Politics & Policy

Moneyball and the Military

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

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.

Unfortunately, the world refused to stop, and we now confront challenges vastly more complex than the ones we faced a decade ago. China is twice as rich and twice as powerful. The European Union is unraveling. The Arab world is in ferment, and Israel daily becomes more isolated and threatened. Even as the challenges multiply, America’s ability to meet them is being reduced by a looming fiscal catastrophe that our elected officials appear incapable of warding off.

As a result of the military’s understandable absorption in today’s wars, a ten-year post–Cold War strategic respite was squandered. Now, with challenges abounding, the Defense Department has no idea what a future war might look like or what force structure will be required to meet it. There is no strategic paradigm driving decisions except for a blind call to acquire more capabilities in every area so as to meet every possible contingency.

This is intellectual strategic bankruptcy. It is also, at present, beyond the ability of a nearly broke nation to meet. Without doubt, over the next couple of decades the U.S. military will see its resources constrained even as it confronts a more dangerous world. Success will not be found in the processes that created the Quadrennial Defense Review or the National Military Strategy, which are both ludicrous attempts at meeting the intellectual test today’s strategists face. Success will require the military to find its Billy Beanes, strategists able to upend current thinking so as to approach the strategic conundrums of tomorrow.

Doing more with less is no longer a phrase the military can joke about. It is the reality of the future. If this uncertain future is to be met successfully it requires new strategic thinking.

— Jim Lacey is professor of strategic studies at the Marine Corps War College. He is the author of the recently released The First Clash and Keep from All Thoughtful Men. The opinions presented here are entirely his own and do not represent those of the Department of Defense or any of its members.

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