Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Brimley and Scharre’s redesign of the U.S. armed forces: Welcome to my fantasyland!

By Capt. John Byron, U.S. Navy (Ret.) Best Defense guest columnist It is brilliant. And impossible. Why brilliant, this proposal by Shawn Brimley and Paul Scharre for Resetting America’s Military? Well for me, partly because it echoes concepts I brought forward over thirty years ago when a student at The National War College.  I began ...

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

By Capt. John Byron, U.S. Navy (Ret.)
Best Defense guest columnist

It is brilliant. And impossible.

Why brilliant, this proposal by Shawn Brimley and Paul Scharre for Resetting America's Military? Well for me, partly because it echoes concepts I brought forward over thirty years ago when a student at The National War College

By Capt. John Byron, U.S. Navy (Ret.)
Best Defense guest columnist

It is brilliant. And impossible.

Why brilliant, this proposal by Shawn Brimley and Paul Scharre for Resetting America’s Military? Well for me, partly because it echoes concepts I brought forward over thirty years ago when a student at The National War College

I began with the realization that the U.S. military consists of three rice bowls: one labeled land war, one war at sea, and the third strategic deterrence. And that each service had interest in all three of the mission-labeled bowls. I also concluded that the total amount of rice in the game was not the military’s to decide, our nation’s dollar support of national security determined by political and policy decisions at levels above the military. Finally, it dawned on me that the game would be changed radically in a good direction if the Services had their missions realigned to match the labels on the bowls.

New rules: no forks and you didn’t have to fill your own bowl, it’s done for you.

Then I looked at how the existing services might align with these Natural Missions, as I called them. Obviously Navy got war at sea (minus sealift, minus the missile submarines), Army land war (minus ballistic missile defense but plus sealift, strategic and tactical airlift, and close-air support). My new Strategic Deterrence Force got the Triad and BMD. I left the Marine Corps alone and outside the model, arguing it brought too much to the table to kill it and we wouldn’t have the wit to invent anything nearly as good as replacement.

Note: no Air Force. That got a lot of attention.

My paper was published by National Defense University, printed in Naval Institute Proceedings, made the Early Bird, and got a fair bit of play in the Military Reform debates of the Eighties. 

Then it died.

Brimley and Scharre have brought into this century the natural concept of natural missions and the undeniable value of aligning military services to serve them. I find their analysis and proposals flawless, a tour de force. And impossible of execution.

Why? One, the Iron Triangle flat would not allow it. Two, it would make the services’ heads hurt so much that any serious move towards the idea would make them collectively catatonic. Three, broad reshuffles of this scale need a champion (think Goldwater-Nichols; think Ike Skelton and the service colleges) and there’s none in sight. 

So let’s applaud this brilliant essay for what it is, an ode to the current and probably permanent dysfunction of the American military. There’s no why to why things are as they are other than history and deeply entrenched interests. But these are real and the world Brimley and Scharre would create a fantasy. Alas. And worse for our nation.

Captain John Byron, USN (Ret.) served on continuous active duty for 37 years, commanding the submarine GUDGEON and Naval Ordnance Test Unit at Cape Canaveral. He is a former chief sonarman. Ping.

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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