Politics & Policy

A Letter to the New Secretary of Defense

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

‘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.

In truth, the United States needs a force that can fight either kind of threat. The capability to fight the War on Terror currently exists in U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM); it needs to be preserved, and possibly expanded at the margins. The capability to handle a threat from a state, however, has been seriously eroded after two decades of stability (since the Balkan incursions) and counterinsurgency operations.

Once the SOCOM portion of the budget is put aside, the rest needs to be dedicated towards maintaining a military capable of winning a big fight. If the need arises, segments of the military designed to handle larger threats can be converted into a counterinsurgency or stability force, so long as the doctrine is known and understood. However, a military primarily designed for counterinsurgency and stability operations is close to useless in a stand-up fight against a state-financed conventional force. After the military has spent nearly a decade fighting and redesigning itself to prosecute our current conflicts, it’s unclear whether the competence still exists to repeat the success of the initial invasion of Iraq. This is a capability in dire need of rebuilding. As regional powers grow richer and develop powerful military forces, America’s continuing strategic relevance rests on possessing a force capable of dismantling an adversary in short order.

The Joint Chiefs and other senior military leaders know cuts are coming. For the most part, they have come to terms with this. But there still remains one thing that keeps them up at night — the danger of a hollow force. There are no longer any Vietnam veterans in the senior ranks of the military, but all of them entered the service in time to feel the worst effects of the post-Vietnam budget cuts. Few Americans realize how ineffective and decrepit our military was throughout the 1970s, but these men look back on that time in horror.

Avoiding another hollow force is the one cause the service chiefs will go to the mats over. They are ready to take budget hits, even if it means reducing the force or delaying acquisitions, as long as what remains is effective. Senior military leaders by necessity have a certain outlook on events. From their perspective, the world is getting ever more dangerous. They are probably right. But that is immaterial, as, given our current fiscal straits, the nation is not prepared to buy everything required to confront these dangers. Tradeoffs, therefore, have to be evaluated. They are looking for you to share their most important common value — that these tradeoffs will not lead to a hollowed-out force.

That said, the inter-service fights over who gets what share of the budget will be titanic. After a decade of war, the military’s infrastructure is worn out, even among those parts of the force that are not involved in Iraq or Afghanistan. Much of the arsenal needs replacement. This will cost money, and lots of it. Very early on, you are going to need to create and begin executing a plan to build and maintain a 21st-century force.

This is where a firm strategic vision, one that peers a generation into the future, is invaluable. Each service will present a well-argued and convincing case as to why its needs deserve to be your top priority. Very little, if any, of this is self-serving. The services each have their own perspectives, and what you will hear from their leadership comprises deeply held convictions. Moreover, the military’s senior leaders, particularly those in the Army and Marines, have been at war for a decade. Many of them have endured a terrible toll because of the necessity to fight with “the military you have.” Now that they are in positions to create the military of the future, they see it as their highest calling to make sure that the military we have will be the military we need. Your toughest job will be adjudicating amongst these competing claims to build a force capable of meeting the challenges as outlined in your strategic vision, which you need to make a common vision as rapidly as possible.

While the review recently ordered by the president might provide the required vision and even some solutions, I remain doubtful. For one, it will probably enlist the same old tired body of notables, who have failed to present anything worthwhile in a long time. For another, this body is tasked with finding hundreds of billions in cuts. With that as their primary goal, it is unlikely that providing the force we need for the 21st century will be much more than an afterthought.

Regardless, it is your job to determine the roles and missions of the services and how they can be best employed in upcoming years. Like all recent secretaries, you will be drawn to the siren call of air and sea power as the most effective way to secure American security in future generations. Certainly, no one doubts that the Navy and the Air Force will continue to play a large and often central role in securing the nation’s future. Still, you will do well to remember that most of the fighting and dying over the past ten years has been done by the Army and the Marine Corps.

Throughout our history, the land forces have always endured the worst budget cuts — and deep cuts in the land forces have always led to filled body bags. In this regard, there is likely to be renewed pressure to reevaluate the need for the Marine Corps, which some have derided as a second land army. Besides possessing a hard-to-duplicate culture, the Marines bring something to the table that is nearly impossible to duplicate — a specialty in conducting operations within the world’s littoral (that is, coastal) spaces. In the next generation, these areas will hold over three-quarters of the world’s population and a greater percentage of global GDP. A force specializing in operations in such areas is not a luxury. It is a necessity. In recent history, more than one secretary has had cause to say, “Thank God for the Marines.”

American security requires the near-seamless integration of land, sea, and air power. Each has a crucial role to play, and the nation is relying on you to ensure that as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, the force is rehabilitated and reset so as to meet the challenges just over the horizon. No one doubts your qualifications as an effective budget cutter. What the country hopes is that you can cut fat and increase muscle.

— Jim Lacey is professor of strategic studies at the Marine Corps War College. He is also the author of The First Clash. The opinions expressed here are entirely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Department of Defense of any of its members. 

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