Monday, November 17, 2008

Not Quite “The Thunderer” – But Still a Timely Noise

When I first began seriously reading about military topics, beyond the usual war stories, battle histories, and biographies of the great commanders, I realized that a number of the authors I was reading either were or had been military correspondents for The New York Times. These included names like Drew Middleton, Hanson Baldwin, Leslie Gelb, and later David Halberstam. Their books, while not reflecting a unified theory of war and warfare or even a single arc of the political spectrum, helped me to think about warfare as a more complex phenomenon and to examine the disparate elements of how we go to war and how we make war.

Nevertheless, like many Americans, I have not in recent years looked to The New York Times for advice or useful insights on military matters, preferring the ‘professional’ presses which actually cater to the career military and civilian military intellectuals (many of which you will find referenced elsewhere alongside by blog). So it was with both surprise and great interest that I read the lead editorial in The New York Times Sunday edition of November 16 – “A Military for a Dangerous World.”

The timing of the editorial is clearly inspired by the global urge to give the President-elect the best advice we can offer (and I’m guilty too, having previously offered my two cents). The editorial hits every one of the points that would be evident to and understood by anyone who has been closely following our ongoing wars since 2001 and the toll that these have taken on our military.

The Times endorsed the increase in our ground forces by the 65,000 Army and 27,000 Marine troops now being raised. This will allow the U.S. greater opportunity to rebuild and to retrain units (both in the regular Army and Marines as well as the National Guard and Marine and Army Reserves) overstretched by repeated deployments in theatre.

The Army and Marines in particular, but the other services as well, need to institute training programs that will maintain U.S. dominance in conventional warfare but will also preserve the hard-earned lessons of irregular and counterinsurgency warfare. The irony to me of the recent emphasis on “asymmetric warfare” has been that virtually all warfare is “asymmetric” in that one always tries to pit one’s strength against the enemy’s weakness. The reality is that given U.S. dominance in conventional warfare our potential foes will continue to look for ways to exploit the weaknesses that they can identify (both in our forces and in the political will that commits those forces to combat). We need to prepare our forces accordingly so that they can respond flexibly and effectively. This includes increasing the Navy’s ability to fight in coastal waters as well as in the deep blue sea so beloved of the carrier and submarine admirals.

Mobility has been a critically important principle of war since the days when everybody walked (or rode an animal that usually walked) to the battlefield. Modern warfare (roughly since the 16th Century) has repeatedly demonstrated the importance of “getting there firstest with the mostest” (Bedford-Forrest) and that “Speed is essential. Haste harmful.” (Alexander Vassilyevich Suvorov). However, in today’s world, mobility means airlift (and logistics means sealift). Today, all of our ‘lift’ capability is in need of attention as much of the existing equipment (aircraft and shipping) is worn and possibly inadequate to the challenges of fighting not one but two conflicts on the opposite side of the world. It would probably astonish the average American to learn just how much use has been made by U.S. and Allied forces of the Soviet-designed Antonov 124 cargo jets flying under charter.

As the editorial points out, carrying out these necessary measures will not be cheap but part of the cost can be made up by spending wisely on capabilities that are really relevant to the conflicts we anticipate. For The New York Times, this raises questions about the F-22 and the national missile defense system. I am not convinced about the unnecessary nature of the F-22. Air superiority over Iraq and Afghanistan has not been in question and the observation, reconnaissance, and close support missions there can be better flown by other aircraft. This does not mean that we won’t need to fight for air superiority in some future clash with a different adversary. Continuing research on missile defense is clearly warranted, though the rush to deploy a complete system now can certainly be questioned.

The hope that money can be saved through reform of the DoD procurement system is a longstanding one, though I am skeptical that any of the previous reform efforts resulted in measurable financial savings. What any new reform effort has to achieve is to make the process more transparent while not burdening it with requirements that draw time and money away from the process itself while failing to create that transparency.

The Obama administration and the American public will be faced with many hard decisions to be made on these kinds of military issues. Whatever is to come, however, can only be improved by contributions such as this editorial from a platform like The New York Times. I look forward to it.

No comments: