Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

The defense budget implosion (VIII): Sir Michael Howard on how a financial squeeze can sharpen defense thinking

For part of my book, I decided to go back and check the origin of the thought often attributed to Sir Michael Howard, the World War II hero turned military historian, that everyone gets it wrong at the beginning of a war. I was told once at the Army War College that he continued the ...

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

For part of my book, I decided to go back and check the origin of the thought often attributed to Sir Michael Howard, the World War II hero turned military historian, that everyone gets it wrong at the beginning of a war. I was told once at the Army War College that he continued the thought this way: so, the important thing is not to get it too wrong.

Well, it turns out that isn't quite what he said, at least in the article I found, "Military Science in an Age of Peace," published in the RUSI Journal in March 1974. What he said was that everybody gets it wrong so the important thing to do is develop the intellecutal capacity in officers to adjust faster than the other guy. That's quite different.

Anyway, all that mess goes into the epilogue of my book. But in the same article he also has an interesting discussion of how to think about defense acquisition. New weapons and other purchases, he says, grow out of a "triangular dialogue between ... operational requirements, technological feasibility and financial capability." He continues:

For part of my book, I decided to go back and check the origin of the thought often attributed to Sir Michael Howard, the World War II hero turned military historian, that everyone gets it wrong at the beginning of a war. I was told once at the Army War College that he continued the thought this way: so, the important thing is not to get it too wrong.

Well, it turns out that isn’t quite what he said, at least in the article I found, “Military Science in an Age of Peace,” published in the RUSI Journal in March 1974. What he said was that everybody gets it wrong so the important thing to do is develop the intellecutal capacity in officers to adjust faster than the other guy. That’s quite different.

Anyway, all that mess goes into the epilogue of my book. But in the same article he also has an interesting discussion of how to think about defense acquisition. New weapons and other purchases, he says, grow out of a “triangular dialogue between … operational requirements, technological feasibility and financial capability.” He continues:

In discerning operational requirements the real conceptual difficulties of military science occur. If there is not rigorous thinking at this level, neither technology nor money can help. With inadequate thinking about operational requirements, the best technology and the biggest budget in the world will only produce vast quantities of obsolete equipment; bigger and better resources for the wrong war. Indeed, it can sometimes be suggested . . . that ample resources can be positively bad for the military because this enables them to shelve the really vital question: what do we really need and why?

The defense budget is gonna go waaaay down, so might as well groove on the vibe, as it were.

Thomas 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 ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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