn't universally true, of course: one could say, for example, that widespread global dependence on oil to meet energy needs is a fact of the international system (or a fact which bears on the international system) that is not an optimal condition for the U.S., and so we should work to shape the future in ways that mitigate in our favor.

That's what foreign and security policy is all about, and that's what our "democracy promotion agenda" and approach to human rights should also be focused on: managing change so that the world of the future is as favorable to U.S. interests as possible. When viewed in this light, Hamid's suggestion that we increase criticism of the Mubarak regime and deepen ties with opposition elements is a useful one. "It is better to have leverage with opposition groups before they come to power than afterward," he tells us; this isn't all that different from my desired approach to interstate relations, which (like Kissinger's) concedes those inevitabilities of China's rise that we're powerless to control while appreciating that American interests will be best served by creating and solidifying leverage where possible.

"We're just beginning to start to undo the damage"* caused by Michele Bachmann's goofy vocabulary

Everyone's favorite hot Congresswoman from a cold state gave the "Tea Party response" to the State of the Union last night, whatever that means. The speech was a doozy, and made one point more clearly than all others: if this woman wants to run for president, she really needs to hire a professional speechwriter. I'll leave it to others to criticize the substantive content of the speech, but let me just highlight one notable error related to our area of focus here at Ink Spots:
Just the creation of this nation itself was a miracle. Who can say that we won't see a miracle again? The perilous battle that was fought during World War II in the Pacific at Iwo Jima was a battle against all odds, and yet this picture immortalizes the victory of young GIs over the incursion against the Japanese. These six young men raising the flag came to symbolize all of America coming together to beat back a totalitarian aggressor.
Yeah. I know. Don't even get me started on the language. ("Perilous battle"? "Victory... over the incursion against the Japanese"? Seriously?) But how about this whole "GIs" thing?

First, a question: how many people hear "GIs" and think "American military personnel" in a general sense? For me, "GI" is an Army-specific identifier. (Here's some interesting background on the origins of the term, which apparently started off as an initialization of "galvanized iron," the material Army trash cans were made out of.) We use "soldier," "sailor," "airman," and "Marine" to refer to members of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps respectively, and "serviceman" to refer to them all. But obviously some folks think of "GI" as a catch-all. Do you?

The reason this is relevant to Bachmann's remarks: as all of you will surely already know, the Battle of Iwo Jima was contested by Marines and sailors, not by the Army. That's why the Marine Corps War Memorial is a giant forged bronze statue based on Joe Rosenthal's photograph "Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima," which features five Marines and a Navy hospital corpsman (for those who don't know: the USMC doesn't have medical personnel, so sailors serve with Marine units as corpsmen -- what the Army calls medics).

So yeah, whatever the "victory... over the incursion against the Japanese" was, it was achieved by Marines. It's possible Bachmann knew this and used "G.I." as a general term for all servicemen, but can we just get the lingo straight already?

Oh yeah, and while we're at it, here's another gem: "And I believe that America is the indispensable nation of the world."

1. Something necessary is indispensable to something else... not the indispensable element of a collective.

2. Do you think Bachmann realizes that her allusive catch-phrase was made famous -- indeed, branded on the public consciousness -- by a Democratic Secretary of State? Somehow I doubt it.

*The title of the post is an homage to Rep. Bachmann's very special style of speaking: earlier in her remarks, she said that Congress is "just beginning to start to undo the damage" caused by the administration's policies. Just beginning to start. We're fixin' to get going. Any minute now.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Inflated threat assessments and pro-military policy outcomes

This is from the introduction to Steven Blank's new U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute monograph "Civil-Military Relations in Medvedev's Russia":
This situation of inflated threat assessments leading to pro-military policy outcomes, even if they are only partially what the armed forces want, is a direct result of the enduring failure to establish democratic controls over the armed forces and the 18-year hiatus in defense reform since Mikhail Gorbachev's presidency in 1991.
So what's our excuse?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The importance of language to military culture

While I was highly amused by Gulliver's recent posts on Pentagonese, I've been noticing a trend recently in the blogosphere: denigrating military jargon, both its existence and forms. Some of it, like Gulliver's as best I can tell, has seemed to be in the spirit of the thing and others have been downright condemning of it. I hope Gulliver keeps his series going (I'm sure it's quite informative to many of you), but I think military jargon gets way too much flack for no discernible reason. Well, maybe one reason, but we'll get to that.

Firstly, I question how much Pentagonese comes from the Pentagon. Other than referring to itself as "The Building", it seems that the preponderance of the offending terms are actually military terms that migrate to the Pentagon from the field. I couldn't be sure of that (wouldn't that be an interesting study), but I can navigate the Pentagon language-wise because I know the lingo. And I've never served a day there - I learned it in the field. I suggest that Pentagonese is military jargon come home to roost because, while certainly the head of the U.S. military, the Pentagon is hardly the heart of the nation's warrior class. I couldn't imagine a cavalry lieutenant colonel fresh out of G-3/5/7 just waiting to try out his new cool-kid words on his new cav squadron. Soldiers, unlike civilians, don't usually think anything cool comes out of the Pentagon. The Pentagon is where things go to die.

No, I don't think most of that language comes from the Pentagon, I think it comes from the operational forces. And I think that's a good thing. Every technically challenging trade has its own jargon; doctors, lawyers, electricians, plumbers, mechanics, business types: they all have their own jargon that other probably think is just plain weird. But it's part of their culture, it helps each member of that culture identify others like them, it gives them a simple thing to bond over. The military is no different, except it might be exacerbated more because of the physical concentrations of military posts and combat zones. In small towns throughout the world, the local military facility is probably the biggest thing around and is therefore the dominant culture. Cultural attributes, such as language, thrive in such settings. Combat zones probably compound the use of vernacular - troops from units who would never have otherwise met each other - are exposed to new jargon and it spreads like wildfire.

It gives me a sense of belonging when I can talk to another tanker and talk about the John Wayne Pass, bitch plates, turret rides, or FMs; or talk to Iraq vets about gimlers (GMLRS), MIRC, the 3ID bridge, or Ambush Alley. To say nothing of the many "verbed" and other mangled terms that U.S. Army loves so, so much (kinetic, non-concur, transition, etc) and the even more dear alphabet soup of acronyms. These terms are expressions of our common experiences and hardships. They are things we shared and we (almost) always understand each other - it isn't important that outsiders do understand it.

Which I think gets to my final points here. Firstly, the one reason I imagine people hate this lingo is because they are on the outside and it seems foreign to them. Learn it or don't - it doesn't much matter to me. To give these types some perspective, I don't come to your place of business and bitch that I can't understand your acronyms or colloquialisms. Because they are yours. Secondly, when military types do talk to outsiders, they should stow the vernacular. It's just plain rude to speak that way and certainly not helpful if you're trying to explain to others what it is you are doing. Translate it into the common tongue, please. Thirdly, and finally, I think the biggest problem with Pentagonese isn't that you hear a different language - people would forgive a uniformed person with it. It's hearing the civilians in The Building mimicking the uniforms that is unnerving, as they are peripheral, if important, members of military culture. But it still sounds unseemly and probably why the Pentagon gets blamed for the military's torturing of the English language. All of this is to say, mock it if you will (even I do sometimes), but don't forget it's inherent to military culture. And there's nothing wrong with that.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Obama and the world at the halfway point: An Ink Spots narrative report card

Two years ago today, Barack Obama was inaugurated as president. With the full extent of the economic downturn still somewhat obscure, there were high hopes for an era of American resurgence and a reconsideration of the indispensable nation's posture to the world.

Many of those hopes have been dashed as the dual shocks of a decade of war and a crumbling economy pull our focus inward. But foreign and security policy still matter, even if no one's paying attention. We here at Ink Spots wanted to take a look at the successes and failures of the Obama administration's first two years out in the world, to do a sort of mid-term report card. A few of us took a crack at the subject by answering a dozen questions about where we've been and where we're going.

1. What's been the biggest surprise to you about U.S. foreign policy over the last two years? Any pleasant surprises? Any significant disappointments?

Lil: The biggest surprise? I really don’t know. Pleasant surprises (in no particular order): the lifting of the peacekeeping cap, the passage of new START, increased attention to conflict/crisis in Africa. Significant disappointment: continued failure to adequately fund and staff State and USAID.

Alma: I was surprised that transatlantic relations did not warm up more. President Obama came to office with high popularity ratings on the part of Europeans—and their political leaders. “Old Europe” was hoping for a drastic change in attitude on the part of the United States after the eight years of the Bush presidency. However, the relations have remained oddly distant. There has been a similar disappointment with Africa. The rest of the world expected Obama to bring to the U.S. presidency a more internationalist view, based on his multicultural background and education. But the United States did not want a President who devotes too much time to foreign policy while there is a crisis at home. And President Obama himself had an ambitious political agenda, in the pursuit of which he needed to make major strides very quickly after his election. As a result, he focused—understandingly—on gathering domestic support and downplayed what the rest of the world saw as his value added. An illustration of this is President Obama’s facial expressions when he received the Nobel Peace Prize in December 2009 (“for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples”). Maybe I am reading too much into this, but I felt that in addition to the “Why, but why?” puzzled look, his uneasy smile hinted at a more daunting: “What is the backlash going to be at home?”

Gulliver: Frankly, I’m surprised the administration has spent so much time and effort on a subject that seems basically irrelevant to the president’s political fortunes: Afghanistan. Considering the state of the economy, it’s hard to imagine the mid-term elections having gone any worse for the Democrats if the White House had deemphasized the war effort and drawn down our overseas presence. The Woodward book gave me the strong sense that the president has a realistic view about OEF’s uncertain (and perhaps even damaging) relationship to genuine national security, so I’m shocked he lacked the conviction to stand up to senior military advice.

2. What do you think are Obama's, Clinton's, and Gates' biggest accomplishments and biggest disappointments in these two years?

Lil: I think one clear accomplishment is the improvement of relations with some of our key allies. Some of these relationships had been badly damaged during the Bush Administration and it seems to me that many of these problems, particularly in Western Europe have been resolved. Things have also improved at the UN, both with other Permanent Missions and in the Secretariat. I think a disappointment on that front has been the inability (or perhaps the unwillingness) to get the UN Secretary General to grow a spine and show some leadership. I really hope that the US doesn’t support Ban Ki-Moon running for re-election. His tenure has been disastrous.

Another, and I don’t know who the credit goes to on this one, maybe all three is the clear improvement in policy-making processes and dialogue at the most senior levels. It’s clear that the President, Clinton and Gates work together very well. That’s a good change. I think that the mutual support that Gates and Clinton provide each other has had clear positive repercussions.

I think one accomplishment for Gates has been his work to trim the defense budget. He’s been foiled by Congress at times but I think this is very important, along with his support for more capacity at State and USAID. It’s disappointing that he hasn’t been more successful so I guess a disappointment is the inability to work with Congress—though the passing of new START during the lame duck session was an accomplishment for sure.

Gulliver: I wrote this question, but I still have a hell of a time answering it. I think the president did great work to keep Bob Gates at the Pentagon longer than most people expected, and the level of coordination and collaboration – at least in the public eye – across the entire national-security team has to be considered as an accomplishment for all three. Avoiding a major political fight on the evolution of our missile-defense construct toward the Phased Adaptive Approach was another big highlight.

On the negative side of the ledger, I’m discouraged by the collective failure to take steps in the direction of major national security reform despite apparent (or at least expressed) unity of purpose across State and Defense. Without that, the QDDR doesn’t mean much of anything. And then, obviously, there’s Afghanistan: I wish one of these three would go beyond the boilerplate talking points and try to make a reasoned case for how the war will make Americans safer, but instead we’re treated to Bushian no-safe-havens rationales and appeals to the grievous threat of terrorism.

3. What do you think about the decisions the president has made about Afghanistan? Were you surprised about the escalation?

Lil: I think the civilian surge makes sense and I can’t remember whether I was surprised about it, more relieved I suppose. I was just at an event yesterday where PRT commanders complained (again) that they basically had four civilians on their team (though those numbers are growing). I think there are still huge problems with the amount of money we are spending in Afghanistan, mostly because Afghanistan lacks the capacity to absorb the money in a transparent and effective way. I haven’t yet seen the new US anticorruption strategy, which McClatchy said recently would instruct focus on low level corruption and avoid the political disasters of going after Karzai and senior Afghan officials. Of course, I think it’s disappointing that our leaders aren’t willing to go after officials whose corruption is so blindingly obvious that it makes us look like naïve children for not noticing (either that or hypocrites, depending on your perspective). I was shocked to discover that fighting corruption was not a focus on the Bush Administration and that efforts had basically begun just months after Obama took office.

Similarly, I think the troop surge also makes sense. I don’t feel like I know enough about how operations are being conducted to say how much it will help but it seems that if you say you’re doing population centric COIN and you want to secure the population, then you’ll need more troops to do it (so long as they’re not razing villages for obscure reasons).

Alma: Democrat presidents are rarely at ease with the military. They have to fight two common beliefs: that they do not know much about military issues and that they will make decisions that are generally adverse to the military. President Obama was aware of these pitfalls and accordingly refrained from micro-managing the conduct of the war in Afghanistan. He also gave a large amount of initiative to his top commanders there. And when is the last time a general asked for less troops rather than more? So: no, I am not surprised about the escalation.

Gulliver: I’ve already touched on this, but I think they’ve been almost universally terrible. “Obama’s Wars” probably made me feel even worse about this, because it reinforced earlier suggestions – contrary to campaign rhetoric – that the president is actually a thoughtful skeptic of the war-as-counterterrorism approach. So I suppose I’m retroactively surprised about the escalation, though it seemed basically preordained and unavoidable in December of 2009. There’s a lot of blame to go around on this one – the coordinated McChrystal/Petraeus/Mullen pitch for escalation, however inevitable and effective, was a real disappointment for me – but it comes back to the president giving strong guidance and having the confidence to make unpopular decisions. On this, he failed.

4. What's your expectation for what will happen to troop numbers in Afghanistan over the course of this year? How about by 2014?

Lil: I think there will be a small decrease this year and probably another in 2012 (basically for domestic consumption during the campaign). I think Administration have been steadily walking back the 2011 deadline and they’ll continue to do so. As for numbers by 2014, I think that will depend on how things go between now and then. The decision last week to push for a large increase in the size of the ANSF to me suggests that things aren’t going as well as military leadership would like and that increasing the nominal size of the forces will be the only way to ensure that there are enough forces, eventually, to guarantee some security. I don’t have much evidence to back to that but really the Pentagon’s quarterly reports on the state of the ANSF don’t give me much confidence.

Alma: Some U.S. troops will withdraw over the Summer, but most likely in very small numbers. The ¨surge¨ of troops has only now completely arrived to Afghanistan, and there will be pressure to use these big numbers to the fullest before they go back home—in other words, give the surge a chance. Also, since withdrawal has repeatedly been made conditional to improved security conditions on the ground, the whole process is likely to take years—probably extending beyond 2014. As for non-U.S. troops, the answer is easier: there will be fewer and fewer of them. There is no other country committed as deeply as the United States, and there is no other country that feels its credibility, where it to withdraw, would suffer as much as the United States’. This credibility issue has led U.S. presence in Vietnam or even Lebanon to last much longer than the interests they pursued and their chances of success warranted. Countries who do not have this credibility issue and public opinions hostile to the Afghanistan intervention will call it quits.

Gulliver: I think the numbers will remain basically static through the end of 2012, and that ISAF, the Pentagon, and the White House will juke the numbers by withdrawing support troops. I don’t envision widespread transfer of battlespace-ownership to the ANSF (maybe some in RC-West), though I don’t have nearly the detailed knowledge of operational geography to pass anywhere close to conclusive judgment on this. As for 2014… NATO’s on the record on that one, and I don’t see it slipping. Whoever’s in the White House will rationalize and justify, conclude that our work there has been productive and meaningful to national security, and we’ll keep a few thousand SOF and aviation assets at Bagram and Kandahar into the indefinite future.

5. Do you think the "Global War on Terror" still means anything? How about the Struggle Against Violent Extremism? Where do you think we are with AQ – do they still matter? Is terrorism the primary threat to the U.S., or should we be focused elsewhere?

Lil: Well, I don’t think either meant much in the first place. I think AQ (in its various regional incarnations) still matters but I don’t think that terrorism is the primary threat to the US. I don’t think I buy the argument that our focus on terrorism has been the reason why we haven’t been attacked again, I think we’ve just been lucky (and would-be terrorists were thwarted by their own incompetence). I think that rather than focus on AQ, we should be focused on what makes people want to join AQ. I know that varies from place to place but that’s what foreign policy is for. I’m not sure that we’ve yet achieved that balance in terms of either human or financial resources that are being spent on diplomacy and foreign assistance.

Alma: Did GWOT ever mean anything? It was a catchphrase whose reach and grandeur was a good match for the shock people felt after 9/11. As a political and military concept, it is empty of meaning and useless (and I feel like I am beating a dead horse here—so many people smarter than me have made that demonstration before me that I would not know where to start). Law enforcement is usually the appropriate response to terrorism—war is not. I am not denying the usefulness of a few well-targeted air strikes from time to time. But overhauling the entire political (and social) landscape of a country? This fulfills other aims: hubris, posturing, you name it. But not counter-terrorism.

Gulliver: I don’t think either of the terms have ever had any analytical or operational utility, but they’ve certainly informed the strategic context in which the military conceives of and explains its plans. There are other people who can speak in a far more informed way about the ongoing campaign against al-Qaeda, but I’d just say that I think we do a tremendous disservice to our national sense of self when we build our approach to the world around the one specific anti-globalist, rejectionist element that’s proven most capable of doing violence to our citizens. I don’t mean to suggest at all that 9/11 and terrorism aren’t a big deal, but I’d urge perspective: the reason AQAM are relevant is for their opposition to the global system of commerce and relationships that we’ve helped to create in our own image and still largely lead. Let’s not forget about the rest of it, and about how important it is to maintain that system and manage our place in it to positive effect.

6. Do you think "reset" with Russia is "working"? What does that mean to you? Do you foresee any further expansion of NATO during Obama's tenure? If so, which countries?

Lil: I really don’t have anything intelligent to say on Russia. So I’ll skip that. NATO expansion, something else I know next to nothing about so I’ll leave that to Gulliver and others. I do think though that it’s good that France came back.

Gulliver: I’m a Russia skeptic. I lived in a country that’s been partitioned and occupied by Russia four times. I wrote my master’s thesis about expanding NATO to hedge against Russian recidivism. I don’t believe Russia can be meaningfully deflected from the pursuit of its own interests. That said: yes, it’s working. A stable international system can only be maintained by taking Russia into account; this doesn’t mean we’re always going to win Moscow’s support, but Russian influence needs to be managed. Sometimes we’re just hoping they’ll clear a very low bar: continue to negotiate arms agreements, don’t escalate aggression in the Caucasus, don’t reflexively oppose U.S. interests in the Security Council. At other times, we’re looking for more meaningful and significant action: help crack down on piracy, line up with the rest of the world on Iranian nuclear progress, don’t sell sophisticated weapons to pariah states, take action to ease tensions with NATO. Sending the message that we view our relationship with Russia in a pragmatic, reasonable way – that we take their interests into account and don’t press for meaningless advantage – will pay off in the future, and we’re already seeing benefits.

I think NATO’s done growing, and that’s as it should be. There’s no one else the U.S. ought to commit to defending, no matter the circumstances – the Georgia troubles in 2008 underlined that – and such a pledge at this point could only be taken as a symbolic gesture of aggression (e.g. we’re going to protect Georgia because we like their political system better than yours, not because it serves our material interests). There could be meaningful progress with Ukraine, but their national politics have taken a turn over the last several years that makes that seem unlikely.

7. Can you envision a scenario where U.S. troops would be sent to the African continent in the next two years? Where might they go next, if anywhere?

Lil: I have to say, I really don’t see this happening, or at least not in very large numbers. Don’t get me wrong, I think that it would be great if the US sent more staff officers to work in UN missions. I’m not saying a US general should take command of a UN operation but really, after seeing for myself how the military parts of some missions suffer from lack of good staff, I think even a few US O-4s to O-6s could do a lot of good on jobs ranging from logistics, to operational planning, to intelligence.

US troops are doing things like training African militaries (for example in Congo) or providing support to operations in Uganda elsewhere. I don’t see US troops going into Côte d’Ivoire, I really hope there’s no need to go into Liberia Liberia and I just don’t see the US sending troops to Zimbabwe or Sudan, even if Mugabe’s regime collapses and Sudan implodes. I think the US should support another western country going in to help (say if the French increased their presence in Côte d’Ivoire or the UK went into Zimbabwe post Mugabe) but I really don’t see the US leading any kind of mission. As we’ve discussed before, I think the US could do a lot of good by helping to go after the LRA but since MK previously outlined how that would work, I won’t rehash it here.

Alma: US troops are already on the African continent, where they train numerous local armies. This “quiet intervention” should remain as quiet as possible to be effective, and I have no doubt it will continue in the next two years. But if we are thinking big deployment Somalia-style, then I very much doubt this will be happening.

Gulliver: I’ll let the others speak to possible African hot-spots, but I think the enthusiasm for deployments that could involve casualties is really, really waning. (One curious effect of the Bush Doctrine and the COIN revolution is that Americans are probably now even MORE opposed to overseas intervention in the absence of a strong self-interested rationale. “Counterterrorism” is the vestigial exception.) We’ll still do security cooperation and capacity-building, but the uniformed U.S. footprint for these missions is much, much smaller than most people think. (“U.S.-trained” Ugandan AMISOM peacekeepers mostly get their instruction from State-contracted DynCorp and MPRI folks in baseball caps, not green-suiters.)

8. Do you see isolationist/anti-engagement sentiment playing a significant part in the 2012 election? Or foreign policy at all?

Lil: Yes, I think this could play a big part, combined with concern over budget deficits, high unemployment at home, and a desire to appease the electorate here. I think that this could be a big problem because it could cause us to ignore problems or simply abandon challenging places and that this could later come back to haunt us.

Alma: Isolationism was already very present in the run-up to the 2010 elections. U.S. presidents are expected to focus on America first, and this is even more true in times of economic (and, inevitably social) turmoil. The President’s contenders are expected to show how the country’s leader really does not have his constituents’ interests at heart, and prefers to get busy with larger issues than help the average Joe get a job or keep his house. So yes, the 2012 election will be played largely on domestic themes, and with an isolationist mindset.

Gulliver: Perhaps surprisingly, I don’t. There might be some talk of restraint, retrenchment, or even isolationism among early Republican pretenders, but there’s simply no chance a Republican nominee will come at Obama talking national security as a fiscal responsibility issue. Eric Cantor and John McCain may make some noise about how defense spending is on the table for budget cuts, but no mainstream Republicans are prepared to reconsider firmly-entrenched ideas about American exceptionalism and global primacy, and the establishment is too afraid of tea-party extremism to propel an isolationist libertarian to the nomination.
The president, for his part, has spent the last two years insulating himself from traditional accusations of weak-kneed liberalism; the only way his opponents make any ground is by emphasizing alleged humiliations like “reset”, China’s rise, and “failure” on Iran. Foreign and security policy just doesn’t look like a useful campaign tool this time around, particularly with the economy in the tank. Engagement is here to stay, which is a good thing. Unfortunately, that means that interventionist mistakes like Afghanistan will probably stick around, too.

9. Any guesses on the next SECDEF? How long do you think Gates will stay?

Lil: Umm, I hope it’s not Joe Lieberman. Gates staying, I don’t know.

Gulliver: I keep hearing Danzig, and Flournoy’s an intriguing option, but I don’t think my guesses are better than anybody else’s. The fact of the matter is that the next guy (or gal) will 100%, ironclad, stone-cold, for certain not be as effective as Gates. And that’s a shame. Fingers crossed that he’ll stick around through the next election cycle, but I’m not even sure he knows the plan at this point.

10. Do you see a realistic possibility of significant cuts to the defense budget, significant increases of the State/foreign aid budget, or any combination of the two? Is a pooled resources proposal still alive? Do you think there's a chance of significant national security reform during the Obama administration? If so what should it (or will it) look like?

Lil: I think that budgets are going to be cut across the board but I hope that the cuts will be less significant at State and USAID. I think actually that rationalizing the Defense budget (or trying to) is one of Gates’ greatest accomplishments.

I haven’t heard about the pooled resources thing in a while. I wonder if it died with the UK budget cuts (my understanding is that was the model).

As for national security reform, I don’t know what the chances are (Congress) but I do hope we’ll end up sometime with some kind of national security career in the government that makes doing this job attractive and of course positive for our policies.

Gulliver: As I noted before, I consider it a massive disappointment that this isn’t already happening (at least not with any great alacrity) with a national security team in place that is perhaps more amenable to sweeping reform than any other ever has been or will be. We could use a root-and-branch reexamination of the fundamental roles and missions of our various departments and agencies, but I don’t think that’s going to happen: we’ll use the ongoing wars as an excuse (“you can’t drive and rebuild the engine at the same time!”), but that argument ignores the fact that in our new “security” paradigm, we’re always driving. Congress poses some pretty serious roadblocks to an effort like this, too, what with the impact on oversight and what could reasonably be seen as a consolidation of power in an Executive Branch optimally organized for operations. My great fear is that a failure to examine these important questions – what is the difference between foreign policy and security policy? Who should decide which partners we’ll build the capacity of? How do our security objectives nest within our broader foreign policy objectives… or have we unconsciously flipped the two? – will result in the accumulation of more authority, responsibility, and influence in the Pentagon: the much-feared “militarization of foreign policy” (a term that I really dislike despite its literal descriptive accuracy).

11. What's the national security/foreign policy story from the last two years that nobody knows, but everybody should?

Lil: No clue. I think we as Americans need to become better at educating ourselves about what other countries are like, what lives people have in countries we care about, and also what life is like in countries that have long suffered from conflict, violence, lack of resources, and the absence of democracy. I don’t think Americans should just be discovering that Ben Ali ruled Tunisia with an iron fist or that we care about Guinea because of tin (and of course pervasive human rights violations). I think though that this is a question of education. Maybe that’s the big story: how are problems in our educational system going to affect our ability to interact with the world and do so in a way that promotes peace, trade, development, and democracy. More generally, how is educational system going to help ensure that the next time we decide to intervene somewhere, we’re better prepared, we have more people available with language skills, cultural knowledge etc.

Gulliver: We’re spending billions of dollars a year trying to stand up and increase the capacity and capabilities of foreign security forces, and we really, fundamentally have no idea what we’re doing. The U.S. military knows how to translate weapon systems into capabilities with concepts, doctrine, training, TTPs, and so on, and then how to translate those capabilities into operational effectiveness; we don’t know how to teach a foreign partner to do this with any degree of consistency or effectiveness, and often the obstacles will be obscure and inaccessible to us. What’s worse is that we talk like we can do this in our sleep, and our senior leaders seem snowed enough by it to imagine that security force assistance is more about the sculptor than it is the clay. We’re a blind guy with four broken fingers trying to build the David out of tin foil and pebbles.

12. What's the most meaningful and effective foreign/security policy action Obama could take before 2012?

Lil: I think probably starting to increase capacity at State and USAID.

Gulliver: Predictable, but: withdraw the vast majority of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. It’s a shit sandwich, I know, but it’s one you’re gonna have to eat – letting it get cold isn’t going to make it taste better.

Overall F/SP Grade at mid-term?

Alma: There were some disappointments, but diplomatic efforts were made towards Muslims, the President handled well the McChrystal affair, and no outrageously wrong-headed foreign policy decision was made so far--a drastic change from the previous administration. So I think Obama's self-attributed grade of B+ is, overall, a rather fair one.

The president’s encouragingly pragmatic approach to our most important relationships and obvious willingness to manage the rise of global competitors have been outweighed by the lost promise of major national security reform and the disappointing cave-in on Afghanistan. I give the administration a D+.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Learn to Speak Pentagon, Lesson 2: "FYI/FYSA"

I could almost literally not be more surprised with the enthusiastic reaction to Lesson 1 of this series, both on Twitter and by email. People always like a peek behind the scenes, I guess, and language tells us a little something about the way organizations work (or, alternatively, don't). Nathan Hodge tweeted a great suggestion for our next edition (complete with illustrative transcript!), but I just wanted to dash off a quick one on my way out this afternoon and his takes a little more focused elaboration. So I instead took my inspiration from good buddy Ex, who just this afternoon tweeted:
@abumuqawama: Speaking Pentagon: @ works the issue for your personal S.A.
Yet another one that would scarcely have occurred to me had it not been pointed out, and as such perfect fodder for Lesson 2: "FYI/FYSA."

FYI/FYSA [eff why eye, eff why ess eh], abbr. For your information, for your situational awareness. "FYSA: I have your tasker and am working it"; "FYI/SA: Gulliver has another Learn to Speak Pentagon post up on the blog."

These two abbreviations are used interchangeably, most often as the introduction to email (particularly forwarded communications from a third party). Those who thoughtlessly swap the two make a grave mistake, however, because there is a fundamental difference in meaning. While each indicates "you should know about this, though I don't expect you to take action as a result," the latter expression carries an additional connotation: "I am a douchebag who has worked in the Pentagon too long to write like a normal human."

Ok, I'm being a bit judgey, aren't I? I'll cop to dropping this one into emails from time to time, and I think there is actually a distinct meaning: SA is somewhere in the uncertain quantum space between "for your information" and "for your action." As in this might pertain to you and it might not, but if I use "FYI" you might wrongfully conclude that you don't need to do anything. You know, keeping you in the loop. You can't say "FYI" to your boss, after all -- who the hell are you to tell him what he needs to know?! But if you just want the guy to be situationally aware... then it's like you're trying to keep him from getting surprised. That's good staff work!*

FYSA: In the next lesson, we'll learn the phrase "long pole in the tent." In the meantime, you can work these two until I pin the rose on you for Lesson 3.

*FYI: Everything in the paragraph preceding this notation is exculpatory narrative/possible bullshit intended to soothe my embarrassment at having been called out for using "FYSA" in an email to my girlfriend a few weeks ago.

Army suicide stats and possible implications for future force structure* (UPDATED)

Vice Chief of Staff of the Army GEN Peter Chiarelli briefed the press this morning on last year's Army suicide statistics. The transcript isn't up yet, but according to media reports, he was expected to reveal a decrease in the total number of suicides across the force in the Active Component [ed--updated] from 2009 to 2010. Unfortunately these statistics were also expected to show a dramatic spike in the number of Guardsmen and Reservists taking their own lives.

UPDATE: The transcript of GEN Chiarelli's remarks, which include more precise statistics, is now online. The total number of suicides across all components of the Army was up around 25% from calendar year 2009. On the active/reserve issue, the Vice observed that "the reality is, we are able to more effectively influence those soldiers serving on active duty and help mitigate the stressors affecting them."

This isn't an entirely novel trend, and I've seen a number of plausible explanations for why it might be so: distance from military mental health facilities, dislocation from the support structure developed in one's (civilian) personal life, financial pressure, and so on. One of the interesting things about the way the Army reports these statistics is that members of the Guard and Reserve who commit suicide while mobilized for active duty -- that is, those who are activated for combat service or combat support -- are counted among the active duty numbers. So what these figures indicate is that there's been an uptick in the number of part-time soldiers to kill themselves essentially while living as civilians. These are people who are largely inaccessible to the government's mental health network, and whose emotional health may be impacted by the pressures of daily life outside of uniform in ways that are difficult to distinguish from the negative effects of military service. This is a troubling reality for the Army, the DoD, and the VA, because it complicates efforts to develop effective policy solutions to help these individuals.

Mental health issues are and ought to be extremely important of their own right, but I think this development can help to inform some conclusions about future force structure. The way we organize the military is, pretty evidently, a budget question as much as an operational one. In this time of budgetary austerity, a number of people who oppose cuts to the defense topline have argued both to preserve expensive weapon systems and to maintain the presently inflated personnel end-strength of U.S. ground forces. Even more craven are those who insinuate that inflated military personnel costs -- pay, benefits, health care, and the like; what they refer to disparagingly as "defense entitlements" -- have damagingly starved modernization accounts of the cash needed to effectively defend the nation. And the worst of these argue that program cuts will cost lives, while altogether ignoring the reality that underfunded personnel accounts can do the same: that's when services are denied the resources they use to provide mental-health care, among other "entitlements," to their people.

This is an oversimplification, but we can boil defense spending down to a pretty simple equation. Let's have E represent end-strength; that is, the total number of people in the military. Let P be per-capita personnel costs -- an abstracted figure that represents how much is spent per servicemember on pay, benefits, and the like. O is for operations and maintenance, or the cost of doing business in combat zones and training areas. And then M is for modernization: cash spent on new weapon systems. We'll use D to signify the defense topline -- the overall budget.
D = M + O + (E x P)
For those of you who failed algebra, I'll restate that in narrative form: defense spending equals the sum of modernization plus operations added to end-strength times personnel costs. Again, this is a simplification, and each of these variables abstracts a number of other spending decisions that are nested within it: we could make the P smaller by cutting pay and benefits, or make the O smaller by having less wars. For the sake of simplicity, let's assume the O is stable thanks to ongoing conflicts that will be resourced at a certain level free of influence from other spending concerns. Now we have this:
D = M + (E x P)
If D is to remain stable -- i.e., we can't add anything to the topline -- there are certain concrete, unavoidable consequences to playing with one of these variables. If you want to spend more money on F-22s, for example (increase M), then the other half of the equation has to go down. And for that to happen, you have to either make E smaller -- cut personnel numbers -- or make P smaller by cutting benefits and pay. If you want to have a huge land army (increase E), then you have to either dramatically slash the amount you spend on weapon systems procurement or make more moderate cuts to modernization AND some reduction in benefits and pay.

By now you're wondering what this has got to do with suicide data, I'm sure. We're getting there, but let me first get to the "future force structure" part. As may seem obvious to you, if you have two armies of exactly the same size and Army A's end-strength is composed of 80% active-duty personnel and 20% guard and reserve personnel, while Army B has the exactly reversed composition, Army B will be cheaper. Reservists and Guardsmen receive fewer benefits, are paid for much less of the year, and don't spend nearly as much time as the Active Component undergoing expensive training rotations. Recognizing this fact, some commentators have concluded that the best force structure for America in a resource-constrained environment would be one that had a small, expensive core of professional soldiers with a much larger strategic reserve of cheaper citizen-soldiers, available for activation in times of national crisis. This surely sounds sensible on the surface, as it would allow for savings across the board. Even if one rejects this dramatic rethinking of the composition of our forces, there are other, less ambitious affordability plans that encourage “greater Reserve and Guard integration” – that is, building more essential capability into the organizations and personnel that cost less to maintain.

But the suicide data released today should remind us of the negative consequences of this approach. Reservists are not so easily managed by the government as soldiers on active duty, for the simple and obvious reason that military leadership does not have 24/7 access to reserve and guard personnel. This means not only that officers and NCOs aren't around to make sure Specialist Jones stays physically fit or keeps his hair short, but that they can't monitor his emotional health. In the case of demobilization after active service in combat zones, reservist vets will often be far from mental health counselors and other mechanisms for the services to monitor social re-integration and the impact of postwar stress. Add to that the fact that reservists now face the many challenges of "regular life" in the civilian world, piled atop the trauma and stress experienced in uniform, and it's perhaps unsurprising that part-time troops are more troubled. To take a purely practical view of this, that means the Guard and Reserves will often have a lower rate of what the Army calls Comprehensive Soldier Fitness... and by extension, combat readiness.

This has been a circuitous way of saying that while a reserves-centric force would be much, much cheaper, it comes with its own problems. (This is particularly true if you plan to continue mobilizing those Guard and Reserve units at an extremely high rate, as has been done over the last eight to ten years.) Among the most significant of these is this near-epidemic of mental health issues, which pose a threat not just to combat readiness and operational effectiveness, but to the government's very moral authority – born of the pledge to care for those who serve. Ask the families of private security contractors killed and wounded in support of U.S. combat missions about the pernicious effects of a drive to reduce personnel “overhead” by outsourcing security functions; reservists represent similar “overhead” savings, but is it a good idea to consider a similar “outsourcing” of the bulk of military operations to reservists and Guardsmen?

Of course, there are other solutions. You can shrink overall end-strength without shifting more responsibility to the reserves, but that means a re-imagining of the roles and missions of the military. I suppose you could keep sending 100K+ troops to foreign lands for one-year tours, maintaining that presence for years on end, even with a smaller force… but you’d better have some damned good incentive structure to keep people from jumping out when their enlistment is up. That doesn’t sound like the kind of thing that’s possible when you feel compelled to choose a few dozen more air-superiority fighters over a better enlisted compensation package, for example. Recruiting and retention may not be much trouble with ~9% unemployment, but you can’t (and wouldn’t want to) bank on that one indefinitely, either.

Military personnel costs are the third rail of defense budgeting. If you don’t have the gall and the balls to argue that soldiers and Marines are gonna die without the EFV/FCS/F-22, or if you’re unwilling to accept a choice between systems’ survivability and troops’ quality of life, then you have to figure out a way to operate with a smaller force. Focusing on the reserves might not be the right answer.

*DISCLAIMER: I meant for this post to be just a couple of sentences about the lessons we should be learning about future force structure from the Army’s suicide data. There wasn’t a whole lot of planning or thought behind it, and it’s not built on a complex understanding either of personnel issues writ large or the way the Guard and Reserves organize, train, recruit, retain, or compensate their force. I am not an expert on either of these subjects; in fact, I probably don’t know much more about them than the average guy reading the newspaper. But this exercise took me off in an unexpected direction, and rather than edit down to something tight and persuasive, I thought I’d just leave this virtual stream-of-consciousness essay up as a discussion-starter. If you know more about this than me, tell me. If you think I’m an idiot, tell me. If you think my conclusions are ludicrous, and that suicide data should be considered for the troubling message it conveys about the psychological and emotional health of our force, and not for budget implications, then I’ll mostly agree with you but quietly hope that you understand the purpose of what I’m trying to do here.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Learn to Speak Pentagon, Lesson 1: "We're working that"

From time to time, a blogger or member of the Pentagon press corps will bring public attention to a curious word or turn of phrase frequently employed by military officers and natsec bureaucrats; I'm frankly stunned no one has turned this into a regular feature. The only explanation I can think of is that those of who are habitually exposed to Pentagonese have ceased to find this abuse of the English language either noteworthy or remarkable. I experienced this very phenomenon myself last week when I saw this tweet from Nathan Hodge of the Wall Street Journal:
@nohodge: Pentagonspeak word of the day: "Non-concur." #pentagonese
Wait, what the heck is wrong with that? I thought. And sure, it's a real word, but how often do you hear that one out in the world? In the Pentagon, though, it's totally standard: when you're providing an organizational position on some kind of a staffing action, your options are to concur, concur with comment, or non-concur. Concurrence is basically "agree as written," as you'd imagine, and a non-concurrence suggests that whatever fix you require would substantively change the product. So there you go: non-concur.

Sharon Weinberger teased us with this Danger Room post a couple of years ago; instead of kicking off an entertaining series, her "How to: Speak Pentagon" would stand alone as a one-off. She really nailed it when pointing out "the overuse of metaphors such as 'a bridge too far' or 'the long pole in the tent,'" though I'd broaden it and say "the rampant overuse of idiomatic expressions." This one is insane, and incredibly distracting: it's impossible to have a conversation in the building without hearing about who's going to "get the rose pinned on them," or how we need to focus on the "ten-meter targets," or even -- to cite one that's entered the popular lexicon -- put more "boots on the ground." 

Since none of these press-passers will deliver the goods, I'm going to take up the reins. (See what I did there?) So I'm going to continue Learn to Speak Pentagon as an irregular series, with posts coming as frequently as I can re-civilianize my brain enough to notice the weird expressions. I'm also happy to take suggestions by tweet, comment, or email, though I can always count on a quick swim through the recent DoD transcripts for some fodder. But I don't want to use up all the good stuff in the introductory edition, right? Let's get right to Lesson 1: "We're working that."

working that [wur-king ðæt], v. To have a task under control but not yet completed or prepared for socialization. "Yeah, don't worry, I've got your tasker. We're working it."

This one doesn't jump out at you as being all that different, I know. After all, civilians can work things too, right? But let's be clear: you're never working on something. You're just working it. You know, running down the traps. Making phone calls. Putting slides together. Working it. You work it until you're done drafting a response, and then you have a product. Then you socialize the product. (At which time other people will be working it.) Then you get your comment matrix back, you make your changes, you re-staff, you get your concurs and your non-concurs, you get your leadership chop, and so on. What are you doing? You're working it. The person or organization awaiting your response shouldn't expect to hear any kind of update during this period of time, but they're not worried: after all, you told 'em "we're working that."

Other uses: working a taskerworking that suspenseworking your request

Monday, January 17, 2011

The military-industrial complex, the scientific-technological elite, and the almost universal securitization of policy and politics

Today marks the 50th anniversary of Dwight Eisenhower's most memorable speech, one which -- I am compelled to report by overwhelming journalistic consensus -- "became, arguably, the most famous farewell address since George Washington's" (/"...has become, with the possible exception of George Washington's departing speech, the best-known presidential farewell address in U.S. history"/" to George Washington's farewell address, [is] perhaps the most significant valedictory in presidential history"/"...ranks, as Eisenhower intended it to, with Washington's Farewell Address as a masterpiece of American rhetoric, of balance, and of prudent far-seeking counsel." One wonders why, amidst this remarkably consistent precedent, commentators continue to assert their agnosticism on the matter with possibles and perhapses and arguablys. If only Eisenhower had foreseen this [arguably] entirely valueless and yet [perhaps] apparently unavoidable comparison, he may have [possibly] chosen to deliver the message in some other venue!). A mere 1,800 words, the address provides ample fodder to this day for the sort of prescriptive critical analysis of the type represented above. We all remember the "military-industrial complex," of course, but what of the "scientific-technological elite"? And did Eisenhower really mean that a cabal of militarist interests threatened control of the government, or did he simply want to balance the books?

I don't intend to adjudicate among the various interpretations of the speech. Meaning matters, of course, but it matters differently to different audiences and it's unsurprising that those with differing political ideologies would emphasize different angles on it. (If you want to have a conversation about whether or not the author's intent should matter, whether a passage can be considered as a self-referential formal object with objective meaning, etc., go get a grad degree in lit-crit. Or read this essay in this book.) But there are some bits of Ike's address worth noting for the insight they can provide on the way we deal with defense in our modern political discourse, and for the way they prod us to think about what it is that "defense" is defending -- and how well.

"Our military organization today," Eisenhower contended in 1961, "bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peace time, or indeed by the fighting men of World War II or Korea." He went on to both bemoan and justify the necessity of a "permanent armaments industry of vast proportions," but the re-organization of the federal government to meet a changed threat environment was perhaps even more consequential. The Department of Defense had replaced the poorly-structured (and even more poorly-named) National Military Establishment (huh huh, get it, Ehn-Ehm-Ee?), which was created when the Departments of War and the Navy were agglomerated. There's evidence that Ike's attitude towards the Soviet threat changed signficantly between his inauguration in 1953 and his farewell address eight years later, but by 1961 his assessment of the nature of the nascent Cold War was basically uncontroversial:
We face a hostile ideology-global in scope, atheistic in character, ruthless in purpose, and insidious in method. Unhappily the danger it poses promises to be of indefinite duration. To meet it successfully, there is called for, not so much the emotional and transitory sacrifices of crisis, but rather those which enable us to carry forward steadily, surely, and without complaint the burdens of a prolonged and complex struggle-with liberty at stake.
These words were meant to prepare the American people for what might today be called an "era of persistent conflict" (pdf): a future where the threat of violence and even war was not episodic but constant. Though he would -- later in the very same speech -- warn against "the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex," Eisenhower seeded the ground for just such a future by recognizing a "conflict now engulfing the world," one that "commands our whole attention, absorbs our very beings." The specter of Soviet aggression, waxing and waning though it might over the ensuing decades, facilitated a transformation of our national dialogue to one in which constant vigilance was emphasized. Every aspect of national life was a matter of national security -- of national existence. How then could he have hoped to avoid the subversion of other national priorities to the defense of America? Does it not now seem ludicrous to imagine that mere warnings could prevent this?

And so we've arrived at a time when a social ill like childhood obesity -- worthy enough of public attention simply for its pernicious social consequences -- is viewed as a security threat (pdf). When the Constitutional guarantee of religious freedom is viewed as a security threat. When climate change -- an issue that will literally impact the quality of life of billions of people -- is viewed as a security threat. When the American tradition of multiculturalism and immigration is viewed a security threat. When our very fiscal solvency is viewed as a security threat. That's how we end up with a garbage "National Security Strategy" that isn't really a strategy at all, and that does next to nothing to make Americans safer or better off.

I don't disagree that each of these issues has a security component; this seems indisputable. But when a range of disparate subjects, matters that are relevant and even fundamental to our national identity and our social health, can only be made to impact the public consciousness when they're described as matters of national security -- it's distressing. In many ways it's unavoidable. Consider 1) the philosophical justification for the state's writ and monopoly of violence, the social compact, the Leviathan angle, etc.; 2) the Constitutional emphasis on national defense as a prerogative of limited government (which flows from 1); and 3) the natural human tendency to entrust responsibility for the defense of one's own person to a higher authority so as not to concern oneself with violence and conflict. Taken together, it's easy to understand why programs justified on security grounds are far more likely to be funded and supported by the public than those that aren't (just look at the ease which with development aid for OEF-facilitator and erstwhile anti-extremist counterinsurgent Pakistan has recently sailed through Congress, while non-military aid is typically a struggle to justify on the Hill). It's also easy to see why many libertarians and fiscal conservatives have no problem treating the defense budget as untouchable, and why defense budget bloat is so common and predictable.

But it doesn't bode well. This isn't just a matter of messaging, either: the way we talk about problems informs the choice of tool we use to solve them, and the rhetoric of persistent conflict and multifarious threat mitigates in favor of the military instrument. That's how we end up with joint doctrine that perceives the "spectrum of conflict" and the "range of military operations" as including everything from stable peace to general war -- not to mention "Phase 0," which includes all "steady-state" activities along the continuum. It's how we end up with the military doing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, counter-narcotics, counter-terrorism, and so on. (It's also how we end up with an unexamined belief in the utility of force to produce predictable constructive effects.)

This is not a new idea. In an important if slightly breathless piece in this month's Atlantic, Andrew Bacevich cites words written, fittingly enough, during the Eisenhower administration:
In his 1956 book, The Power Elite, C. Wright Mills, a professor of sociology at Columbia, dubbed this perspective “military metaphysics,” which he characterized as “the cast of mind that defines international reality as basically military.” Those embracing this mind-set no longer considered genuine, lasting peace to be plausible. Rather, peace was at best a transitory condition, “a prelude to war or an interlude between wars.”
This "cast of mind" has evolved yet further in the modern age, as peace is neither a prelude or an interlude, but rather a point along the spectrum of conflict: the venue for Phase 0 shaping operations. Indeed, this "military metaphysics" informs recent emphasis on capacity-building and the "indirect approach"; security policy as foreign policy, war without war: boosting the capacity of partner nations' forces to secure their own territory and contain conflict without costly and dangerous U.S. involvement. (Note the way that debate over the Iraq and Afghanistan escalations tended to hinge along one issue: whether to increase Western presence and operational tempo or to increase emphasis on training and equipping host nation forces.) Surely this is better than getting Americans killed, but it betrays questionable optimism in the ability of U.S. policymakers to meaningfully influence outcomes through indirect action.

And what of using the military to effect foreign policy? Something our forebears knew and that we've forgotten is that the military instrument is a blunt one. (Afghans seem to realize this better than we do: fighting, it's often said, is viewed there as a stage in a continuum of negotiation. When terms change, you change sides.) It is tremendously effective for shaping choices when the adversary's options are to move or to be destroyed. Armor is the "combat arm of decision" because it combines firepower and mobility in such a way as to make the tanker's definition of "victory" a viable one. (Ask Jason about this. The polite version would be something like "victory is when your tank is parked on the enemy's position and you're performing unsavory acts on his personal possessions.") Force is less useful, as both Rupert Smith and Gian Gentile would tell you, when the object is to change the minds of men: violence and coercion unmoored from broader strategy will be especially impotent. In a sense, our philosophies of war and our technologies of war are developing at cross-purposes: man has never been possessed of greater destructive power over his enemies, nor has he ever been more desirous of influencing his adversaries' behavior in a calibrated way, with minimal violence. We seek a way not simply to destroy the enemy but to control him, and yet the tools at our disposal are, as ever, still suited more to destruction than control.

Some think the answer is to highlight the nefarious relationship between the makers of our destructive tools and the drivers of our policy. To be sure, the influence of industry on government is troubling, and we ought to be mindful of war profiteers enriching themselves to the detriment of the Republic. But Eisenhower's speech wasn't about arms dealers' holding the budget hostage -- after all, he "recognize[d] the imperative need for" a vast and influential military establishment, while warning against a "fail[ure] to comprehend its grave implications" -- it was about his fear of the country becoming something it ought not to be in the service of what seemed to be reasonable defensive concerns. The "national welfare of the future," he warned, should not be imperiled by the "action of the moment." Basic research and development risked being overwhelmed by a profusion of government and military contracts, Ike said -- the influence not of the military-industrial complex, but of the scientific-technological elite -- again foretelling the subversion of civil aims to the imperatives of security. In the dystopian future of Eisenhower's nightmare, civil society would serve the needs of defense science just as our politics served the needs of our military establishment.

The size and diversity of our economy may have prevented the first of these fears, but is it not obvious that our rhetoric has set the stage for the second to come to pass? Influence may be "sought or unsought," we were reminded, and I take pains here to emphasize that I'm no conspiracy theorist. The elements and actors that have "conspired" to create this reality are mostly unthinking. (I don't believe Lockheed Martin is subtle or smart enough to try to increase its own profit margins by encouraging retired generals to advocate for a campaign to end childhood obesity on national security grounds, thus encouraging an over-securitized national dialogue.) But it's where we are today: each and every national issue is described as having a security component, at the very least, and many are described bluntly as "threats to national security." We're in a time of budgetary austerity, but it's still relatively easy to ensure hundreds of billions of dollars for defense and other initiatives that are justified under the guise of "security." The military takes advantage of this rhetorical climate to ensure its own budget share, piling on more and more missions and asserting that somebody in government needs to be able to do them. And our political leaders are complicit in all of this, knowing that it's easier to lock up votes by showing "support for the troops" through a big defense topline and an expensive new weapon system than by trying to move the national conversation about security to a more rational place.

We can spout pious irrelevancies about the relative size of the defense budget as a share of GDP. We can harp on a one-eyed interpretation of Eisenhower that blames our national malady on the plotting of eminences grises looking to make a buck. We can talk about how the guys in the other party don't really understand what Eisenhower meant. We can even argue that in a time of record deficits, the three-quarters of a billion dollars that gets spent on defense "is not the problem." But if we listen to Ike, what we cannot do is to simply ignore the pernicious effects of this new paradigm... one that Eisenhower himself, I'm afraid to say, helped to create.