Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

America’s military doesn’t need more money — what it needs is an engaged public to demand a genuine strategy

Money will not fix what ails our military. We don't have a supply problem, we have a demand problem created by poor strategy.



By Maj. John Q. Bolton, U.S. Army

Best Defense guest columnist


By Maj. John Q. Bolton, U.S. Army
Best Defense guest columnist

Many are hopeful Congress and the new administration will drastically increase the military’s budget. Talk of a 300-plus ship Navy, more Army brigades, and more jets have taken over concerns about sequestration cuts.

As a soldier, I welcome additional funds for training, personnel, and equipment.

But as a citizen I have concerns. Money will not fix what ails our military. We don’t have a supply problem, we have a demand problem created by poor strategy. We have a military doing missions often beyond its purview, acting as the lead government agency in areas it is not qualified to do so, bearing impossible expectations in the process. As military professionals, we fail if we don’t achieve national goals (end states); the corollary to this is simple, we must demand clear and achievable goals. Our lack of both skews defense decisions.

I don’t doubt the honesty of military leaders who say maintenance is limiting flights or our forces are stretched, but these conditions, to me, are a function of a force doing too much, not a function of limited budgets. A glance at Department of Defense budgets over the last ten years begs the question: Where exactly are the budget cuts? Where is the huge gutting of the military? Stories of America’s military decline overstate their case at best. Army, Air Force, and Navy aircraft fleets outnumber most other countries, the Coast Guard is one of the biggest navies, and DoD spends more than the next 5-7 powers combined.

In fact, money is not the solution — it may actually be contributing to our problems. Enormous budgets and unclear strategy allow us to ignore hard choices. Since the advent of the All-Volunteer Force (AVF), America has skipped the “guns vs. butter” argument entirely. Instead of hard choices, America used debt to outsource its wars to a small cadre of competent, capable, but increasingly distant professionals. Former Defense Secretary Bob Gates once remarked that we spend more on military bands than diplomacy. Too much money has allowed the military to dominate what should be whole-of-government decision making.

The trouble is, it hasn’t worked. Since the Cold War ended, in all but a few cases the employment of American force has not succeed as planned. In fact, there is substantial evidence our policies are actually exacerbating problems of regional instability and terrorism. Our methods have become fundamentally attritional, trading lives and spending massive sums. Our present strategy presumes inexhaustible money and willpower. But both our finite and the money pot is running out.

Fifteen years after launching a worldwide effort to defeat and destroy terrorist organizations, the United States finds itself locked in a pathologically recursive loop; we fight to prevent attacks and defend our values, only to incite further violence against ourselves and allies while destabilizing already chaotic regions. Our forces are competent, professional, and effective. But, no matter how good our forces are, it is irrelevant for the reasons laid out by historian Williamson Murray: “No matter how effective the military institutions might be at the tactical and operational levels, if the strategy and political framework [was] flawed, the result was defeat.”

The solution to our strategic malaise is not funding, equipment or technology. We need a strategy that is sustainable and realistic— one that evaluates threats and defense needs (engagements, support to allies, etc.) against a harsh assessment of resources available. It is likely that American politics and political turnover prevent formulation of a long-standing grand strategy. Nevertheless, this does not alleviate leadership from laying out a vision of American power that incorporates the interagency better; rather than putting the military in the lead on so many issues.

As it stands, we rarely discuss long-term policy or strategy. For example, at Defense Secretary James Mattis’s confirmation hearings there was little questioning of our strategy against terror. Rather, like the recent raid in Yemen, conversations devolve into discussions of tactics.

Lately, even these discussions have been politicized, with some asserting that questioning tactics is tantamount to admitting defeat. This is nonsense. As Peter Lucier recently wrote in this blog, “Failing to question whether they died for a good reason doesn’t do a disservice to those who died. Failure to examine their deaths is what truly does disservice to the lives of heroes.”

War is always difficult for democracies but the national consensus building seen in previously eras is largely ignored because the public bears little of the direct cost. Even the massive debt accumulated by fighting is only abstract.

In this sense the AVF short-circuited America’s social contract. It freed national leadership from the grounding reality of public involvement. Today almost all Americans will say they “support the troops” and most will support increased defense budgets. But few senior officials or national leaders — certainly not the public at large — will even ask what, exactly, are we doing in Yemen? Moreover, is our policy of targeted killing working? Since we don’t ask even the basic questions, we doom ourselves to continue policies that may not work.

We need clear understanding that using force is a means, not an end; it is certainly not a strategy. Our military has taken the lead in foreign policy, resulting in militarized solutions to complex political problems. Only with a proper, realistic strategy can we align national means with strategic ends in order to cease using our military as the national Band-Aid to problems better addressed throughout the interagency. Anything less is a disservice to the public and its military.

John Q. Bolton is an Army aviator stationed in Alaska. He is a graduate of the Command and General Staff College’s Art of War Scholars Program and holds degrees from West Point and American Military University. His assignments include first Engineer Battalion and 1-1 Attack Reconnaissance Battalion with deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. The views presented here are his alone and not representative of the U.S. Army, the Defense Department, or the U.S. government.

Photo 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 Twitter: @tomricks1

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