A Letter to the New Secretary
of Defense

American security requires the near-seamless integration of land, sea, and air power.


Jim Lacey

‘When we lose the next war, and an American boy, lying in the mud with an enemy bayonet through his belly and an enemy foot on his dying throat, spits out his last curse, I want the name to be not MacArthur, but Roosevelt,” General MacArthur said to President Roosevelt in reaction to administration-proposed budget cuts in 1933.

MacArthur, who well remembered the terrible price unpreparedness cost the nation in the First World War, was speaking from the heart, though with more vitriol than is wise when addressing the president of the United States. He later admitted to vomiting on the White House steps after the meeting. Unfortunately for the nation, the budget cuts went through anyway, and America paid a terrible price for its shortsightedness again in World War II. There is a lesson here: The bills for unwise cuts are paid for in the blood of America’s youth.

As you take over the Department of Defense, keep in mind that the men and women you will deal with on a daily basis know very little about you. What they do know is that you have a reputation as a budget cutter. This makes the military’s senior leadership wary. They also know, however, that when Congress came to punish CIA personnel for their necessary and correct actions in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, you waged a vicious and ultimately successful battle to protect them. In a culture where loyalty remains a highly prized commodity, this will hold you in good stead with the most valuable military leadership.

No secretary in recent memory did more to damage the civil-military relationship at the highest echelons than Rumsfeld. After the Rumsfeld debacle, Secretary Gates moved quickly to establish close and deep relationship with the Pentagon’s senior officers. He respected them, and they returned that respect in equal measure. But within months of Gates’s departure, most of the military’s senior leadership is going to follow him out the door. In your first few months, you will need to find replacements for half the Joint Chiefs of Staff, many of their No. 2’s, and several regional commanders.

I am not qualified to make recommendations as to whom you should select. But you must keep two things in mind. First, most of those who recommend candidates to you will be as poorly qualified to do so as I am. Second, nothing will say more about you and your priorities than whom you select for top posts, and much of your future success will be determined by your selections. So: Find men who will tell you the hard truth in private, fight you tooth and nail when their convictions demand it, and close ranks to support you when the tough decisions are made.

One more thing in that regard. Gates’s civilian leadership team has, for the most part, done an outstanding job in the past two years. Still, their positions are not sacrosanct. As the military team changes out, don’t be shy about moving new blood into the Pentagon’s civilian leadership positions. Gates’s team needs to become Panetta’s team. That does not mean a purge is required, but it never hurts to look for places you can fill with your own allies. In the Pentagon, it never hurts to have a friend or two beyond your dog.

Beyond the crucial job of getting the right people in place, you are going to be called on to determine the direction the military needs to go so as to meet the challenges of a rapidly evolving and increasingly complex security environment. Unfortunately, there is very little out there to guide you in this endeavor. The Quadrennial Defense Review is not worth the paper it is written on, while the National Security Strategy and its children (the National Defense Strategy and the National Military Strategy) are primarily political documents that do little to set security priorities. By placing a priority on everything, these documents serve only to frustrate strategists looking for clear directions as to how to best apply dwindling resources. Well, they frustrate the strategists who take the time to read them — most do not bother.

The absence of decent guidance does not, unfortunately, absolve you of your responsibility to peer into the future and determine not only the kind of military the nation needs, but also how much of one. Here, once again, you will get all kinds of advice, ranging from focusing on the asymmetric threats presented by globally networked terror organizations to preparing to fight a high-intensity war against a near-peer competitor, such as China.