Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Military Procurement Reform

I have found it disturbing for many years that the US military machine seems to operate without meaningful oversight and civilian budget control.  Its only competition for resources occurs internally as different groups vie for not so scarce resources.
Certainly, specific actions do need to be questioned.
We have a naval procurement machine that is awesome and faces no creditable navel threat whatsoever.  It is in the position of the British navy between Napoleon and the emergence of German power.  In fact it is able to sink all the world’s navies in an afternoon.  Its sole present mission is to be able to act in support of an ally.  And in today’s diplomatic environment, that means trying to figure out which ally to support.
More importantly everyone is quite happy to let the USA do this because it represents no treat whatsoever.  Rationally, the USA could integrate its needs with NATO at the least and likely massively downsize the fleet from its present cold war peak.  Message to Navy – the USSR ended twenty years ago and they want to join us.
Future treats are not in the cards for the reason of costs alone.  Neither China nor India has a creditable reason to care at all let alone divert massive resources to the task.  Maybe we should sell them an aircraft carrier or two in order for them to experience to cost.  The navy can be reduced right down to even four aircraft carriers if we wished and complete all necessary missions.  We simply stop having fleets in place everywhere on Earth.  No one cares any more.
Then we come to the joys of aircraft procurement.  Our planes have not faced a creditable threat since the shutting down of the communist enterprise.  No one is even trying to match our present capability.  Much more damaging the technology has reached the point in which combat aircraft are better without the onboard pilot and his life support.  In fact all airborne threats are missile systems that are obviously more nimble.  The pilot needs to be sitting at a control station over the horizon and immune to attack. The days of saddling up a hot jet engine are over.
We have no treat and the best move now is to convert to remote controlled fighters which are potentially easier to work with.  Our present drone technology has shaken out rather nicely and has already taken the actual lead in the anti terrorism war.  Pilots are no longer invited to spend massive amounts of fuel for a few minutes of on target time.
What I am saying is that the expensive parts of the Navy and Air Force are actually built out beyond creditable need and the new air force fighter capability is already obsolete before it even gets built.  It is very timely to establish a global integrated treaty organization that includes everyone possible similar to NATO.  Its purpose would be to share command responsibilities and integrate capabilities and also reduce the over build of capability that has largely fallen on the US taxpayer.
The USA is actually having an arms race with itself.
I make no comment on land forces and their tail of lift capacity.  That sector is actually late to the technological procurement party and still has plenty to do.  However, historically the other two arms have always been about procurement of the next best thing, while land forces tended to be almost an afterthought.  That appears to now be over since we are involved in plenty of combat today.  Once again we discover that the Navy and Air force are ill suited to tackle a chap with a weapon and a bad attitude.

The Pentagon Church Militant and Us 
The Top Five Questions We Should Ask the Pentagon 
When it comes to our nation’s military affairs, ignorance is not bliss.  What’s remarkable then, given the permanent state of war in which we find ourselves, is how many Americans seem content not to know.
There are many reasons for this state of affairs.  Our civilian leaders encourage us to be deferential toward our latest commander/savior, whether Tommy Franks in 2003, David Petraeus in 2007, or Stanley McChrystal in 2010.  Our media employs retired officers, most of them multi-starred generals, in a search for expertise that ends in an unconditional surrender to military agendas.  A cloud of secrecy and “black budgets” combine to obscure military matters, ranging from global strategy to war goals to weapons procurement.  The taxpayer, forced to pony up about one trillion dollars yearly to fund our military, national security infrastructure, and wars, is sent a simple message: stay clear and leave it to the experts in uniform.
The powerlessness of ordinary Americans in military matters is no accident.  Recall the one-word reply -- “So?” -- Dick Cheney offered in March 2008, when asked to comment on popular opposition to the war in Iraq.  The former vice president was certainly far blunter than Washington usually is, and for that we may owe him a measure of thanks.  By highlighting the arrogant dismissiveness of Washington’s warrior-elite when it comes to American public opinion, he revealed more than he intended.
Time for Vatican II at the Pentagon
If military power is the church at which we worship and the Pentagon is our American Vatican, then it is desperately in need of the equivalent of Vatican IIwhich, in the early 1960s, opened the Catholic Church to greater participation by the laity, a vitally important change in ethos.  Instead of continuing to pray at the altar of their particular services, we need our Pentagon “priests” to turn to the laity -- us -- and seek our input and sanction.  Instead of preaching in unintelligible Pentagonese, with its indecipherable acronyms, secret doctrines, and spidery codenames, it’s long past time for them to talk to us in a language that reasonably informed adults can understand. 
Think about this: last year, our country held innumerable public hearings on health-care reform.  Congress continues to fight about it.  It’s constant news.  There’s a debate alive in the land.  All this for a program that, in ten years, will cost the American people as much as defense and homeland security cost in a single year.
Yet runaway defense budgets get passed each year without a single “town hall” meeting, next to no media coverage, and virtually no debate in Congress.  Indeed, you’d think each Pentagon budget was an ex cathedra pronouncement, given the way Congress genuflects before them and Americans accept them without so much as a peep of protest. 
Those “Crazy” Kiwis
Imagine, for a moment, if Pentagon officials, supposedly toiling in our name, actually condescended to ask us for our thoughts.  What do we think about global military strategy, garrisoning the planet, the ways in which our forces are structured, and how, where, and for what they should be deployed abroad?   
Sound crazy?  Here in the U.S.A. it most distinctly does, but not to the citizens of New Zealand.  A Kiwi friend of mine recently sent me “Defence Review 2009,” a publication of New Zealand’s Ministry of Defence (MoD). And catch this:  it includes a survey soliciting the advice of ordinary New Zealanders with respect to military affairs.  It actually asks for the counsel of civilians on a “top ten” list of questions whose topics are remarkably comprehensive, including what the priorities of the country’s Defence Force should be, both now and in the future.  Citizens can even present their views on military matters at a public hearing attended by MoD representatives, all in the name of public consultation.  And the Defence Minister responds to the people in clear English sans the cobwebs of jargon that typically entangle our military pronouncements.
In case you haven’t noticed, here in the U.S.A., requests from the Pentagon for citizen feedback aren’t flooding our email boxes.  So I thought -- since no one in that five-sided fortress on the Potomac has asked a thing of me -- the least I could do was ask a few questions on my own.  Here, then, is my own top-five list of questions that we, the American people, should ask the Pentagon, even if none of its officials want to hear from us.  Maybe they’re a tad more pointed than those in the Kiwi survey, but that shouldn’t be surprising.  After all, they’ve been a long time in coming. 
1. Our military is supposed to be a means to an end: national security.  Due to its immense size and colossal budget, has our military not become an end as well as means?
2. In World War II, Americans could explain “Why We Fight” in part because the government provided a clear and compelling rationale for war.  Why are the goals of today’s wars so opaque to most Americans?
3. If our military provides us with our way of “nation building” abroad, won’t countries and peoples be more likely to copy our military ways and weaponry than our democratic teachings? 
4. America is facing painful budgetary belt tightening.  Why is the militaryimmune?
5. Why does “support our troops” seemingly end when they leave the service, leading us to tolerate such inequities as an unemployment rate of 21% for young veterans?
Keep in mind that there are 10, 20, 30 more questions where those five came from -- and our military badly needs to hear and respond to them all. 
Every recruit is taught to stretch, to go the extra mile, to push until you can go no further.  Our military needs some stretching and push-back: this time, from us.  Unfortunately, most of us don’t think our opinions matter when it comes to our military -- unless, that is, they consist solely of slavish adoration.  The fact is most of us are detached from military affairs precisely because we know in our hearts that the Pentagon serves its own needs, that it may be interested in listening in on us, but certainly not in listening to us.
Challenge the Pentagon Church Militant
Kiwis have the reputation of being practical types with an admirable dash of humility, and I like to think that their Ministry of Defence solicits the views of its citizenry not just because it’s required by statute, but because their officials don’t believe they have a monopoly on good ideas.    
Perhaps the MoD recognizes as well the difficulty military professionals have in thinking outside the box.  Despite its gargantuan size and its endless advisory committees and boards, our Department of Defense is, in essence, a well-insulated church of likeminded believers, administered by tightly-wound power-brokers.  It sees the world only as an arena of, and for, conflict.  Wherever it looks, even within its own ranks, it sees rivals and enemies.  It cannot help dividing the world into believers and heretics, friends and foes.
And it’s true that the world is a dangerous place.  The problem is: the Pentagon is part of that danger.  Our military has grown so strong and so dominates our government, including its foreign policy and even aspects of our culture, that there’s no effective counterweight to its closeted, conflict-centered style of thinking. 
In fact, the Pentagon’s heft gives new meaning to the term “full spectrum dominance” and helps explain the lack of change in war policy since the 2008 elections.  A vote that constituted an unmistakable call to end our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and so lessen the military’s influence -- has led only to fresh war “surges” and mushrooming Pentagon budgets.  And yet, as the Pentagon charges forward, debate is nearly nonexistent and Congress can muster just 65 votes for a resolution to curtail the endless conflict in Afghanistan.
It’s shameful that only a so-called far left congressman like Dennis Kucinich has enough sense (and guts) to insist on Congressional debate about our forever-war in Afghanistan.  Equally shameful: that Congress allotted only three hours to that debate on matters of life, death, and even financial well-being.  Do we really need reminding that debate makes democracy stronger?  Evidently so.  Take it from me as a retired Air Force officer: our troops won’t be demoralized by more debate and greater citizen participation.    
Let’s face it, all of this represents a long-term sea change in American consciousness.  Sadly, the old idea of the citizen army is dead, and because of this, most of us lack any direct connection to the military (and seemingly could care less).  In the name of safety, security, and solidarity, we’ve buttoned our lips.  We worship, but don’t partake.
Centuries from now, historians will look back on American history and wonder how so many gave away so much to so few.  It should be our right to have a say in what defines the “defense” of our country.  That right has been surrendered to the few.  Our future may depend on genuine input from the many. 
How about it?  Are you ready to challenge the Pentagon church militant?  Or are you content to mouth the usual catechism, while continuing to dump billions each week into the collection basket?
Citizens of courage will surely choose the path of challenge.
William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and TomDispatch regular.  He currently teaches history at the Pennsylvania College of Technology and may be reached at wastore@pct.edu.
Copyright 2010 William J. Astore

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