Best Defense

Here’s why Ash Carter should stop saying we have the best military in the world

Ash Carter, the current secretary of defense, has been beginning his recent speeches with the statement that today’s American military is the best the world has ever seen.

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By Col. Gary Anderson, USMC (Ret.)
Best Defense guest columnist

Ash Carter, the current secretary of defense, has been beginning his recent speeches with the statement that today’s American military is the best the world has ever seen.

That kind of chest beating breeds complacency. History is replete with civilian and military leaders who have made similar claims. The French king said something very similar before the debacle at Agincourt during the Hundred Years War. Numerous French ministers of war, including the infamous Andre Maginot, made similar claims in the 1920s and 30s prior to the humiliating French defeat at the hands of the Germans in 1940. The reality is that Carter currently has no idea how good or bad the American military really is. President-elect Donald Trump and James Mattis, his pick for secretary of defense, have a narrow window to judge how much, if anything, needs to be done at the Pentagon. If they wait too long, any problems will be theirs. Carter has done a good job of looking to the future, and he should be applauded for that. His “Third Offset” strategy is a good blueprint for 2025. But, what about today?

In the years following the end of the Vietnam War, the U.S. military was in bad shape, but at least we knew it was bad. We had indicators that could quantify the problems. Mobilization exercises such as a series called Nifty Nugget highlighted how woefully unprepared the nation was to deploy forces quickly enough to fight the Soviet Union. Lack of training money saw allied tank crews continually besting U.S. counterparts in gunnery competitions. Young and middle grade officers were openly calling for military reform. Even the Jimmy Carter administration had to admit to problems with readiness and combat competence after the debacle of the failed 1979 Iranian hostage rescue attempt. Reform eventually followed.

Today, we have no such indicators. In the absence of real mobilization exercises and readiness war games, we simply have no way of quantifying our capability to wage war in either Europe or Asia in the near term. Any classified war game results are not made public.

Nor has there been a command climate survey in the military. In the past four years, I have had the opportunity to talk to many young and middle grade military officers. Their horror stories include of lack of training opportunities and flight hours, as well as lack of discipline in the ranks. Many fear disciplining people of other genders and races, believing that they will be accused of racism or sexual harassment. When I ask why they don’t write about the problems in their professional journals, they point out there is not-so-subtle pressure from the chain of command to keep their mouths shut.

This invisible gag order perversely mirrors a similar cloak of silence that was thrown over the French military in the 1930s when the French General Staff declared existing French doctrine and war preparations to be sacrosanct. Young military critics such as Charles De Gaulle who violated the gag order did so at great risk to their careers. Consequently, the only real test of French military preparedness was conducted by the Germans with live fire in 1940.

Close observers can see cracks in the wall of secrecy that surrounds real military readiness. Last year’s disgraceful surrender of two Navy small craft to the Iranians not only revealed inadequate training by the crews, but a lack of mental toughness and failure to abide by the military code of conduct. Recent mechanical breakdowns on the part of the Navy’s newest Littoral Combat Ships are disturbing, as is the realization that the ammunition bought for the newest Zumwalt-class destroyers will be too expensive to fire in training. More humiliating, the Zumwalt herself broke down last month in the middle of the Panama Canal. None of this bodes well for future readiness. An informal command climate survey recently done by the Navy Times echoed these concerns.

What then should the Trump administration do to determine what shape the “greatest military in the history of the world” is really in? First, we need an exhaustive series of readiness exercises and war games against Russian, Chinese, Iranian, and North Korean contingencies that realistically test existing forces and equipment. Second, we need an honest command climate survey, conducted to determine how the individual service members view their morale, readiness, and state of training.

These activities should be rigorously analyzed by a bipartisan group of respected former military and civilian senior defense civilians. My prediction is that the results will be sobering, but at least we will know where we are. Trump wants to fix the military, but you can’t fix something until you know just how broken it is.

Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps colonel who directed Marine Corps war gaming in the 1990s. He teaches Red Teaming at George Washington University.

Photo credit: GLENN FAWCETT/U.S. Department of Defense/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

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