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April 19, 2005

Minding the Military Gap
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

I completely agree, but what do we do about it?  What’s the right direction to begin thinking?  The options as I understand them – mostly from Phil Carter’s recent article in the Washington Monthly but also from a Princeton Project conference last fall are as follows:

  1. Get foreign countries to share more of the burden.  Obviously this is key and easier said than done.  But even if we werre successeful, the assistance will be something we do not control.  We cannot find ourselves in a situation medium-term where we’ve banked on help, but cannot guarantee it’s there. So this doesn’t solve it.

  2. Private contractors. Peter Singer at Brookings (no not the Peter Singer, the other Peter Singer) has a lot to say about why this is costly, hard to control, and sets up tension with the military.

  3. So-called “transformation of the military.”  Flying tanks, robots and the like would lessen the need for manpower.  Untested and probably years away at least.

  4. A draft.  This is how Israel copes.  But its politically untenable, and – at the very least – an option of last resort that few think we need to broach now.

  5. Enlarge the force and/or the reserves.  Unclear whether we can do it and at what cost. It will also involve making heavy long-term financial commitments we’d have to see through even if our military needs shrank. But bottom line seems to be that we’ll have to find a way, get more creative about the career and other benefits of joining, and pay what it takes.  My stabilization force notion might help expand the pool.

Are these the right options to be thinking about?  Are there other avenues?  What more do we need to know to figure out what course is best, and building public support for it?


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Maybe it's time for progressives to think seriously about a draft, or more properly, universal national service. Right now, the US military is not representative of the whole of the US population, and that, I think, is detrimental to the nation in the long run.

But the larger issue is that this could be a great opportunity to tie progressivism to national service. What about a program where every able-bodied 18-year old were drafted into a national service program? Each inductee would be able to choose to join either the military, the Peace Corps, a Peacekeeper Corps, or the domestic service corps. Each could choose to join for 2,3, or 4 years. As an inducement, and compensation for serving their country, each inductee would then recieve a "GI Bill" college tuition benefit, which would vary in dollar amount based on the length of service, and danger of the branch they chose.

Such a program of national service would solve the manpower problem of the armed forces, while also providing a pool of trainees to serve as peacekeepers/nation-builders. It would also provide options for short-term service and for opportunities for doing public works projects in the US. It would also allow for a great expansion in educational benefits, opening them to people who now would not have an opportunity to afford college otherwise.

Most of all, it would democratize the burden of responsibility of the citizenry to the nation at large. Right now, that responsibility is fairly narrowly-defined (military service) and is falling upon a fraction of the population.

Even viewed this way, I suspect most progressives would not support such an idea, and certainly not under the current Presidential Administration. It would also be expensive to implement and maintain. Given the current commitment to weapon systems, I doubt the military would really want responsibility for training and integrating perhaps millions of new recruits into current warfighting doctrines. I also think the military would see a "peacekeeper corps" as a rival for budget and missions, and oppose its creation.

Still, I think progressives should not reflexively dismiss the notion of national service. It could be a vehicle for promoting some very important forward-looking changes.

I think the progressive response has to be different and more well developed in these five issues.

1. Coalition support - the combatant commands do a great job in working with regional allies, and in many cases know exactly what our allies will and will not support in terms of military forces. Problem is the political connections (e.g., telling allies to "get in line" rather than convincing them of the goodness of the goals.

2. Private contracting of non-critical jobs is important. Let's not talk so much of the few isolated cases of "mercenaries" but rather the important jobs of building temporary bases, moving supplies, and providing services such as food and clothing.

3. Transformation of the military to a more mobile expeditionary force that relies less on overseas forward positions is critical. This isn't only hardware, it's leadership, education, doctrine, and organization. It has to be done, we can't rely on a Cold War-style military. Yes acquisition reform is needed but that's another topic.

4. The draft is not going to happen unless the United States is invaded or Bush decides to invade Syria and Iran in the next two years. If we are smart about coalition support and don't get tied down in situations where we're trying to force diplomacy from gun barrels, a massive increase in personnel is not necessary. We could use 30,000 or so more in the Army though.

5. Yes, increase the military - Army at least, probably the Marines too, Navy can get by with 10-11 carriers. Slightly increase the size of the military to handle some overseas commitments and relieve the heavy optempo, but understand that every 10,000 people mean a major defense acquisition program might be delayed or killed. There has to be a balance and a logic.

Bravo for listing our options. The draft ended 30 years ago and during the Cold War the US maintained a much larger military than we have today from a smaller population base. The need for a draft does not exist and the military has never had higher quality people than they do today.

Transformation is both going to happen, crucial, a panacea, and an extremely dangerous delusion that often produces rationalizations about how we can make do with less. A new plane or ship that is designed to require far less maintence does mean savings in personal, equipment, spares, etc; however, saying better networking increases lethality to the point that one battalion can do the job of two rather misses the point that some missions remain centered around how many actual boots are on the ground. Frankly, progressives should be looking very hard at transformation.

Without question the nation can readily afford an Army large enough for it's needs. 20 years ago the Army was almost twice as large as today, without a draft, and from a smaller population base. We don't need an Army of 18 divisions in any case but certainly we do need more than the 10 we presently have.

A progressive proposal to rationalize the military so we can better afford what we need might look at unification of the services. Every one of the 4 branches of the military maintains an air force- the smallest of which (USMC) by itself is a match for most nations on earth. How about getting rid of the Air Force? The unique missions of heavy bombers, transports, space command, etc. could be absorbed by other branches. The only warplane the USAF is going to buy in large numbers in the next decades is the F-35 which will also be flown by the USN/USMC. Indeed recent USAF proposals envision flying more USMC versions so why not just have a slightly larger USN/USMC force, with maybe a few to the Army for CAS, and get rid of the Air Force?

Beware transformation. Army brigades of 2 battalions is extremely short sighted and dangerous in that they fundamentally lack an ability to engage in sustained heavy combat. What is going on in Iraq right now is neither heavy nor sustained. The US Army is preparing to fight another Iraq which after 2 wars proved itself not to be much of a threat. The Army should be prepared to deal with a worst case scenario not an expected easy enemy where the biggest concern is post-conflict troop rotation.

Transformation that allows the US Navy to operate less ships misses the point that fewer ships are used more often meaning they wear out sooner, and require more maintence and earlier replacement. Less ships mean less ships. Real savings can and need to be made but not short term illusions.

Transformation to a "light" force misses the point that every Pentagon report on Iraq and recent experiences by both Israel and Russia point out that heavy armored forces are more crucial than ever to modern combat but especially urban combat. Transformation from an army of heavy armored vehicles to one of lightly armored trucks is to misunderstand modern warfare on a fundamental level. Light and medium forces are important and needed in many roles. They can not however replace heavy forces nor can they overcome the laws of physics whereby more armor means more weight, period.

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