Carter’s new ‘Force of the Future’ tweaks current personnel policy, but no more. Let’s just hope we don’t have to mobilize.
- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Robert Goldich
Best Defense task for chief for DoD personnel policy
The Force of the Future announcements made Thursday by SecDef Carter — and, if I understand it correctly, the entire Force of the Future initiative — are more significant for the assumptions that underlie them rather than for what they propose to do.
Force of the Future is basically the Force of the Present, tweaked a little bit to make it work better. It emphasizes current force capability, almost to the exclusion of any mobilization capacity. It assumes that future wars will be like the ones we fought from 2001 to 2014 (of course, we’re still doing things in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the numbers of U.S. military personnel involved is quite small). That is, Iraq and Afghanistan, as COIN/irregular warfare/synonym of the month, were almost entirely low-intensity, small-unit, and (thankfully) low casualty-rate conflicts. Because we were fighting among the people, highly experienced cadres were needed to minimize the potential for abuses against the local population that can result from troops’ frustration with the ambiguities of a guerrilla conflict. Ditto for continuing to emphasize high quality rather than quantity of manpower. Indirect fire and close air support were of course employed by our forces, but at a much lower rate and intensity of fire than would be the case in a conventional war, or even a hybrid one involving substantial COIN as well as conventional elements. Most of this, I realize, applied to ground forces. OIF and OEF (and their various acronymic follow-ons) were ground-force heavy wars. We faced few threats to command of the sea and the air, which made the absolutely essential tasks of the Navy and Air Force infinitely easier than they might otherwise have been. The programs Secretary Carter enumerated will support these kinds of things.
As with the previous Force of the Future specifics announced earlier, such as family-related matters, there is an overwhelming emphasis on career retention and increasing the experience level in the force. There’s a tacit belief that the more the military services moves in the direction of career flexibility, and equally flexible and changeable compensation and benefits — that is, making a military career more like a civilian one — the better off the services will be.
Here’s a concern: What if the Force of the Future doesn’t conform to the wars of the future?
That is, what if we’re involved in conventional combat (accompanied, or not, with guerrilla/irregular warfare) in which casualties are in line with those suffered by U.S. forces in both World Wars, Korea, and, depending on time and place, Vietnam? The heaviest casualties suffered by any Marine infantry battalion in OIF or OEF appear to be those sustained by 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, in the Sangin area of Afghanistan in a seven-month period, from 2010 to 2011. The unit lost 25 KIA and 200 WIA. That’s what an infantry battalion in World Wars I and II, Korea, and (to a somewhat lesser extent) Vietnam, might suffer on a bad day. What happens when an Army or Marine division sustains 3,000 to 5,000 casualties in one month — quite common in World War II? What happens if a Nimitz or Ford-class aircraft carrier gets hit by one or more PLAN cruise missiles, torpedoes, or other unpleasant projectiles — as did the USS Franklin off Okinawa — and loses 750 KIA and 250 WIA in a few hours? What happens if the Air Force has to fly into the heart of a sophisticated antiaircraft environment like we faced over Laos and North Vietnam, or North Korea, or European skies in 1942-1945? And I’m not talking about defeats — I’m talking about high-cost victories.
I’m a historian. And Force of the Future strikes me as going even farther down the road of creating a force, for all services, like the British Army in 1914. It was the best-quality army in Europe at the time — and after four or five months of combat in France and Belgium, in which it proved it could hold its own and more against German forces of the same size, it had just about evaporated due to high casualties. Cadres for force expansion and reconstitution were almost nonexistent, and it took the British Army until at least mid-1916, and arguably until early 1918, to recover from having its superbly trained and led but minuscule army wiped out in 1914.
Does the Force of the Future face up to this kind of inconvenient possibility? Is there anything in what I understand are four volumes about not just mobilizing the existing force structure, but expanding it? Is anyone thinking about the kinds of administrative actions, and legislation, that will be needed to facilitate a big mobilization, as well as the comparatively easy task of making some useful, but scarcely decisive, marginal improvements in the force we have, so it can continue to fight the kinds of wars we’ve had? I’ve asked this question of several very senior DoD and military service officials in various forums over the past couple of years, long before Force of the Future was up and running, and they either said “no,” and left it at that, or argued that the need for such a large mobilization was dubious — that is, future wars will be roughly like the recent ones.
Let’s not forget the acerbic point made by arguably the best secretary of defense we’ve had since the office was created in 1947, Bob Gates: We’ve got a perfect record about predicting future wars. We’ve been 100 percent wrong.
Robert L. Goldich retired from the Congressional Research Service in 2005 as its senior military manpower analyst. Currently he is drafting a book on the history of conscription.
Photo credit: THOMAS DUVAL/U.S. Army