The Total Force Is the Future

By Stephen M. Duncan

The second reality, unfortunately, is that the American people are focused elsewhere. A robust economy and a lack of immediate security threats have caused Americans to lapse into an alarming complacency about the complex risks and challenges that remain in the post-Cold War era. Moreover, such truths as "freedom isn't free" simply are not familiar to increasing numbers of people. Americans support the armed forces as an institution, but very few Americans have had personal military experience in the quarter of a century since the draft ended. This is reflected in local communities, in public institutions, within Congress, and even in the highest echelons of the political appointees of the Department of Defense. As a consequence, few political leaders—and not much of the public at large—understand the unique culture of the armed forces. Such values as duty, accountability, courage, and sacrifice no longer are endorsed automatically, as they were a few short years ago. The often-unique needs of men and women in uniform also are misunderstood—especially such intangibles as strong leadership, morale, the existence of a worthwhile cause, interesting and rigorous training, unit cohesiveness, and other factors that make a military force successful.

A "zero defect/zero mistake/zero casualties" mentality also exists—among much of the media, some members of Congress, and many parts of the public. We are becoming a nation which has little or no tolerance for military mistakes or casualties, no matter what the stakes. It has been observed in recent months that we are a nation in which there seem to be fewer and fewer people—and they are older people—who understand that there are in fact things that are worth taking risks for—and perhaps dying for—and that mistakes are obviously to be avoided, but some mistakes are the price we must pay to teach initiative and boldness to our developing military leaders.

A third reality is that there is no national consensus on the role of the United States in the world community over the next two decades, i.e., no consensus about what specific national interests we are prepared to spend treasure and to spill blood to protect or to advance. Sustained and sharply focused U.S. involvement will be required to prevent what has been called the "forces of global disorder." Until we decide on our strategic objectives, we cannot hope to make informed decisions on what specific military capabilities we need. Unfortunately, it is not self-evident to many leaders that different strategies require different capabilities, different investment decisions, different organizational structures, different doctrines, and different training.

A fourth reality is that Congress as an institution is incapable of clear leadership on most foreign policy and national security matters and that there is no strong leadership from the White House on these issues. The administration favors an activist foreign policy that requires overuse of the armed forces in situations in which military force is not the best tool—and often is not even an appropriate one. Military forces now are deployed routinely all over the world for an increasingly wide variety of non-combat operations. One respected observer recently characterized the administration's approach to global issues as "foreign policy by impulse." This ad hoc approach results in situations in which neither our allies nor our adversaries know what to expect from us. Indeed, many of our own military commanders do not know what to expect, so they attempt to be prepared for every possible kind of operation at the expense of the one operation that no other institution can perform—armed conflict.

It is also a reality that the tempo of operations and the personnel tempo for U.S. military forces is very high and is likely to remain high for the foreseeable future. The inevitable consequence is reflected in the mounting evidence that conventional combat skills—and the warrior ethic that goes with them—are being eroded by the combination of downsizing, budget cuts, expanded commitments, and the failure of leadership.

Because of the lack of both leadership and a national consensus, the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) and the related report of the National Defense Panel were useful exercises, but they had limited value. Those who prepared the QDR attempted to do what Congress had mandated, but strategy can be formulated only at the top. It must involve a clear statement of objectives, an overarching set of priorities, and decisions about the resources that are necessary to achieve the objectives. Only the President can effectively define and prioritize our country's security interests, convince the people what our foreign and security policies must be, and mobilize public opinion effectively behind a particular strategy and the associated policy initiatives. Congress can help, but it speaks with too many voices to lead effectively or consistently.

In an all-volunteer force, many of the people needed most will not accept such developments and will indicate their unhappiness by pursuing other career options. This has been happening already. Over the last two-and-a-half years, the Army has lost one-third of its Apache helicopter pilots. Last year, more than 350 Air Force pilots turned down large bonuses that were offered to entice them to remain in their cockpits for another five years. The Secretary Defense recently conceded that "we have some problems as far as readiness is concerned."

Mixed into this cauldron of realities is the continuing question of when and how the nation's "citizen warriors" should be used. It seems to be assumed that the reserve components will become increasingly important in the future, but the assumption is often based upon little more than the need to relieve pressures caused by the high operational and personnel tempos of active units that have been engaged in frequent and lengthy deployments.

A related reality and a particularly unwelcome development since the end of the Gulf War has been the increased tension between some active and reserve component leaders—especially within the Army. An unhealthy atmosphere of suspicion and distrust underpins too much of the current debate about the mix of active and reserve forces which are most appropriate to our future security needs. The distrust is not new, but it has reached an unacceptable level.

Too many active-force leaders lack even a basic understanding of the modern reserve components. They are too willing to believe old stories and rumors and they focus too much on the operational shortcomings of a few reserve units. They also fail to recognize the often unique strengths of other reserve units. Too many force planners only grudgingly consider the use of National Guard or Reserve units for certain missions. They start with a heavy presumption that all missions must be performed by active-duty units. Many active force leaders also resent Congressional intrusion into force mix and force structure issues. They forget that the Constitution declares that "the Congress shall have the power to raise and support armies," and to "provide and maintain a navy." The terms "secretary of defense," "joint chiefs of staff," and "force planners," are nowhere to be found in the Constitution.

The other side of the coin is just as harsh. Many active force leaders are frustrated by the political clout—and the willingness to use and sometimes abuse that clout—of some senior officers in the Reserve components, and by some officials in the National Guard and Reserve Associations. Those Reserve leaders often are perceived to be special-interest pleaders who do not always act in the best interest of their parent military services or the nation at large. Some National Guard and Reserve commanders also have inflated views of the capabilities of the units they lead and they continue to worry too much about real, but often historical biases against Reserve forces.

All of these problems have been exacerbated by the absence of any principled approach to the design of a force structure/mix for the future. Too many decisions on this subject are being made in response to political pressures, and without a serious intellectual foundation or framework. Too often, the only force structure and force mix recommendation that emerges from the planning process is one that can command the consent of all interested parties. Consensus can be good if it is the result of honest and informed give-and-take on the merits of an issue, but it is not good if it merely represents the lowest common denominator. A senior military leader recently said that much of the strained relationship between his service's active-duty and Reserve component involves the division of declining resources and the view that the Reserve component is not receiving its "fair share." "Fair share" is not even a proper standard of measurement. How is "fair share" defined? How should it be defined? What is "fair" to one policy maker may be not be perceived by another to be "fair."

We must have an intellectual framework and principles for use in force planning. One principle, for example, might establish a rebuttal presumption that every combat mission be assigned to a National Guard or Reserve unit. Depending upon the nature of the mission being performed, Guard and Reserve units usually are one-quarter to two-thirds as costly as active-duty units. For cost reasons alone, therefore, a starting presumption could be made that each military mission will be assigned to a National Guard or Reserve unit. The presumption should be subject to rebuttal, but only if force planners who challenge it can meet the burden of demonstrating that on a cost-benefit, risk reward basis, there are sound military reasons for assigning a particular mission to an Active unit. For some missions, the presumption would be easy to rebut. Missions that require the immediate deployment of large, ground maneuver forces may be an obvious example. For other missions, such as strategic airlift, the presumption would not be rebutted.

In addition to an intellectual foundation and framework, we need a lot less rhetoric; less reference to what active duty and Reserve forces did or were like prior to the end of the Cold War; less special-interest pleading; and far more candor and courageous, principled leadership. It would seem obvious that before serious decisions can be made on the size and shape of the forces we will need in the future, certain preliminary decisions must first be made. First, political leaders must make their case to the American people for the kind of leadership role that the United States should assume in the future as the only remaining superpower. This declaration of "strategy" will require substantial political courage and skill, but it must be done. We cannot continue the charade of pretending that we have the resources and the willpower to pursue an aggressive foreign policy agenda if we are unwilling to commit sufficient resources—or if in fact we lack the willpower. If political leaders believe that certain foreign and security policies are in our nation's interest, the American people must be educated and convinced, no matter how long or how difficult that road may be.

If the people of our nation are not convinced—if there is no base of political support for certain policies—then these policies should not be pursued. If the American people do become convinced and are willing to pay the price in blood and treasure that the policies call for, then military leaders must define with precision the missions and operational tasks that must be performed and the capabilities that are required to implement the strategy and the associated policies. Only then can reasonable decisions be made on what kinds of forces possess those capabilities and can perform those missions and tasks. Very few informed observers could disagree with the recent conclusion of the National Defense Panel that there is insufficient connectivity in the Quadrennial Defense Review between the stated strategy, on the one hand, and the force structure/operational concepts required to implement the strategy, on the other.

This does not mean that this process should be devoid of politics. Military manpower systems are inherently political. They must be, since they involve critically important national assets—the men and women who serve. Reasonable and well-informed people can—and routinely do—disagree on manpower and force-structure/force-mix issues. But civilian and military policy makers must have the courage to exercise informed judgment on these matters and not pass decisions off to task forces, commissions, or other study groups, or listen to the political clatter of the uninformed who advance the interests of a particular group. National interests must supersede all others.

It is possible for us to design successfully a military force structure and an active-duty/Reserve force mix for the future—but only if we begin with a clear political strategy for the use of military force and clear, principled policy guidance. Any successful force-planning process must begin with a strategy that planners understand, policies that have broad public support, and the certainty that adequate resources will be available for the structure that is adopted. Unless these elements are present, there may be no satisfactory answers to the questions of how much military power is enough and what kind of power it should be.

Decisions on the most appropriate balance between active-duty and Reserve forces must also be made within a common analytical frame of reference—one that eliminates unrepresentative anecdotal evidence and bias. This can be accomplished only by a methodology which involves the use of "neutral" planning principles based upon experience; principles that allocate active and reserve manpower, equipment and other resources solely on the basis of their demonstrated capability to perform specific missions, operational tasks, and objectives. This mission-to-capability framework will require informed and courageous top-down decisions by civilian leaders and military force planners that link strategy with specific operational objectives and tasks. The objective must be to organize, train, and to use National Guard and Reserve units on the basis of mission requirements and demonstrated capability—rather than on the basis of political pressure, unhelpful clichés about the forces of the past, parochialism, tradition, and similar influences.

The volunteer public service of our military forces, including both the active forces and the Reserve components, must also not be taken for granted. The men and women in uniform are entitled to clear policies, well-defined missions, and the tools to do the jobs we assign to them. Reduced defense budgets and the absence of an immediate global threat do not justify the use of the armed forces for relatively unimportant peacetime missions or non-combat work that can be performed by others. When the war tocsin signals in the future that serious new challenges to the nation have arrived, we will be entitled to call upon all of our warriors. When serious threats do not exist, we must not abuse this important national asset. A principled approach to the formulation of strategy and to force planning is essential if we are to distinguish the one set of circumstances from the other.

Mr. Duncan served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs in both the Reagan and Bush administrations.

 

 
 

Conferences and Events

Defense Forum Washington 2014

Thu, 2014-12-04

Newseum - Knight Conference Center

Defense Forum Washington will take place December 4, 2014 at the Newseum - Knight Conference Center in Washington, DC.

2015 WEST Conference

View All

From the Press

Keynote Speaker & Book Signing

Mon, 2014-11-03

Guest Speaker & Book Signing

Tue, 2014-11-04

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership