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 / Shutterstock.com

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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A Veteran in Congress Takes Aim at Pentagon Waste

U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., who sits on the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), served 20 years in the military in both the Army and Marines. He deployed to Iraq twice: once during the Gulf War and once during the Iraq War. Now he’s chairman of the Congressional Balanced Budget Amendment Caucus, and he’s taking on the Pentagon’s pork—as well as writing legislation to protect whistleblowers and victims of sexual assault within the armed forces.

MDO: You led a successful effort in HASC to add protections for whistleblowers and sexual assault victims in the military as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) mark up. Why did you take the lead of this effort?

MC: Our men and women in uniform must be able to depend on one another, and trust their command will protect them from sexual predators. These crimes inflict lasting damage on individuals and compromise the effectiveness of our military.

The NDAA, which recently passed the House of Representatives, forcefully addresses the issue of sexual assault in the military by making several improvements to the Uniform Code of Military Justice: It maintains authority within the chain of command while increasing accountability and mandating punitive action for sex criminals in the forces; it ends arbitrary sentencing by requiring expulsion for all persons found guilty of sexual assault; and it extends the time period for the prosecution of sexual assault cases.

Not only must military leaders go after sexual predators, they must protect victims of this crime who are courageous enough to speak up. That is why I worked across the aisle with Congresswoman Jackie Speier to add the Military Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act to the defense bill. This legislation protects service members who report sexual misconduct up the chain of command, ensures they have a fair chance of demonstrating that reprisal has occurred, and provides for a credible review process whereby the victim can request a hearing before on the matter and be provided with representation by a military lawyer.

According to a Defense Department report last year, over 60 percent of those in the military who reported sexual assault experienced some form of retaliation from their fellow service member. This is unacceptable. The fear of reprisal prevents victims and witnesses of this crime from speaking out. I believe this provision will go a long way to addressing this problem and ensuring these criminal acts are exposed and acted upon.

If we do not hold those accused of sexual assault accountable, and fail to protect those who keep our country safe, we fail our service members and make it more difficult to get future generations of Americans to sign up for military service.

MDO: National Taxpayers Union and R Street Institute recently released a report entitled “Defending America, Defending Taxpayers.” They found 100 specific recommendations totaling nearly $1.9 trillion in possible cuts over 10 years. Do you think Congress will begin to act fiscally responsible and will start cutting or reforming wasteful programs at DOD?

MC: How the government spends taxpayer funds is very important to me. We are in the middle of a fiscal crisis. Our $16.7 trillion national debt is unsustainable and economically ruinous. During economically difficult times, families and businesses make tough decisions; the government should be no different. My priority in Congress is to cut wasteful spending and to remain a responsible steward of American taxpayer dollars.

I remain committed to identifying and cutting wasteful spending wherever it is found in our budget—including within the Pentagon. There are ways to support wise cuts to extraneous Department of Defense programs to ensure the sustainability of our most vital national security assets.

MDO: Some in the GOP are concerned that if the Pentagon’s budget is cut, or cut any further, there will be disastrous effects on the economy. Veronique de Rugy (Mercatus Center) and Robert Barro (Harvard University) disproved the Keynesian notion that money spent on defense, even on unnecessary programs, benefits the economy in their report “Defense Spending and the Economy“. How can you educate your colleagues that money spent on defense for unneeded weapon systems actually hurts the economy and makes Americans less secure by misallocating resources?

MC: Not every dollar spent on the defense budget is necessary for the defense of our nation. I believe in a strong national defense and have concluded that spending wisely on defense is the best way to achieve that end given the current economic situation. It is troubling that some would rather preserve wasteful projects than take a common-sense approach to the defense budget.

Most Americans would agree that an obvious place to start is to stop spending money on a project the military does not want. The Abrams tank provides one such example. The Pentagon says it can save billions of dollars by freezing work on upgrading the Abrams tank from the M1A1 to the M1A2 version for the next three years and using that money for more pressing needs. In spite of this, there are some in Congress who insist that this money be spent.

I believe that the only way to resolve the problem is through a grand bargain whereby Democrats yield on entitlement reform to slow the growth of spending and so protect the future of these programs, and Republicans put revenue on the table through closing credits and deductions for corporations and individuals. Until this happens we are hurting our seniors and threatening our nation’s financial solvency. The key is educating people on the problems we face and how the interests of those on the right and left of the political spectrum can both be addressed while we solve the nation’s debt problem.

Michael D. Ostrolenk is a consultant who provides strategic and integrated analysis on issues related to national security, privacy and health.

Tony Shaffer Talks Leaks, COIN, and Modern War

Lt. Col. Tony Shaffer, a former officer with the Defense Intelligence Agency, helped create Task Force Stratus Ivy, an inter-agency initiative that included support for the controversial counterterrorism project known as Able Danger—a pre-9/11 operation designed to detect and counter al-Qaeda. He is best known for the Department of Defense censoring his book Operation Dark Heart: Spycraft and Special Ops on the Frontlines of Afghanistan and the Path to Victory.

TAC: Can you draw a fine line for us between leaks and whistleblowing?

TS: A simple term draws the line between leaking and whistleblowing, and that word is “intent.”

Leaks from the White House regarding the identity of SEAL Team Six as the unit that conducted the [bin Laden] raid; the leaked info on Pakistani, Doctor Afridi, who helped us confirm the location of Bin Laden; the leak of information on the British spy net in Yemen that detected and prevented another round of underwear bombings; and the leak to the New York Times of critical information regarding the drone program and the Stuxnet virus were all for political purposes—done to help establish the perception that this White House is strong on national security. These leaks are illegal.

Specific details—down to the floor plan of the bin Laden house—were leaked [to the producers of “Zero Dark Thirty”] for political purposes. The intent here was to achieve political gain, not protect the American people.

People like Thomas Drake are whistleblowers. There was clear intent on his part to draw attention to huge government waste and fraud by the National Security Agency and its leadership, to purchase new and unneeded technology that was redundant and far more expensive that the technology and techniques that already existed within the agency. The intent here was to do public good—to identify and stop illegal and wasteful activity.

The grand irony is that, of course, Mr. Drake was fired from NSA for his intent to do good. Those who did the big leaks—who, I am told, are members of the current White House National Security Counsel—continue to serve and leak information to the media with impunity.

TACYou’ve been a strong critic of the counterinsurgency doctrine employed in Afghanistan. How do you recommend the administration deal with designated terrorist groups in general and in Afghanistan/Pakistan in particular?

TS: Operation Dark Heart, my book about Afghanistan in 2003-2004 covers the tipping point when we left our successful anti-terrorism strategy and adopted the current, failing, counterinsurgency [COIN] strategy. COIN is a relic of the British Empire designed to maintain colonial control over a foreign land and people. It did not work for the British here in the U.S., and it has not worked anywhere else for any amount of time.

President Obama sowed the seeds of failure in his COIN policy for Afghanistan when he announced the “surge” in 2009. His fatal mistake was to tell the Taliban that there was a limit to our commitment—the surge would only last for so long, and we’d be leaving in 2014. This was insane. It told the Taliban all you had to do is wait us out, and frightened our friends as it once more indicated to them that our commitment was not durable.

The president, through his direct imprint on the Afghan policy and his becoming the “assassin in chief”—where he makes life-and-death calls personally from the White House regarding drone targets—has taken the Lyndon Baines Johnson micromanagement of war from the White House to a new level.

The president [should] do two things. First, listen to regional and military experts and internalize the root issues at the heart of the conflict. The Afghan people are not ungoverned—they are self-governed with no strong tradition of a central democracy. This is a tribal region, and you are not going to change the momentum of 2,000 years of culture with ten years of COIN.

Second, work more closely with our allies in the region. We won the Afghan conflict in 42 days in 2001-2002. How? Using Afghan militia forces—the tribes and warlords—and working with the Pakistanis and other allies in a cohesive way. There have been problems with the Pakistanis over the past ten years because we have asked them to do things that they feel are against their own self-interest. This has to stop—all countries will act in their own self-interest, and we’ve had a stream of leaders in DoD, CIA, and the White House who are naive to this fact. Part of the problem is that both sides have lied to the other thinking the other would not notice. The Pakistanis have sacrificed greatly in this war, and they remain the key to the region and can and should play a huge role in helping bring stability.

TAC: You’re a proponent of a strong national defense and as part of that, you are quite critical of how money is spent or misspent.  What are your thoughts on a Pentagon audit?

TS: National defense does not have to be expensive to be effective.

We have the most layered, inefficient, ineffective bureaucracies money can buy in DoD and the intel community. We could cut intelligence personnel by half and make it twice as effective. The same with DoD—we now have more general officers on active duty today than we did during World War II. The concept that if we spend more, we will be safer is not only wrong, it is making us less safe as we are less agile and able to identify and adjust to threats as they present themselves.

Audit the Pentagon? Absolutely—a no brainer. Just do it. There are three areas we need to address.

First, cyber. Our adversaries have gone into cyberspace and developed capabilities we still do not fully understand or can defend against. General Keith Alexander was and is the wrong man for the job—Cyber Command should be led by a visionary like Curtis LeMay not a functionary like Alexander.

Second, energy and mineral use. The next Cold War is coming, and it will be on energy and resources. This will come to a head within our lifetime and will pit a number of large nations against each other for resources. Traditional ties will be strained and possibly even destroyed as the geopolitical competition for limited resources becomes the focus.

Third, nuclear weapons. We need to upgrade our current aging deterrents capability. Deterrents are only effective if they are credible. We now use technology that was developed at the same time we were building 1979 Ford Pintos. This type of technology that now sits in our silos, bombers, and nuclear submarines. I am not saying we have to expand our arsenal of nuclear weapons—what I am saying is that what we have must be reliable and modern.

Michael D. Ostrolenk is a consultant who provides strategic and integrated analysis on issues related to national security, privacy and health.

Grover Norquist vs. the Pentagon

Illustration by Michael Hogue

Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, famously quipped that he didn’t want to do away with government, merely “shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” He is best known as the architect of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, a promise from lawmakers to their constituents to oppose any and all tax increases. Since its inception in 1986, the pledge has become a virtual litmus test for Republican office-seekers, and today all but a handful of GOP congressmen have signed it.

Though the GOP often professes a desire to reduce spending, the party has been notably reluctant to go after the largest item in the discretionary budget—the Pentagon. TAC’s Michael Ostrolenk recently spoke to Norquist about this curious exception.

 

TAC: Grover, you are famous for saying that the U.S. government does not have a revenue problem but a spending problem. Sequester aside, how would you recommend the next Congress and President address pork at the Pentagon?

 

GN: Conservatives should insist that defense spending be examined with the same seriousness that we demand in examining the books of those government agencies that spend taxpayer money in the name of welfare, the environment, or education. We laugh at liberals who declare that their favorite spending programs should be exempt because the spending is for a noble cause.

A Spanish socialist once declaimed: Spending too much money is not left wing—it is stupid. Ditto wasteful spending in zones conservatives tend to favor because they are actually mentioned in the Constitution.

Spending should be transparent. All spending by the Pentagon should be online. Every check. Exceptions should be made for legitimate national security issues. But military and civilian pay and retirement benefits are not state secrets. This has already been done in many state governments.

The private sector has moved most of their pensions from defined benefit to defined contribution. Utah just passed a law that beginning in July 2012 all new hires by state or local government will have a 401(k) defined contribution pension. There will be no new unfunded liabilities. The Pentagon should make the DC reform that the private sector did in the 1980s, civilian federal workers began making in the 1990s, and state and local governments are doing now. Why be last?

 

TAC: What actions do conservatives need to take in order to help educate some members of Congress on their mistaken notion that spending equals strength?

 

GN: One should look at the charts that compare tax dollars spent per pupil on education to SAT scores, or high school graduation rates. Spending is not caring. Spending is what politicians do instead of caring. Spending more does not guarantee success. Politicians like to measure spending because it is easier than measuring actual metrics of accomplishment.

Then one should ask why defense spending is exempt from the laws of politics.

 

TAC: What lessons do you think Americans need to learn from the last 10 years of war including Iraq and Afghanistan?

 

GN: Ask advocates of the decision to occupy Iraq and Afghanistan after the Baathist and Taliban regimes were overthrown what their goal was. What would define winning or succeeding? How much did it cost? In dollars and in lives. And how much will continuing the occupations cost? When will they end? Someone sure of the virtue of his decisions will welcome answering those basic questions. Those who cannot answer those questions now should have been forced to answer them before lives were spent towards an unarticulated purpose.

Reagan asked in 1980: are you better off than you were four years ago? Are American interests in the world more secure today than before the decision to occupy Iraq and Afghanistan?

 

TAC: You are a strong proponent of transparency, which included your support for an audit of the Federal Reserve. What are your thoughts on a full and complete audit of the Department of Defense?

 

GN: The Department of Defense should be audited, as should other departments of the federal government.

How to Freeze the Pentagon

illustration: Michael Hogue
illustration: Michael Hogue

In July, freshman congressman Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), along with Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), introduced an amendment to the House’s 2013 defense appropriations bill freezing defense spending at 2012 levels. Though it merely eliminates a proposed $1.1 billion increase in defense spending, the Mulvaney-Frank amendment was an acknowledgment that the endless military-spending hikes since 9/11 cannot continue. The legislation passed the House 247-167, with 88 Republicans in support, and the Senate will take up the bill this September.

American Conservative contributor Michael Ostrolenk, co-founder and national director of the Liberty Coalition, caught up with Congressman Mulvaney before the August recess to discuss conservative support for a more fiscally sound national defense.

TAC: Why is this an important issue for you?

Mick Mulvaney: I think it is important that conservatives show a willingness to look at all spending with the same level of critical analysis. To think that the Defense Department is somehow immune from the same tendencies toward inefficiency and waste as we know all other areas of government to possess, is just absurd. More importantly, perhaps, showing that willingness builds our credibility when it comes to reducing spending elsewhere. Put another way: if we show a willingness to at the very least freeze defense spending, it may well send the message that we are deadly serious about our spending problems, and not just using the deficit as a convenient excuse to cut spending on programs that we generally just don’t like.

TAC: What pushback did you receive and how will you overcome it in the future?

MM: The conversations with my colleagues were fairly simple and focused mostly on educating folks on what the amendment was, and was not. For example, many initially thought that this was somehow related to the sequester; it wasn’t. And others thought it represented a cut; it was actually just a freeze. Once we were able to get down to the facts of the matter, the amendment was an easy sell to many conservatives. The push back was mostly from the appropriators, who believed that the bill was fine as it was. They also attempted, for a short time at least, to argue that we had “already cut defense substantially” or that we were somehow “gutting” the defense budget. Again, the best tools here working in our favor were the facts: the cuts mentioned were to the War Budget and not the base budget; the “gutting” was only 0.17 percent of the total defense budget; etc. It is somewhat encouraging that, at the end of the day, the facts won out.

TAC: With military operations finished in Iraq, the conventional war in Afghanistan winding down and the fact that the U.S. is $16 trillion dollars in debt, is it a good time to not only freeze Pentagon budgets but to look at seriously cutting pork programs at DOD?

MM: Clearly. But to do so will take a much larger commitment from Republicans in general and conservatives in particular. Too many Members of Congress are still afraid to cut even a penny from the defense budget out of fear of looking “weak on defense.” We need to change the culture that exists now that equates dollars spent with commitment to national defense. Certainly, there is a link between the two at some point, but wanting to be smart with taxpayer dollars and defending the nation are far from mutually exclusive.

TAC: Many Republicans are warning that possible future cuts to the Pentagon will lead to job loss and economic impacts. That sounds a lot like military Keynesianism. How do you respond to such warnings?

MM: Republicans are just as guilty of flawed Keynesian thinking when it comes to defense spending as Democrats are on social spending. Indeed, that flaw weakens our correct argument we make against social spending, as it allows the opposition to easily—and accurately—cast us as hypocrites. Government spending is government spending, and it does not magically have different impacts on aggregate demand just because it is spent on guns instead of delivering the mail. We have to be courageous in our convictions that government spending does not create net new jobs. Period. We need to divorce the jobs discussion from the military spending/national security discussion.