What’s Wrong with the U.S. Military

Coinciding with the arrival of Obama and his deputies in Washington, the Center for Defense Information is releasing “America’s Defense Meltdown — Pentagon Reform for President Obama and the New Congress,” a primer on what is wrong with our defense system written by men with long and honorable experience in the bowels of the military services and Pentagon bureaucracy. The book’s editor, Winslow Wheeler is familiar to readers of this site for his acrid and knowledgeable  commentaries on the defense establishment. CounterPuncher ANDREW COCKBURN interviews him  about the book and its message.

You say in your preface that “the vast majority, perhaps even all, of Congress, the general officer corps of the armed forces, top management of American defense manufacturers, prominent members of Washington’s think tank community and nationally recognized ‘defense journalists’  will hate this book.”  Why is that?

WW:  The conventional wisdom amongst the elite in Washington is that they have done a pretty good job of taking care of our national defense, that things may be a little expensive but we have the best armed forces in the world, perhaps even in history, and we do the best for our troops by giving them the world’s most sophisticated equipment which is, of course, the most effective.  We have, so the elite asserts, demonstrated our ability by knocking off Saddam Hussein’s forces twice and are in general a model to the rest of the world on how to build equipment and provide for forces.

That’s all crap. None of it is true.  None of it stands up to scrutiny. Let’s tick through it.  First of all, we now have the largest defense budget in inflation-adjusted dollars since the end of World War Two.  That has bought the smallest military establishment we have had since the end of World War Two.  We now have fewer navy combat ships and submarines, fewer combat aircraft and fewer army fighting units than we have had at any point since the end of World War Two.  Our major items of equipment are on average older than at any time during this period.  Key elements of our fighting forces are badly trained.  In other words we’re getting less for more.  People point to the two wars against Saddam Hussein.  His armed forces were pitifully incompetent and even against them in both the 1991 and 2003 gulf wars we demonstrated serious deficiencies while overestimating how good we were.

But is the U.S. likely to be facing anyone better in the near future?

WW:  Apparently we are right now.  In Afghanistan things are going south, rapidly.  In Iraq people seem to think the surge saved things, but far more important than the so-called surge in reducing American casualties has been the purchase of Sunni co-operation with hefty bribes and the ceasefire  that was brokered not by us but by Iran to get Muqtada al-Sadr’s forces to sit on the sidelines.  Time after time we read in the press about how American air units have killed civilians, how American ground units have killed civilians.  We have a huge technological edge against these opponents and yet they are able not just to survive against us but fight us all too effectively.

What brought the U.S. to this sorry state of affairs?

WW:  The  fundamental reason, I believe, is that we are not interested in what works best in combat.  Instead, our defense structure in Washington is interested in other things.  In Congress they’re interested in jobs and campaign contributions.  In the Pentagon they’re interested in various political and bureaucratic agendas. They’re not paying attention to the lessons of combat history.  A  bloated, declining military structure is the result.

Surely you’re not suggesting that our leaders in uniform, as opposed to those interfering civilians  [sound of Wheeler laughing]  aren’t interested in producing the most combat-efficient force possible?

WW:  I was laughing because that’s the bilgewater that they keep on pumping – and believing, I’m sure – on Capitol Hill.  If you look at the record, a lot of our military leadership is very questionable.  During the 2003 march to  Baghdad the commanders  had to pause simply out of panic at the minimal opposition they were facing, coupled with some poor weather and a supply problem.  None of the commanders  warned the public, or the president, about the problems that we encountered in Iraq.  People point to [former army chief of staff] General Eric Shinseki as the great hero who told us that we needed a larger invasion and occupation force and was ignored.  That argument simply doesn’t work.  The idea that more  Christian, white American soldiers occupying an alien country would have prevented an insurgency is ridiculous.

We might also pause to note that Shinseki gave his famous warning just three weeks before the invasion, having remained totally mute for the year of buildup when a public statement might actually have made a difference.  Anyway, criticism of the Pentagon is normally considered liberal turf, but I believe you yourself served as a Republican staffer on the hill for many years and your contributors don’t look like too dovish a crew.  Can you tell us a little more about who put this book together?

WW:  It’s not a bipartisan bunch, it’s a non-partisan bunch.  I myself worked for three Republicans and one Democrat on Capitol Hill.  Two of the Republicans were so-called ‘suspect Republicans’.  One was Jacob Javits, the other was Nancy Kassebaum, neither of whom were ‘good soldiers’ on the Republican dogma of “more money for the Pentagon means we are stronger.”  The people who wrote this anthology come from all over the political spectrum. In most cases I don’t even know what their politics are.  Some of them are registered Republicans.  Most of them are pretty non political people.  Their qualification is the fact that they had brilliant careers, albeit sometimes short ones, in the armed forces or inside the Pentagon, as civilians.  Some of them are writers who have written extensively about defense issues with no identifiable politics.

On the list of contributors I see majors, lieutenant colonels, colonels.  I don’t see any generals.  Why do you think that might be?

WW:  I’ve not met a general in my lifetime that I would welcome to write a chapter in this book.  That doesn’t mean they don’t exist.  I just don’t know of them. In some cases these contributors sacrificed their careers in order to speak truth to power.  These are people who have demonstrated by what they have already written and what they have already done that they understand the nature of the problem in our defenses and that they have real ideas to address those problems.

Now there will be some among CounterPunch’s readers who  say, “Wheeler and his pals just want to give us a more combat-efficient military so that President Obama can go and bomb and invade and lay waste to more countries.”  What do you say to that?

WW:  They’re half right.  We do want to give any president an effective, usable military  force.  But we have three chapters in this book that address various aspects of our national character and national security strategy.  The second chapter, written by retired air force colonel Chet Richards is remarkable in the radically different national security strategy it urges Congress and the president to consider.  It is fundamentally a strategy that goes back to America’s roots and says that we should only fight when we truly have to fight rather than pursue agendas and political dogmas and help politicians posture as patriots.

It’s clear that you feel strongly about the amount of money we’re spending on defense and yet it’s frequently pointed out that calcaulated as a percentage of GDP, we spent more on defense in the 1950s.  Do you think we’re exaggerating the burden of the present defense budget?

WW:  The use of the measure of GDP percentage to decide how much money we should spend on the Pentagon is specious and ridiculous.  The thing that should define how much we spend is the world situation; how much we can afford; how we decide to make good use of our money.  The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mullen, an individual that President-elect Obama seems to be happy with, has said that we should adopt a specific share of GDP –  four per cent, he says – and spend that only on defense.  It would make as much sense if we counted the number of MacDonalds in this country as a measure of the size of our economy and built our defense on the basis of the number of MacDonald’s hamburger stands in this country.  It is a completely irrelevant measure of what our spending should be.

Given the way the economy is going, pretty soon four per cent of GDP isn’t going to get you much of a defense budget.

WW: That’s why they’re now starting to talk about “4.8 percent.”  It’s a cheap trick designed to make the defense budget look small.  Because the Pentagon budget is now bigger than it has been since 1946 they’re looking for devices to make it look small and this ruse of a percentage of GDP is right down their alley.

Outline what you and your contributors say the Obama national security team should be doing, as opposed to what they seem more than likely to do.

WW:  The book is divided into chapters that identify specific problems as well as the solutions we identify, but to keep it short and simple, it starts with a national strategy that seems more appropriate for the 21st century and does not get America involved in these quagmire occupations in alien lands and seeks to defend us only when we have real threats that we actually have to face.

What that means is that our army, navy and air force need to go through a radical resizing and reposturing to make themselves appropriate to the world as it currently exists.  It also means that we need to learn how to think in new and different ways in making decisions in the Pentagon.  By that I mean decisions about hardware need to be made on the basis of much more reliable data, in sharp contrast to the phony, biased data that they use to make decisions now.

We need to have a set of people making those decisions who are not corrupted by the possibility that after they leave the Pentagon they can go work for people who are making or losing money based on their decisions.  That’s the so-called revolving door issue.  People tend to think it’s not a big deal. It’s a huge deal. It corrupts our decisions and it corrupts the people making them.

Given the sort of people he’s selecting for defense position, it looks as though Obama is not necessarily going to follow the course of action you urge in your book.  What is your opinion of the Obama defense team as currently formulated?

WW:  He campaigned on “Change We Can Believe in”  and his transition almost immediately switched to “Continuity We Can Believe In.”  The people so far selected, especially Robert Gates, have a track record, and that track record is basically to keep things the way they are.  Gates will do what he’s told on issues like Iraq and Afghanistan.  He’s already made it clear that as far as managing the Pentagon is concerned he thinks he’s been doing a competent job.  But during his tenure things have only gotten worse.  The budget’s going up faster than ever before in recent history; the size of our forces is going south; the equipment continues to get older.  We have a new report from the Congressional Budget Office that tracks the size of our weapons inventory and its age.  This study shows that if everything goes perfectly according to Gates’ plans as revealed in his Pentagon budget, our forces will continue to shrink and the equipment will continue to get older.

The one exception is Obama’s plan to expand the number of combat units in the army and marine corps.  That is turning out to be a question of much larger cost than people suspected.  It’s going to cost us somewhere in excess of a hundred billion dollars.  It’s very unclear therefore if that expansion is actually going to occur and the historic trend suggests that even if it does occur it will reverse itself in a few years and the additional units will be phased out.  Also, if you look at previous wars such as Korea and the Indochina wars, the expansions that occurred during those conflict were gigantic compared to the puny little 60,000 man increase that Robert Gates and Barack Obama say they want to endorse.

Realistically, do you think there’s any possibility that you could meaningful reform in the Pentagon?

WW: I’m not at all optimistic.  The second tier of appointments that they’re talking about in the press for the Obama team are mostly holdovers from the Clinton era, when things were almost as bad as they were during the Bush era.  Most of the major hardware programs that are now coming a cropper as major cost and performance disasters were conceived during the Clinton era.  Things such as the Future Combat Systems, or  the Navy’s DDG 1000 Destroyer known as the Arsenal Ship and later the DDX Destroyer, spawned when Richard Danzig was Secretary of the Navy.  Danzig is under active consideration to be deputy secretary of defense and Gates’ natural successor when Gates finishes whatever short timer term he has under Obama.  The F-22 fighter, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, it goes on, all these programs that are cost and performance disasters had their genesis during the Clinton era.

One of the individuals being talked of now for some unspecified senior position with the Obama team is an individual by the name of William Lynn.  During the Clinton era Lynn was the Comptroller of the Department of Defense. I was a staffer on the Senate Budget Committee and I’ve never seen, before or since, such preposterous gimmicks as those that were added when William Lynn was chief financial officer at the Pentagon as the DoD Comptroller.  If that’s the kind of performance we can expect, we’re in for a rocky time with the Pentagon and its budget.

What about Obama’s National Security Adviser, General Jim Jones?  He looks like a fine upstanding marine.

WW:  He is a man of great stature, physically and figuratively, in Washington.  He is a Washington ‘heavy’ but if you look at his record, nothing much ever happened.  Things went south in Afghanistan pretty rapidly when he was supreme commander of all Nato forces in Afghanistan.   When he was Commandant of the Marine Corps, a lot of the marines’ overpriced underperforming hardware programs, such as the V-22 [vertical takeoff troop transport plane] and the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle were endorsed and continued happily along.  He seems to have been mostly a placeholder when he had these very senior and important positions.

Interested readers can download America’s Defense Meltdown for free from the Center for Defense Information.

ANDREW COCKBURN is a regular CounterPunch contributor. He lives in Washington DC. His most recent book is  Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall and Catastrophic Legacy.





Andrew Cockburn is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine.  An Irishman, he has covered national security topics in this country for many years.  In addition to publishing numerous books, he co-produced the 1997 feature film The Peacemaker and the 2009 documentary on the financial crisis American Casino. His latest book is  The Spoils of War: Power, Profit and the American War Machine. (Verso.)