State of the Union

A Military for the 21st Century: Col. Douglas Macgregor on Threats That Define It

The famously troubled V-22 Osprey.
The famously troubled V-22 Osprey. Sascha Hahn /

Col. Douglas Macgregor (retired) is a decorated combat veteran, the author of four books, a Ph.D., and executive VP of Burke-Macgregor Group LLC, a defense and foreign-policy consulting firm in Reston, Virginia. Macgregor’s groundbreaking books on military transformation—Breaking the Phalanx and Transformation Under Fire—have profoundly influenced thinking about change inside America’s ground forces. His newest book, 5 Battles in 5 Wars: 5 Essays on Transformation and War, 1914-1991, will be published in 2014.

Recently I interviewed him about America’s military needs in the 21st century:

TAC: What are the real threats the United States faces today and into the near future?

DM: There are three kinds of threats. The first threat is economic. In 1958, President Eisenhower told the American people, “The purpose is clear. It is safety with solvency. The country is entitled to both.” Eisenhower was right then and he’s right now. (See Paul Taylor, Rakesh Kochhar, Richard Fry, Gabriel Velasco and Seth Motel, “Wealth Gaps Rise to Record Highs between Whites, Black and Hispanics.”) We need to send home low-skilled, uneducated people who are not Americans. At the same time, American citizens must be first in line to receive training, education, and jobs. The second relates to the first in that our borders are open and unprotected. Criminality in many forms marches hand in hand with illegal immigration across our borders and through our ports. The third involves alliance commitments that threaten to entangle the U.S. Armed Forces in conflicts that are of no interest to the American people.

TAC: How would you defend against those threats? Structure of military? Homeland security?

DM: Committing U.S. Army Forces to the Border Security Mission is the only sensible and cost-effective means of securing our borders. These Army forces need to be tightly integrated with U.S. Coast Guard, Air National Guard, and U.S. Navy elements that must secure our coastal waters. Meanwhile, conflicts beyond America’s borders are likely to resemble the Balkan Wars of the early 20th century, except that fights for regional power and influence will overlap with the interstate competition for energy, water, food, mineral resources and the wealth they create. These conflicts promise to be far more lethal and dangerous than any we’ve experienced since 1991. Fortunately, we should be able to avoid entanglement in most of them given our growing domestic energy independence and capacity for food production. Read More…

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Brother McKeon, Can You Spare a Dime?

Obviously Congressman Buck McKeon (chairman, House Armed Services Committee) did not follow my advice in my last blog post, entitled “Rep. McKeon Is Right (Kind of) on the Sequester.  In it I suggested that he could lead a revolution in military thinking to address 21st century threats and fiscal realities.  From his latest item in the Wall Street Journal, he has chosen not to lead but, as I pointed out, to “continue living in the 20th century with his military industrial complex mindset making us poorer and less safe.”  In his WSJ opinion piece, Rep. McKeon calls on President Obama to restore alleged “cuts” to the Pentagon in exchange for his support for a military strike in Syria. He claims Obama’s cuts have hollowed out the military, leaving it a skeleton without the capacity to carry out the most limited strike.  

I’ve already addressed those alleged cuts in the last post, so let me use this opportunity to make a different point. If a U.S. military strike against Syria is the right thing to do (which I would disagree with as a point of policy) then Congressman McKeon, out of principle, needs to support it. He should not blackmail President Obama over sequestration. There should never be a quid pro quo when it comes to doing the right thing. It’s either right or wrong. He should work with the Pentagon to find the funding already available to carry out the strikes  He does not need to undo sequestration, which merely put a dent in the Pentagon budget. It would be somewhat comical, if it were not so serious, that with the $17 trillion national debt, Congressman McKeon thinks the Pentagon cannot spare a dime and, in fact, thinks U.S. taxpayers need to give DOD even more of our hard-earned money. The Pentagon will be much more effective and efficient if we cut out the waste and eliminate congressional pork projects. The United States would be  safer and more secure if our leaders lived in the same world as us, where math matters and questions of war are taken very seriously.

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Rep. McKeon Is Right (Kind of) on the Sequester

Rep. Buck McKeon (R-CA), who is Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), said recently on CNN, “We cannot keep asking the military to perform mission after mission with sequestration… hanging over their heads.”  He pointed out that Obama has surged troops in Afghanistan, flown missions over Libya, and changed strategy to focus on the Pacific all while cutting Pentagon spending. McKeon said, “Our military has had over a trillion dollars of cuts over the last couple of years and going forward.”

Chairman McKeon makes some good points, but they are mostly out of context. There have not been trillions of dollars in cuts to the Pentagon. He was not given all of the money he requested, but that’s not an actual cut.  The U.S. government is $17 trillion dollars in debt. He cannot wish the debt away so the U.S. military can buy all that his defense contractor friends want to sell Uncle Sam. There are fiscal realities that need to be addressed. Sequestration was a really poor way of doing so, but it was not Obama’s alone.  It was part of the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA), which was supported by both the House (run by Republicans) and Senate before being signed into law by President Obama.  And sequestration will not lead to trillions in cuts to the Pentagon budget.

Parts of his statements have some truth, though. Yes, our military cannot operate as it has while we’re also reducing Pentagon spending. But we are not engaged in Iraq any longer, and we are winding down operations in Afghanistan. There is no need to spend the type of money we did while engaged in two wars. Also, it might prove prudent to start asking tough questions and not just throwing money and other resources at unquestioned assumptions about the threats the U.S faces in an ever-changing world.

A few questions to ask:

Perhaps the U.S. should not pivot to Asia or have participated in Libya and soon in Syria?

Maybe we should re-evaluate the threats we actually face versus those we organize around and spend over a trillion dollars a year against (Pentagon plus DHS/ intelligence agencies)?

Rep. McKeon could lead a revolution in military thinking to address 21st century threats and fiscal realities—or he can continue living in the 20th century with his military industrial complex mindset making us poorer and less safe.

I would encourage him to be a leader. Quit being partisan and seeking political gain and start promoting what’s best for the United States. He can start by opposing all U.S. military intervention in Syria. He can question the U.S. Cold War-era defense strategy  and begin to seek real cuts of unneeded and wasteful programs and weapon systems at the Pentagon. If he wants some excellent suggestions on cuts, I would recommend to him the new report from the National Taxpayers Union and R Street Institute entitled “Defending America, Defending Taxpayers.” which finds up to 1.9 $ trillion in possible cuts to the Pentagon.

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