Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Should we discuss defense reform while battling ISIS, Taliban and more?

That’s the question a friend asked me the other day. Here is my answer.

Chaplin_-_Modern_Times

That’s the question a friend asked me the other day. Here is my answer:

But of course. Who wouldn’t want to discuss defense reform while a small bunch of fanatics tie Uncle Sam in knots?

That’s the question a friend asked me the other day. Here is my answer:

But of course. Who wouldn’t want to discuss defense reform while a small bunch of fanatics tie Uncle Sam in knots?

We’ve been at war for 14 years — think of that — with nothing much to show for it. The major successes against al Qaeda and its siblings have been in Spec Ops and law enforcement, and certainly not by our conventional military forces, with the exception of the Surge in Iraq in 2007. Meanwhile, the number of genuine plots to launch attacks in America that have been stopped by police work is unnerving.

Meanwhile, we have a very expensive military establishment that doesn’t seem very effective. Here I am using General McChrystal’s metric that a military is as effective as its ability to shut down its enemy.

If the U.S. military were designed from scratch today, it would not look a lot like it is. West Point would have a central computer major, with minors in civil engineering, foreign languages and cultures, and so on. The Army would be as rigorous about intellectual abilities as it is about physical fitness, and graduating in the top 10 percent from CGSC would be a mark of distinction equal to finishing Ranger School.

More broadly, our entire military would be more flexible in personnel management. It also would seriously examine whether the aircraft carrier today is like the battleship of 1939, able to project great firepower but much more vulnerable than its supporters realize. Overall, it would examine whether the Industrial Era’s projection of mass has been replaced by an era of precision, and examine its force structure in that context. It still would have a chain of command, but the perspective would be very different. The job of the senior commander would not be to collect information and then make decisions, but to push out information and monitor decisions. Our force structure of today looks a lot like the American corporation of 1950, with a bloated middle management put there to oversee an ignorant work force fresh off the farm. This is no longer the case.

A 21st century U.S. military probably would drop efficiency as its core measure — that is an industrial era concept — and replaced it with adaptivity, which is the core metric of the information age. Adaptivity, by the way, is expressly inefficient. It also, I (and more importantly, McChrystal) think, the way to win nowadays. Over the last 14 years, we have been out-adapted consistently. Yet the military, rather than move into the Information Age, is busy trying to figure out how to make its machines work faster.

Speaking of which, it also would be brutally honest about its successes and failures of the last 14 years. It would examine how policies such as rotation undercut short-term successes. It would ask whether the FOB-centric model of warfare was the way to operate.

Fundamentally, it would seek to move into the Information Age. I do not see that happening, and it worries me.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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