It’s Budgetary War, Bloody and Terrible

Right now  each of the military services is girding itself for the real war … the budget  war.  The battle is being joined over how to carve up a Defense pie that will be growing more slowly, or possibly even shrinking slightly in the coming years.  Each service is staking out its position to prove why its programs are the most essential and why other services should take the hits.  Get ready to be hosed by a torrent of disinformation.

An otherwise insignificant letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal inadvertently reveals the rawness of nerves in the Hall of Mirrors that is Versailles on the Potomac.  It foreshadows a silly season approaching at warp speed.

First a little background.  On Sept 1, Max Boot, certainly one of the most notorious neocon lovers of war-making and high Pentagon budgets who never served in uniform, penned a somewhat petulant op-ed in the Wall Street Journal damning President Obama’s claims of victory in Libya with faint praise.

Entitled, “Did Libya Vindicate ‘Leading from Behind”Boot took some potshots at Obama’s emerging doctrine of ‘leading from behind,’ a term of art coined by some anonymous soundbyte-crazed staffer in the White House.  The phrase is ironically accurate, but hardly commendable, because it conjures images of Sir Douglas Haig in his comfortable chateau far behind the Somme, strategizing while not caring about what was actually going on in the battlefield. (This is hardly a new leadership attitude in the case of Obama, as his record on reforming health care, enacting a jobs program, or solving the phony crisis over the debt limit attests).   Of course, Boot, ever the lover of the Pentagon, had to tread lightly so as not to tarnish the performance of our military in his effort to dull the luster of Obama the war maker.  So, after pumping up the achievements of US airpower in this silly little war with an analysis that reads like a contractor brochure, being heavy on quantifiable “inputs” and jargon (e.g., sorties flown, fusion centers, etc.) yet full of unsubstantiated effectiveness claims (i.e. outputs), Boot included an obligatory sop to the absent American ground forces with the two-sentence caveat:

“Air power alone has never toppled any regime. Aircraft are most effective when employed in conjunction with ground forces-otherwise defenders can simply burrow into bunkers.”

Boot is correct for once, but these two short sentences, buried in the chaff of praise, were too much for the Air Force. In the eyes of our most hypersensitive and culturally insecure military service, loose lips sink budgetary ships, even when they come from boot lickers singing praise from the cheap seats.  So, someone in the AF decided Max Boot needed a swift boot in the butt.  On Sept 9, in a letter to the editor entitled “Milosovic Was Beaten By Airpower Alone,” Major General Hoyt Vandenberg Jr (USAF Ret.) indicated Boot’s praise of the AF was out of line, apparently because it was not unconditional enough.  Vandenberg said,

“The comment by Max Boot in his Sept. 1 article (“Did Libya Vindicate ‘Leading From Behind?'”) that “air power alone has never toppled any regime” is not in line with the facts. Operation Allied Force, which started on March 24, 1999, was an all air-power war that brought Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to his knees in complete defeat by June 3. No ground forces were employed by NATO and this victory through air power was accomplished in spite of the usual political and diplomatic handicaps.”

Retired Generals, especially royals like Vandenberg (who is son and namesake of one of the AF’s founding fathers) are handy props for spouting the  AF party line in the press.  They have bona fides, but if they overstep, the current leadership can deny they are still working for the Air Force. In the case of Kosovo and the bombing of Yugoslavia, deniability is particularly useful, because as I argued in Counterpunch on 22 June, the AF party line is premeditated BS.  Note, for example, how Vandenberg’s rejoinder omits any allusion to the bunkers in Boot’s second sentence, which was an oblique reference to the importance of combined-arms operations, in this case using allied ground forces to flush the Serbs into the open.  Combined arms is something the Air Force has been trying to deny since its theory of ‘victory through airpower alone’ emerged from its doctrinal birth pains in the 1930s.

That Vandenberg’s careful omission is no accident can be seen in the following rejoinder emailed to me by retired Army Colonel Douglas MacGregor, who unfortunately for Vandenberg, was in a position to know exactly what brought “Milosovic to his knees.”  In fact, it is well known that the Serb army dug in, and after almost 80 days of bombing, it emerged in good order, having sustained only modest damage.  Not only does MacGregor eviscerate Vandenberg’s claim, but in so doing, he provides important additional important insights in to how the Kosovo debacle was resolved, and he puts the war’s resolution into the context of how Milosovic was actually removed from power.  To those who dismiss his critique as being sour grapes coming from an Army officer out to hose the Air Force, I say note how he does not spare the Army of equally damning criticism.

Colonel MacGregor was in a position to know what really happened, because he was Director of Strategic Planning and Joint Operations at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe prior to and during the Kosovo War.  He reported to the NATO Commander, General Wesley Clark.  One of his responsibilities was to write the original strategic planning guidance for the Kosovo bombing campaign, so he was monitoring its lack of progress.  Here is what MacGregor has to say about Vandenberg’s claim of victory through airpower alone in his email to me [distributed with permission]:

“If this assertion were true, Milosevic would have been removed from office during or immediately after the 78 day air campaign. He was not. Having participated in this fiasco, I must supply some missing information.

“Milosevic withdrew Serb forces only after Moscow warned him they could no longer support him largely because of promised US aid and support to Moscow if Moscow ended its support for Belgrade. Strobe Talbot led this mission to Moscow in order to rescue Clark and his air campaign from imminent failure. The Italians along with the Germans were never comfortable attacking the Serbs and pressure for closure given the destructive, but politically ineffective air campaign was enormous after [the first] 40 days of bombing.

“Talbot succeeded, and eventually the Finnish president of OSCE delivered the bad news of Moscow’s defection to Milosevic. Milosevic would not believe his own intelligence sources given his almost religious faith in the Russians. However, he finally believed the Finnish President, whom he trusted, nearly seventy days into the bombing campaign.

“Milosevic knew that without Russian material support in the form of food and fuel thousands, even hundreds of thousands of Serb civilians would not survive the Balkan winter. At this point, Milosevic had no choice but to withdraw.

“Knowing the Russians were too weak to support him, he threw in the towel. However, Serb forces withdrew in good order and intact suffering modest losses (fewer than 14 tanks and about 500 military casualties contrary to what general Clark insisted at the time.)

“Finally, Milosevic was removed the following year through the introduction of hard cash by the US and UK using intelligence operatives to buy support for the Serb opposition to Milosevic and to weaken Milosevic. This strategy, by the way, was the UK/French strategy long before we bombed. It was always the economical approach.

“Instead, we spent $4 billion to bomb and inflicted $10 billion in infrastructure damage along with billions more in damage to the Danubian valley in the aftermath of Communism’s overthrow; damage no one from Budapest to Bucharest needed.

“Clark, Albright, Gore and Berger wanted to bomb so we bombed.  Clinton was diverted by the Lewinsky scandal and did not care until it was obvious bombing alone would not work. That is when Clinton sent Strobe Talbot to Moscow and shortly after the air campaign ended pulled the plug on Wes Clark.

“For the leftist nation builders and their liberal interventionist friend Tony Blair, the bombing campaign was a political opportunity to grandstand at home; an exercise for righteous liberalism to run amok. If anything, it was very much a misapplication of air power and military power in general.

“By the way, the Army’s role in this fiasco deserves closer scrutiny. The airman would have done better to raise questions about the enormous ongoing investments in low, slow flying UAVs, helicopters and V-22s.

“TF Hawk, the Army helicopters that never saw action due to their acute vulnerability to Serb air defenses that annihilated anything that flew under 15,000 feet deserves more critical attention. Other than killing Army pilots in training while in Albania, after 30 days of training TF Hawk did nothing to attack a single Serb tank or armored fighting vehicle. It never crossed into Kosovo!

“Unfortunately, TF Hawk escaped attention along with its leader, then BG Cody who after contributing to Operation Anaconda’s failure went on to become VCSA.

“As a strong advocate for aerospace power and its critical role in all aspects of national defense, I regret these foolish assertions from people in uniform who should know better. Today, many (not all) of the technological problems confronted by our air forces in Kosovo have been solved. This is the good news we should welcome. Today, our air forces are much more lethal and effective.

“However, single service solutions take us nowhere except to defeat. Single factor analysis is always wrong!

“All of the services engage in this nonsense and it makes it much harder for naive and uninformed politicians to reach good decisions regarding defense spending and national military strategy.”

One might argue that my friend Doug MacGregor is worried about the wrong war.  Single-service solutions (and silver bullet techno solutions like drones) may be counter productive in combat, but the services are more concerned about the Battle of the Potomac, where they are essential strategies in the budget wars that are disputes aimed over the heart of each military service.  The name of the Pentagon’s game is, as the American strategist, Colonel John R. Boyd (USAF ret.) frequently opined, “Don’t interrupt the money flow, add to it.” Vandenberg’s disingenuous malarky is merely a ranging shot in the coming barrage of misinformation that will be pumped out by each service in its never ending struggle to protect and enlarge its money flow.  That he found it necessary to respond to an otherwise slavishly laudatory op-ed says a lot about the toxic atmosphere in Versailles.  This struggle promises to become far more vicious as the projected growth in the overall DoD budget growth slows or is — horror of horrors — cut back modestly.

The Secretary of Defense is be charged with making sense out of this contradictory mess of fact-free propaganda, but he will find out that he is the captain of a ship whose steering wheel is not connected to its rudder.  Should he desire to repair the steering gear, which is by no means certain,  Panetta will find it impossible to sort the wheat from the chaff, because he can not even account for the money Congress gives him to manage.  And that is no accident.

Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon. He currently lives on a sailboat in the Mediterranean and can be reached

Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He be reached at