Drowning in the Military Swamp
The Swamp. Candidate Donald Trump alluded to it constantly during his historic campaign. No one explicitly stated the definition of the Swamp but it was tacitly understood to be a visual analogy for what was occurring in Washington: a site of stagnation, stench, and rot.
Translated into political imagery, the Swamp has been identified as the source of dysfunction, waste, and deceit. “For too long,” Trump said in his inaugural address, “a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost.” Some Americans associated the Swamp with selfish elite politicians, bureaucrats, operatives, and lobbyists responsible for outsourcing and the loss of jobs, and trade deals and taxation benefiting the rich. But amidst the righteous patriotic anger at the state of our country, one victim of the Swamp has gone largely unnoticed: the military. As one of the only institutions that Americans continue to have faith and respect in, it nonetheless has not been immune from decay, cronyism, and dysfunctional, scelrotic bureaucracy.
After serving in the Marines for nine years as an officer and naval aviator, I witnessed firsthand what Trump has called the “broken system.” The military began fiscal year 2018 with a budget of $717 billion, bases across the world that serve as self-sufficient, self-contained cities, and hundreds of thousands of civilian and contractor support personnel. Despite these basic but significant conditions, we are suffering from a readiness crisis, sometimes with deadly consequences, as seen in rising aviation mishap rates and Navy ships colliding on the high seas.
What is readiness? The military defines readiness as “the ability of U.S. forces to fight and meet the demands of the national military strategy.” In layman’s terms readiness is maintaining a quantifiable level of proficiency in assigned missions over the course of time. For an aviation mission like close air support, readiness is how well we can put our rounds on a target at the right time today, tomorrow, in a month, and in a year. Every military unit utilizes a reporting system that quantifies readiness. The Marine Corps utilizes the Defense Readiness Reporting System and updates their data every 30 days.
The causes of the readiness crisis are complex, and in order to separate and analyze them it is useful to visualize the military as a living organism. Just as an animal needs blood and nutrients to survive, so too does the military need resources to function properly. But today the massive Swamp leech is slowly bleeding the military dry of time, equipment, money, and resources.
The first nutrient the military needs is time. The average American is under the impression that members of the military spend the majority of their time and energy doing their stated jobs or military occupational specialties. Pilots fly their planes and soldiers train on their weapon systems. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Leonard Wong, a former Army lieutenant colonel turned researcher, conducted a rigorous study at the direction of the U.S. Army War College to determine the burden of administrative training requirements placed on soldiers. His team’s findings were released in April 2002 and found that company commanders had to fit 297 days of mandatory training into 256 available training days. Reporting again in 2015 after interviewing dozens of Army officers, Wong found that the burden of training requirements created a culture where “subordinates are forced to prioritize which requirements will actually be done to standard and which will only be reported as done to standard.” From one officer, “we can probably do two or three things in a day, but if you give us 20, we’re gonna half-ass 15 and hope you ignore the other five.” Several phrases that consistently appeared in the study’s interviews were “hand waving, fudging, massaging, or checking the box.” In other words, administrative training requirements created a troubling culture of dishonesty and deception.
What is the nature of this training? Some training, such as the rifle range or conditioning hikes, contributes to readiness, but a great deal does not. From my time in the Marines, here’s a non-exhaustive list: Anti-Terrorism Training, Uncle Sam’s Operational Security, Violence Prevention Program Awareness (no this isn’t a joke; there is a program to teach warfighters to be non-violent, instituted after the Fort Hood shootings, which were a terrorist attack, not workplace violence), Semper Fit Tobacco Cessation, Combating Trafficking in Persons, Cyber Awareness Training, Sexual Health Training, Sexual Assault and Response Training, Records Management Training, Suicide Prevention, and Risk Management. This “training” consists of nothing more than computer-aided tutorials which must be repeated each year. In practice most Marines just click through the programs as fast as possible so rosters can be completed.
In addition to this mandatory training, officers are required to manage and administer dozens of programs that correspond to the operation of their respective units. These include: Postal Affairs, Combat Marksmanship Program, Equal Opportunity Program, Historical Program, and the Performance Evaluation System, to name just a few.
Programs for morale and welfare have also grown exponentially with the war on terrorism, even eclipsing readiness and capability in priority. Shortly after the government shutdown of October 2013, then-defense secretary Chuck Hagel ordered back to work furloughed Department of Defense civilians whose “responsibilities contribute to the morale, well-being, capabilities, and readiness of service members.”
Though they supported families amidst back-to-back deployments during the long years of Iraq and Afghanistan, is it reasonable now to maintain nearly 160 golf courses across the world when less than half of Marine aircraft can fly according to standards? While combat operations have drawn down, the opposite has not occurred. As in any bureaucracy, necessary improvements always lag behind need, sometimes by years.
A short listing of support programs in the military include: Military OneSource, Family Readiness Program, Military and Family Life Counseling Program, Family Advocacy Program, Community Counseling Program, DSTRESS hotline, Marine Corps Family Team Building, Operational Stress Control and Readiness, and numerous others. The redundancy and overlap of these programs prompted my former squadron to create a flow chart of yes/no questions, a jumbled maze of a document, to guide leaders in pushing troubled Marines in the right direction. Mentoring and caring for their subordinates using “intrusive leadership,” once the duty of Marine leaders, has been contracted to a new army of civilian DoD employees, further splintering military cohesion and esprit de corps.
Hagel’s comments highlight one of the most dangerous negative effects of the civilian-military divide: the assumption by the American people that voluntary service members are only interested in “morale and well-being” in the material sense. Marine officers are taught that the purpose of military leadership is mission accomplishment, followed by troop welfare. The fallacy that has become the norm is that material happiness equals morale, and that morale correlates to readiness. But the opposite is true. Readiness boosts morale. Being given the resources and time to accomplish our missions is what makes the troops most content.
Is some of this administrative training and support required to achieve readiness? Absolutely. But without real results the current system cannot be defended. The readiness crisis is real, but the military is accepting mission failure as long as the boxes are checked. For example, naval aviation had a flight time requirement of 100 hours per year. Many Marine pilots, including myself, did not get the minimum required hours over the last several years.
Service-wide frustrations with these activities were addressed in July 2017 when Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis ordered the formation of a working group to examine the “mandatory force training that does not directly support core tasks.” Recommendations were due in December 2017. When I left the Marine Corps in April 2018 I had not heard of any changes, and today close friends still serving confirm the status quo remains intact.
The military loves to quantify things. But because we don’t have the time, money, and resources to achieve readiness, we compensate by pursuing and cataloging things that don’t matter. And as we learned so painfully in Vietnam, not everything that can be counted counts.
In addition to time and the discretion for its use, the military requires trained personnel and functional equipment to achieve readiness. Several of the metrics used to calculate readiness pose the following sorts of questions. Does the unit have the number of helicopters or tanks on hand that are specified by their Table of Equipment and Organization and enough maintenance personnel? What is the operating status of this equipment? Is it in depot-level maintenance and not available for training or is it fully mission-capable and up for tasking?
How the Swamp has created a situation where the military lacks working and adequate equipment lies primarily in the two major regional contingency (two MRC) strategy.
After World War II, the United States developed a new national security strategy under President Harry Truman. This policy was guided by National Security Council Paper NSC-68, created in April 1950. Citing the “hostile design” of the Soviet Union and rejecting isolationism and outright war, the policy recommended the “the rapid building up of the political, economic, and military strength of the free world.”
By 1992 the USSR had dissolved, but what remained intact was the capability to fight the USSR. As the old saying goes, if you don’t use it you lose it. Shuttering an armaments industry in business for 45 years with yearly budgets in the hundreds of billions wasn’t the same as closing a seasonal Halloween store.
Wasting little time, in 1993 the Pentagon under Defense Secretary Les Aspin came up with the workaround: the two MRC strategy. The idea was that the military would be sized to fight two major regional conflicts simultaneously.
Reporting in 2012 for Time magazine, Mark Thompson described the two MRC strategy “as a floor on just how much of a military we need to buy; if we need X to wage and win one war, it sounds logical that we need double that—2X—to prevail in two places.” He summarized that it “isn’t a strategy at all, but merely a capability.”
In October 2017 the Heritage Foundation completed their yearly assessments of the military branches, using the two MRC strategy as the standard for grading capability. What type of capacity is required for a military capable of fighting two MRCs? For the Marine Corps, by far the smallest service, it means possessing more combat aircraft than the United Kingdom’s formidable Royal Air Force. Through the lens of the two MRC strategy, the crisis is fairly straightforward. By law the Marine Corps must fly and maintain enough aircraft to fight two big wars at the same time. This sorry state of affairs led the commandant, General Robert B. Neller, to declare in 2018 that the Marine Corps had “too many airplanes.” As noted in the Heritage assessment, only 40 percent of those aircraft could actually fly as of December 2016. An emphasis on quantity has negatively impacted the quality of the aircraft.
And digging deeper, that 40 percent even includes aircraft that aren’t fully mission capable. To be safe for flight is one thing; to be capable of attack is another. If certain weapon systems or sensors are not in working order, the aircraft can still fly, but is reduced to a flashy looking news helicopter, incapable of locating and shooting targets.
A similar story plagues the other services. In the Army, 21 Brigade Combat Teams of 4,500 soldiers apiece are required for one major contingency. But in 2017, only three of the 58 were considered ready for combat.
Setting these expectations creates spending allocation problems. There simply isn’t enough money to fix, operate, and maintain all of our equipment. Analyzing the fiscal year 2018 military budget, more than 40 percent of the budget, or $272 billion, was alotted to pay and benefits of military personnel and their dependents before one bullet or bomb was purchased. After accounting for procurement at $115 billion and research and development at $82 billion, $223 billion was left to split between the four major services for operations and maintenance.
A military sized for two simultaneous regional wars requires massive contractor support in order to run training ranges, flight simulators, and higher-level maintenance facilities. In 2012 the contractor army stood at 670,000 and cost $129 billion to maintain.
Without the proper tools in capable hands, military exercises to prepare for war degenerate into nothing more than elaborate propaganda displays. On my first deployment, while on board the USS Bonhomme Richard off the coast of South Korea before Exercise Ssang Yong 2014, our executive officer emailed the aviation detachment the following statement: “Everyone needs to realize this is not a tactical exercise. This is a political exercise to show that even in fiscally constrained times we (Uncle Sam), can do a beach assault with all of our toys. What actually makes it to the beach is mostly irrelevant.” The “exercise” that followed resembled a cross between the Westminster dog show and a Leni Riefenstahl production.
The mock enemy positions, simple fighting holes dug a few hundred meters inland, in no way simulated a North Korean defense, there was no live fire, and the outcome of the exercise was predetermined: the Marines won. What Marines public affairs officers reported about the exercise was more valuable to our leaders than the training value extracted for the participants whose morale suffered accordingly. Trump was right to cancel them. Upon further examination, our leadership wasn’t being disingenuous.
According to a Marine Corps Times article published in January 2018, the Marines want the Navy to man and operate 50 amphibious ships to be able to practice large scale amphibious operations as called for by current policy. Currently there are 32, down from 62 in the 1990s. The result? The Navy “could not fulfill 93 percent, or 293 out of 314, of the Marine Corps’ requests for amphibious training for the San Diego-based [Marine Expeditionary Force].” Current plans call for 38 ships by 2033, still well short of the 50 desired.
Another facet of our equipment problems stems from the military procurement system. We now have a military that supports the procurement system, rather than the other way around, resulting in ineffective, unreliable, and irrelevant hardware plagued by cost and timeline overruns that span years and gobble up billions.
The Marine Corps’ latest ship-to-shore troop connector, the Amphibious Combat Vehicle, selected in June 2018, swims at seven knots in the water, the same speed as the 46-year-old Assault Amphibious Vehicle it replaces. This, despite deputy Marine commandant Lieutenant General Brian Beaudreault stating in 2017 that “we have to find a solution to getting Marines to shore, from over the horizon, at something greater than seven knots.” In between these vehicles was the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, a high speed connector that churned through $3 billion and more than two decades before finally being canceled in 2011.
As the Project on Government Oversight’s Dan Grazier has reported, unit costs for the $1.5 trillion F-35 program have more than doubled from $62.2 million in 2001 to $158.4 million today. The program is 12 years behind schedule and, most recently, program office officials have downgraded or altered potentially fatal or mission-degrading design flaws to avoid blowing through yet another development milestone. The cost of future modernization is now approaching $10.8 billion, easily clearing the threshold for an entirely new Major Defense Acquisition Program. Lockheed Martin wisely spread the pork across 45 different states employing 146,000 workers, undermining any congressional will to cut the program, resulting in the ultimate coup d’état of the defense industry over the military and taxpayers.
In fact, between 2001 and 2011 the Department of Defense spent over $46 billion on weapon systems that were ultimately canceled.
On the surface, the two MRC “strategy” seems reasonable: whoever has the most soldiers and highest quality equipment wins. Why are the streets of Paris lined with trees? So the Germans can march in the shade. In World War II they outmaneuvered a larger and better equipped French Army that had eight months to prepare for war and had a home field advantage. The conflict lasted 43 days. As TAC contributor and military historian William Lind has mentioned, American military theory is French-inspired and over 100 years old. But outside of that interesting and necessary debate, something much more nefarious is at play.
Trump’s national security strategy, released in December 2017, focuses on the return of great power competition with Russia and China. The strategy states that the United States must “retain overmatch—the combination of capabilities in sufficient scale” and also “must reverse recent decisions to reduce the size of the Joint Force and grow the force while modernizing and ensuring readiness.”
As alluded to previously, the military-industrial capacity that found itself without an enemy at the close of the Cold War is now in the driver’s seat. Just as when a totalitarian government overtakes the legal system the motto of justice becomes “show me the man and I’ll show you the crime,” our defense policy motto has become “bring me a $717 billion defense bill and I’ll find you an enemy.”
With this strategy in hand, a new spending spree has commenced with the passage of the latest $717 billion defense bill, which includes 473 new Bradley fighting vehicles for the Army, $40 billion to fix the aviation crisis, 15,600 more troops overall, and, of course, a 2.6 percent pay raise to show the troops how much we love them.
Will it solve the readiness crisis? In the short term there will likely be relief, but as government shutdowns increase in frequency, with no end in sight for overseas contingencies, and debt projections reaching $33 trillion by 2028, the system will no doubt relapse into dysfunction. The hallmark of a “broken system” is a constant, unacceptable result despite changing initial conditions. Without the time to achieve the mission, without operating equipment, and without the proper allocation of resources the readiness crisis will continue unabated despite fresh infusions of billions. We have to choose between having a large, underfunded paper tiger military or a smaller, properly funded, lethal military. We can’t have both.
The military is drowning in the Swamp. Will she survive? For my friends still serving and for our country’s sake, I sure hope so.
Jeff Groom is a former Marine officer. He is the author of American Cobra Pilot: A Marine Remembers a Dog and Pony Show (2018). Follow him on Twitter @BigsbyGroom.