The Subtext

May 2011


An interesting subtext pervaded much of the USNI-sponsored Joint Warfighting Conference at Virginia Beach. ADM Harvey spoke about the strains the demands of the Combatant Commands were placing on his service. Former Secretary of the Air Force Michael Wynne spoke about the importance of fifth generation fighters, both the F-35 and F-22 (his position on the F-22 contributed heavily to his replacement by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates). And GEN Ray Odierno emphasized the importance of retaining a balanced force and the trajectory of current strategic trends (i.e. ‘fourth generation’ warfare or whatever you want to call it with the unstated implication that maintaining the Army at close to its current size is essential). This is not to sum up much broader addresses in a sentence. But it was particularly striking how a subtext of a defense of each service’s role and importance was, in one way or another, to be found in so many of the addresses delivered at a conference about jointness.

ADM Harvey emphasized the balance to be struck between the demands of the Combatant Commands and the need for a more sustainable deployment tempo and concept of operations for the fleet. At the end of the day, everyone is on the same team and this subtext of defensiveness is simply a symptom.

As during the Interwar period and the marginalization of tank development, any time the budget ax looms, entrenched interests dig in their heels and attempt to ensure that the ax falls as lightly as possible on them. This is not an attack on individuals or specific warfare specialties, it is an institutional reaction by long serving and patriotic servicemen and women that have spent their careers mastering a discipline of warfare that they understandably and justifiably believe to be critical to national security.

But as one panelist in a separate discussion argued (though in another context), ‘balance’ is a cop out — a way to cut from everything without making real choices where we try to continue to do everything but as a result will find ourselves doing less, less well and in fewer places. Notably, the exception to this has been the discussion of network security — ‘cyber’. Both the address by LTGEN Robert Schmidle, Jr., Deputy Commander U.S. Cyber Command and the subsequent panel discussion, there seems to be almost no discussion of service-specific considerations or efforts, particularly when it comes to defensive efforts and day-to-day network operations. There seems to be broad and strong consensus on the need for this (perhaps there are points of contention here that simply did not come to the surface at the conference, but it certainly made for a stark counterpoint).

But ultimately, while the budget ax can be used to justify and force through fundamental changes, it can also make fundamental change more difficult, particularly in terms of R&D and next-generation capabilities. On the one hand, we have examples of a phenomenally and tightly integrated and effective joint team resident in the Joint Special Operations Command and elsewhere. But on the other, even at a conference on jointness, we can also see lines being drawn in anticipation of further fiscal cuts at the Pentagon that bode ill for preparing for future conflict. And we would do well to remember that it was this sort of budgetary environment that led the U.S. Army to appoint a horse cavalryman as the head of the cavalry (which, along with the infantry, included tanks in a ‘supporting’ role) in 1939.

Posted by nhughes in Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, Navy

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