Moneyball and the Military
As a leading strategist puts it, “When the money gets short, it’s time to think.”


Jim Lacey

In Moneyball, the just-released movie about the 2002 Oakland Athletics, General Manager Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt) is put in the unenviable position of being expected to build a championship-level team with a third of the money the Yankees or Red Sox have available to pay salaries. Despite this handicap, Oakland reaches the playoffs, finishing the season with as many wins as the Yankees — 103. But Oakland paid under $400,000 in salaries for each win, while the Yankees paid over $1.2 million. To accomplish this feat, Billy Beane developed an entirely new method of assessing talent, one that would revolutionize almost every team’s approach to baseball.

Retired lieutenant general Paul Van Riper, one of our country’s foremost strategists, is fond of telling junior officers, “When the money gets short, it’s time to think.” Confronted with a shortage of money, but still expected to build a first-class team, Billy Beane was forced to think about baseball in ways no one had previously considered. And for a time it worked. In fact, it stopped working only after everyone else began adopting Beane’s way of thinking.

For ten years now the military has had New York Yankee levels of money. As a Marine officer told me last week, “The nation has paid for everything we have asked for since 9/11. It has made us intellectually lazy.” As our commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, money will no longer be available in anything near the quantity the military has gotten used to. The nation can no longer afford to give the military carte blanche. Worse, given its fiscal woes, it will scrape to pay for the minimum force required.

Military strategists can no longer afford laziness. It is time for hard thinking. The Department of Defense can no longer acquire funding just by waving, in one hand, a list of tasks while waving, in the other hand, a list of what it requires to accomplish those tasks. The current budget reality means that the military will have less money, much less. But just as Billy Beane’s cash-starved team was still expected to play a full season and win over 100 games, the military is still expected to accomplish every task. In fact, more is expected of it. Oakland’s owners and fans were okay with their team losing a third of its games. America expects its military to win every time.

If it is going to do that, military strategists have to start playing Strategy Moneyball.

As the commander of U.S. Central Command once said, “We have to stop thinking about how we will fight if budgets force us to reduce our aircraft carriers from nearly a dozen to nine. Rather, we have to start thinking about how we fight if we are reduced to three.” Things may not get that desperate, although it never hurts to have some really bright people pondering worst-case eventualities. But it is more important to think through how the Defense Department will deal with drastic, but not crippling, cuts. If we can torture a bit more out of the Moneyball analogy: Defense strategists need to replicate what the Philadelphia Phillies are achieving this year. They will finish with the best record in baseball despite spending 25 percent less on salaries than the Yankees. On the other hand, Congress must also take note of what happens when cuts are too fast and too deep. The country cannot afford the strategic equivalent of the Kansas City Royals, who cut their payroll in half in a single year. As a result they are likely to finish 20 games below a .500 season.

Thinking is hard. It is especially hard for military strategists coping with constantly changing global dynamics. Regardless, the need for new strategic thinking is crucial, and time is short. We have just been through a lost decade in strategic military thinking. This is not entirely the military’s fault. With its best and brightest absorbed in fighting two wars, precious little time was left for anyone to step back and think seriously about the future.