Small Wars

This Week at War: The Ask-Tell Era Begins

The military goes back to its core values as it prepares to implement the "don't ask, don't tell" repeal.


"Don’t ask, don’t tell" and the military’s social contract

Last month, the U.S. Senate voted 65 to 31 to repeal the 1993 "don’t ask, don’t tell" (DADT) policy that prohibited gays from openly serving in the military. The Senate vote sent the repeal bill to President Barack Obama, who eagerly signed it into law. The focus now shifts to the Defense Department, with Defense Secretary Robert Gates promising to implement the repeal "as quickly, but as responsibly, as possible." Successful implementation will require a renewed commitment by all to the military’s traditional social contract.

Much of the credit for the unexpectedly large Senate majority in favor of repeal may go to a 410-page research report on DADT prepared by the Rand Corp. The report, a 2010 update of a 1993 study Rand had done for the government, was prepared at the request of both the administration and the Senate Armed Services Committee. The report reviewed recent research on group dynamics in military units, conducted surveys and focus groups of current U.S. service members, and studied the experience of other Western countries (with combat experience) that had similarly lifted restrictions on open gay service in their military forces. Senators seemed encouraged by the report’s conclusions: Rand predicted that lifting the U.S. ban would have negligible consequences on U.S. military recruiting, retention, unit cohesion, and combat effectiveness. In fact, the authors predicted that the Defense Department will have an easier time adjusting to the end of DADT than it has had adjusting to the widening role of women in the military.

Of particular concern has been what the repeal might mean for unit cohesion, or the ability of small groups of soldiers to form trust and cooperate on critical tasks during stressful situations. Social scientists studying military effectiveness have long concluded that cohesion among members of small units is an essential requirement for battlefield success. The updated Rand study concluded that "task cohesion" — the commitment of soldiers to the unit’s goals — is a better predictor of small-unit combat effectiveness than "social cohesion," or how much members of the group like each other and prefer to spend social time together. Based on its research, Rand predicted that lifting DADT would not significantly impair the ability of U.S. military units to achieve high levels of task cohesion and therefore battlefield success.

Rand’s sanguine predictions concerning the repeal of DADT imply a renewed commitment by all service members to the military’s traditional social contract. Under this contract, individuals who join the service agree to forfeit a portion of their individual autonomy and eagerly work hard at achieving the unit’s goals. The other side of the military’s social contract is the responsibility of the military’s leaders to set high standards, to enforce the rules fairly, to assess subordinates based on merit, and to ensure that soldiers who fulfill their part of the bargain are treated with respect. Based on their research, Rand’s analysts assume that U.S. service members will agree to this long-standing social contract after the end of DADT. That seems like a reasonable assumption, but it will require the goodwill of all to make it a reality.

Money, missiles, and Army Special Forces are squeezing the Marine Corps

On Jan. 6, Defense Secretary Robert Gates canceled the U.S. Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV), a powerful and technologically advanced swimming-infantry fighting vehicle that the Marine Corps was counting on to maintain its ability to assault defended shorelines. Gate assured his audience that the death of the EFV program (which should save the government $12 billion) "does not call into question the Marines’ amphibious assault mission." But the Pentagon’s looming budget problems, combined with the growing ease with which even low-end adversaries are able to acquire guided missiles, may make it increasingly difficult for Marine Corps leaders to assure policymakers that an opposed amphibious assault is a credible military option. The Marine Corps may thus face a particularly challenging period defining its role within the U.S. military.

Although no shots were ever fired in anger at the EFV, anti-ship missiles killed the vehicle. Out of its fear of lethal land-based anti-ship missiles, the Navy — from whose ships the EFVs would have been launched — required that the launch point be over the horizon from the shore, perhaps 25 miles from land. This requirement mandated that the 80,000-pound EFV be able to swim at 25 knots (for physiological reasons, the Marine Corps did not want its infantrymen at sea in an EFV for more than one hour). It is likely that this swim-speed requirement drove the engineering boundary of the program beyond an affordable limit.

In the over two decades since the beginning of the EFV program, adversary anti-ship missiles have become more capable — a 25-mile launch point for the EFV may no longer provide much protection. In 2006, Hezbollah damaged an Israeli patrol boat with a Chinese-made C-802 land-based anti-ship cruise missile, a weapon with a range of 74 miles. China’s new anti-ship ballistic missile, if perfected, could attack warships up to 1,500 kilometers out to sea. Lethal and long-range anti-ship missiles in the hands of both state and nonstate actors threaten the Navy’s ships that would transport the Marines to a suitable point for launching an amphibious assault. The Marine Corps’ problems convincing policymakers that an opposed amphibious assault remains a viable option extend beyond its problems with the EFV.

In light of the Marines’ problem with anti-ship missiles, Brian Burton, an analyst at the Center for a New American Security, has joined other analysts in recommending that the Corps downgrade the amphibious assault mission and focus instead on another strength: its talents with "small wars" and with training indigenous security forces in a variety of conflict zones.

Neither the Marine Corps nor its competitors within the Defense Department will find this course very appealing. The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, the Pentagon’s medium-term organizational strategy, calls for the U.S. Special Operations Command to generate and maintain about 660 special-operations teams, the large majority of which will come from the Army Special Forces. In the post-Afghanistan era, the first task of these teams, particularly the Special Forces, will be training indigenous security forces and coping with various small wars. The Marine Corps will have a role, but a supporting one, as the Special Forces and Special Operations Command guard what they will see as their home turf. Neither the Marine Corps nor the Army will want this bureaucratic squabble.

Top Navy and Marine leaders are confident they can solve the anti-ship missile problem. Last November, Navy Undersecretary Robert Work and his deputy Frank Hoffman discussed the problem and explained how innovative tactics and new capabilities promise feasible solutions. In the meantime, the cancellation of the EFV draws attention to the troubles the Marine Corps faces, but also offers an opportunity to make a clean start addressing them. If the United States is to maintain the credibility of its alliances and its status as the leading maritime nation, Navy and Marine Corps leaders must show that they have believable answers to these questions.

Robert Haddick is managing editor of Small Wars Journal.