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April 18, 2005

Beware the Broken Force
Posted by Derek Chollet

A consistent theme from many of us here at DA has been the importance of bridging the gap between progressives and the American military – and by that we don’t mean that we should become militaristic or war-mongers (because that’s not what the military is about), but that we need to prove that we have better ideas for their future – from how our military men and women train and fight to how they are equipped and recruited to how we take care of them and their families here at home.

The first step is to understand the tremendous strain being placed on our military, why it’s happening, and what we intend to do about it.  Last week Salon published an excellent piece by Mark Benjamin describing the strain: over 1 million troops have been deployed since 9-11, and of those over a third have gone to Iraq or Afghanistan more than once.  63% of the regular Army have been to war at least once, and 40% of those have gone back.  Almost 90% of the Marine Corps Reserve have fought.

Such heavy personnel demands, coupled with runaway costs for maintaining equipment, make modernizing the military extremely difficult.  Right now Congress is debating another massive supplemental to pay for current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Republican Congressman Curt Weldon, a strong Pentagon supporter, describes the tension between current costs and future ambitions for the military as a “train wreck.” 

Moreover, given these strains, it is incredible to think that during the 1990’s the Clinton Administration was criticized for reducing military readiness (some claimed that the Bosnia’s and Kosovo’s hindered us from being able to fight two regional conflicts simultaneously).  It’s time for us to play the readiness card.   

This overstretch is having a huge impact on recruitment and retention, and the services are starting to miss their targets.  Military leaders know that this cannot be sustained; they talk openly about creating a “broken force.”  As Army Vice Chief of Staff Richard A. Cody told a Senate panel last month, “What keeps me awake at night….is what will this all-volunteer force look like in 2007?”   Given the potential challenges we face that might require military force – from the ongoing war against terrorists to the possibility of deploying troops to stop genocides like Darfur – such concerns should keep us awake too. 


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While there is little to dispute in this piece it lacks any concrete proposal or answer. To play the "readiness card" is to do what exactly? Are progressives to strongly push for large increases in military spending in order to fix the issues above; moreover, should progressives demand an increase in force structure too?

There is no question that military spending, force structure, and readiness all decreased under the Clinton administration. This followed the 1st Bush administrations defense cuts at the end of the cold war. Some areas, like the ship-building budget, were cut too far but on the whole it was a measured reduction following decades of above average military spending.

It was a mistake in large measure. The peace dividend was peace and paradoxically without the east/west cold war regime imposing stability through fear of global thermo nuclear war it turns out in many ways our world is less stable. Without the huge threat of the USSR and the Warsaw Pact we certainly do not need a Cold War sized Navy and Air Force but we obviously cut the army too much.

So I ask again are progressives to propose and strongly support increased military spending? How about even questioning the current US Army plans to "transform" itself into binary brigades that fundamentally lack the ability to engage in sustained heavy combat. For some historical perspective Italy turned to binary units in the 1930's in a response to colonial wars but found that in a real war against the western powers these units were at a severe disadvantage.

Are progressives to rise up and support legislation to force the US Navy to stay at 12 carriers instead of going down to 11? Indeed how about addressing the underlying US Navy policy that allowed them to contemplate going from 12 to 11 carriers?

It would not just be refreshing if progressives came out in favor of any of this but stunning.

Lane Brody

There are only 2 basic answers to this problem:

1) Start a draft. No amount of benefits is going to convince people to risk their lives for an amorphous goal.

2) Don't start preventive wars, which are inherently controversial and will therefore be unilateral.

I suspect the fact that these 2 solutions are unpopular is the reason Derek was so vague about addressing this problem.

Costs and a reduction in readiness much greater than in might otherwise be necessary are just some of the reasons why we need to strengthen organizations capable of multilateral interventions.

No nation can independantly guaranty it's own security, much less gauranty the world's. This is why the US, as the most powerful nation in the world needs to lead, in the sense of leading by example while working with others, rather than either going broke or only going half the distance.

Costs and a reduction in readiness much greater than in might otherwise be necessary are just some of the reasons why we need to strengthen organizations capable of multilateral interventions.

No nation can independantly guaranty it's own security, much less gauranty the world's. This is why the US, as the most powerful nation in the world needs to lead, in the sense of leading by example while working with others, rather than either going broke or only going half the distance.

Sorry for double post. Browser had said the first one didn't go through...

Clearly a broken force is no use in the short run.

But the question we have to deal with is what missions will we assign our military?

Without getting into too much detail, I see a few different general possibilities to consider.

1. The only world superpower. If we're going to be the only superpower we need a military to match that. We need to be able to challenge any nation in the world on their own turf, and we need to intervene in whatever thirdworld hellholes that need somebody to intervene.

2. One of multiple superpowers. Within a few years presumably the other superpowers will be china and india. Looking ahead, we need to do whatever it takes to conserve civilian use of oil since we have no military alternative to aviation fuel. If there are 3 superpowers we could choose to be the third that plays the other two off against each other. Or we could choose to be the first. Either way it will be a big arms race played against diminishing resources. We mostly won't have to worry about direct third-world interventions. We can't afford to do those; while we're tied down our enemies will prosper. Also they tend to fail. The USA in korea and vietnam, the russians in afghanistan, it's the sort of thing superpowers tend to get trapped into. Direct intervention is a luxury for the only superpower, not something to do when there's another superpower too.

We can and will arm puppet regimes and insurgents etc, but we won't give them our good weapons and we won't send our troops, except perhaps small numbers of special forces to train them. A simpler world for the military.

3. A regional power. If we give up being a superpower, our military needs turn less expensive. But our options to employ force are reduced. Can we maintain the sort of military we'd need as a superpower? Can we afford it? Can we afford not to? What if some other nation gets superpower status and we don't?

We would need to develop methods to train large numbers of troops quickly, using munitions we could make quickly. If we can't afford a large expensive military we'd need the chance to build one quickly. Things like super-smart minefields, that could be set up in hours by a few men and perhaps maintained remotely would be useful. And ways to train a whole lot of men at once -- video games etc?

4. A major support for the UN. We might get involved in a lot of interventions even if we aren't a superpower. We'd need to develop methods to do that. Intervention by a nonsuperpower. We might get good at moving noncombatants out of the way and protecting them. Find a country that needs guest workers and get them moved there.

Alternatively, we might arrange to actually stop the fighting. Here's the best approach I've heard of. You train an all-woman force. They get military training and weapons, but they don't intend to use them, they show up to "help". They listen to anybody who'll talk to them and say what they think is right. The basic rightness is, people who have grievances must submit to arbitration and abide by the results. If somebody insists on fighting then they'll fight, but it's fighting women. They aren't armed men invading the country. They treat the men like younger brothers, the officers treat fighting men like disobedient sons. They particularly negotiate with women. "Your men have gotten out of hand, they're playing far too rough and hurting people." When we send in occupation troops we're giving the local combatants a respect they may not deserve. We're giving them foreign young men to fight. But send in women who demand a peaceful solution, who treat the fighting like an aberration ... it might work. And if they seriously fight our women then we can send in the men with no compunctions.

Anyway, we need to get the goals straight before we can figure out what force levels we need and how to organise those forces.

Are the comments above the "progressive" answer to addressing our current problems in Defense? The idea that we can not afford what we need, for any stated reason, can not be supported by any casual glance at the facts. Around 1990 the US Army maintained a force of around 18 active divisions of which the heavy divs maintained 10-11 battalions. Today the US Army has 10 Divisions of less battalions and with fewer seperate units. There is zero problem going to 12-14 division which is obviously what we need.

The view that a small military often requires multi national partners is fine for Holland and Denmark but the US can not afford such a policy. To hold a world view where anything we do alone is by definition wrong is to not understand history. Even in Afganistan where other nations were prepared to directly support us they were mostly incapable of assisting us in any way.

Power projection is about carriers, large transports, tanker planes, etc. As of today all of Europe does not have even a significant fraction of our capability. Depending on them is not an option.

Lane Brody

Lane, if we want to expand our military we desperately need to cut way back on consumer spending. In some important ways we're a lot poorer now than we were in the 1980's and that doesn't look like it's going to turn around anytime soon. So if we're going to go on a war footing we need to really go on a war footing. More money for the military and a lot less money for civilians.

I'm not clear how many carriers we need. What's the lifespan of a carrier in the 21st century? How long can we keep using them? It would be more expensive to spread their load among a bunch of smaller ships -- how much value is there in not putting all your eggs in one hull?

Before we know whether we can afford what we need, we have to define our objectives. If our goal is to remain the single world superpower through the 21st century, I strongly doubt we can afford what we need to do that. How much will we reduce the goal?

The Bush plan has been to siphon money from the regular military to finance the war of the moment plus the nonworking missile defense, and encourage consumers to keep spending, and pay for it all by borrowing the money from japan and china. I don't think we can keep doing it that way for much longer. What kind of defense plan would we pitch to the public to persuade them to go along with rationing etc? A permanent war footing....

It just doesn't look very plausible to me at the moment.



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