“…now it is time to think!”

This statement, alternately attributed to Winston Churchill and Ernest Rutherford, was the baseline theme of all of yesterday’s speaking and panel sessions here at USNI/AFCEA West 2012.

But is it a fair statement? And is it accurate?

The implication of that statement is that senior military and civilian officials in the Defense Department have been accustomed to throwing money at problems rather than thinking through a solution. And this questionable practice is the reason for “bloated” Defense budgets in the post-9/11 world.

I disagree. While undoubtedly there are inefficiencies in Defense spending, and more can be purchased for the dollars spent, I simply don’t buy into the notion that the statement implies.

Much is made of the “doubling” of the Defense budget between 2000 and 2011, but little is said of the effects of the “Peace Dividend” and the acquisition “holiday” of the 1990s. In yesterday’s shipbuilding panel, of which more will be written soon, Mr. Mike Petters from Huntington Ingalls Industries (the shipbuilder formerly known as Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock, among other names) gave us some interesting insights as to the effects such uneven procurement and “holidays” have on building ships. The cost to the manufacturer of sitting idle, and of sudden restart at a surge level, is considerable. Elsewhere, in the Navy-Marine Corps Team panel, there was also significant discussion of the very real problems experienced by prime and sub-contractors when production drops below minimums for business solvency, or unpredictable dry spells and cancellations occur.

The costs of fighting two wars that represent a level of commitment of a single Major Regional Conflict (MRC) in 1990s parlance undoubtedly drove up Defense budgets, with personnel increases for the Army and the Marine Corps, operating costs, ammunition and fuel, aircraft and ground equipment maintenance and repair, and rapid acquisitions of vital equipment like MRAP vehicles as the dollar drivers. Many of those rapid acquisitions centered on burgeoning technology and unanticipated requirements, and anticipated requirements that had not been met (up-armored M1114 HMMWVs) in anywhere near sufficient numbers over the previous decade.

However, I cannot agree that the services, especially the notoriously tight-fisted Marine Corps, suddenly spent the last decade as profligate spenders without rhyme or reason, as if they had their parents’ credit card on a college weekend. If they did, then such did not occur at the tactical level.

Today, with US military involvement with Iraq at an end, and Afghanistan employing a small fraction of the US Military (90,000 of 1.44 million, just 6.2% of personnel), the “pivot” of the focus of our military to the Pacific region and the execution of the Cooperative Strategy requires meaningful commitment of adequate resources to counter the capabilities of a fast-rising near-peer in China.

While comments from each of the speakers and most panel members were couched in terms of required and critical capabilities, there was acknowledgement of the budget axe that will be the final arbiter of which capabilities we can afford, and which we cannot. Where and when that axe falls will determine this nation’s ability to execute its National Military Strategy, and by extension, its National Security Strategy.

Doing “more with less”, another phrase often heard yesterday, is a hackneyed and trite bit of platitude that is a signal that what we truly have is not a capabilities-based Defense budget, but budget-constrained Defense capabilities. You do not do more with less, you do less with less. That, whether it is a popular sentiment or not, is an inviolate fact of life. To the vast preponderance of the men and women of the US Military, who have always done as much as possible with what was given them through two protracted wars, the idea that thinking only takes place when all the money has been spent is an affront to them and is dismissive of their courage and commitment.

If I don’t hear Churchill’s words applied to our Military ever again, it will be too soon. If there is a ringing of truth in them, it should be in the ears of those who wear stars and wide gold stripes. The rest of us have been thinking all along.

Posted by UltimaRatioReg in Air Force, Army, Books, Coast Guard, Foreign Policy, Hard Power, History, Homeland Security, Marine Corps, Maritime Security, Naval Institute, Navy, Proceedings

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  • Rob

    We didnt run out of money. We never had any. The war fighting is paid by borrowing, not by a huge vault of cash. We “run out” because they want to continuing borrowing to simply buy more votes with local construction and msc projects. War fighting, that doesnt buy liberal votes.

  • Matt

    How many lawyers work for the DoD? Why does the military need a single lawyer to kill the enemy? Do they at least carry ammo?

  • We spend as much or close to as much on defense as the rest of the world combined. Granted we have uniquely global responsibilities. But it seems to me like we should be able to get the job done with that. Or at least we could if we had a more serious reassessment of what we spend money on and how we do what we do. If we continue to insist on eleven CSGs (I’m not picking this battle, but the cost of one carrier, its escorts, aircraft and the men and women over the course of a forty or fifty year service life is a hefty chunk of change); if we want to conduct continue to counter-piracy missions with billion dollar guided missile cruisers and destroyers; if a need for a naval gun that can shoot further and hit harder than the 5″ Mk45 means a 15,000 ton $5 billion warship, then we’re not going to get there. I say this not to retread old ground, but to remark that much of the discussion I see on this blog and in Proceedings is about corvettes, influence squadrons and unfulfilled requirements that don’t entail the high-end development of an F-35 or a CG(X). They entail making a small investment in things we already know how to do quite well.

    We obviously need the high end — Aegis, SSNs, big-deck carrriers with modern, stealth aircraft and the like. But most of the unfulfilled requirements — the capabilities you refer to — strike me as things that need not break the bank, if we can carve out a modest portion of a budget dominated by legacy capabilities and entrenched high-end interests…

  • UltimaRatioReg


    You make some good points. A couple of other things to look at, however.

    First, what do our dollars buy versus those of our next highest competitors? Make those calculations, and the numbers change drastically.

    Second, we are the only true global power with global commitments, a point made by LtGen Flynn today. That leads us to have a requirement for global presence in sufficient strength to defeat regional adversaries.

    The point about chasing skiffs with billion dollar warships is a good one, and the yet-undefined high/low mix for our shipbuilding dollars weighs heavily on that discussion. As for an advanced gun platform in the 15k ton range, we might indeed get there, if it is sufficiently powerful and flexible to fulfill a mission set commensurate with its price.

    The two capability gaps (MCM, NSFS) discussed above are not bank breakers, unless we choose to make them so. But here is the rub to all of this, and was again something General Flynn struck squarely. If the number of CVBGs is nine, then it is nine. If the USMC is 2.5 divisions with the ability to put a MEB ashore, then fine.

    But do not make those cuts, and then 14 months later expect a execution of a mission requiring the capability of 11 CVBGs, or landing 2 MEBs, and then endanger the Sailors, Marines, and assets we have by being unable to execute properly or with sufficient combat power to win.

    As it stands right now, we haven’t the Naval assets to execute the Cooperative Strategy in anything except the most benign of environments. Which makes the document worse than worthless, in essence a false expectation. Further cuts in our Naval forces leave us no chance of success in that strategy even without a hostile and independent will to challenge us.

    We should stop with promulgating what we know to be unworkable strategy, and stop telling our junior leaders they haven’t been thinking, and for goodness sake, stop telling people we need to do “more with less”.

    We sound like idiots.

  • M. Ittleschmerz

    URR – yes. In all respects, yes.

  • I agree that one can not do more with less; however, one can do more with the SAME. We are a manufacturer of DAGR accessories in competition with Rockwell Collins (the OEM) and due to all of the red tape relative to general politics, procurement policies etc. our product which is 20-40 pecent less expensive and in a number of cases a superior performing product is overlooked.

    If this is true for us I can’t imagine that there wouldn’t be other companies offering product and/or services to the Military in a similar position.

    If these type of roadblocks could be overcome by direct Military intervention millions of dollars could be saved with no reduction in support requirements.

  • Byron

    Mr. Steeves, you have no idea as to just how bad procurement is screwed, both from the requirements side and the paperwork side. I’ll give you a tip: LCS.

  • Paul P

    I lay the blame of the mismanagement of the defense budget and it’s priorities on Congress and the defense contractors. I have to give them grudging credit though– when my father was building P-40’s and P-39’s in Buffalo before going overseas materials would come in one end and a fighter would come out the other. No waiting for wings to come from Oklahoma, tails from Rhode Island, etc, etc. He told me that the only items that came from off site were the guns, engines and tires.

    Sub-contracting all the assemblies off site for defense contractors is smart business, but not smart defense. It spreads the cost of a given weapon over several (key) districts so the chances of it being eliminated, no matter how expensive, are reduced as congresscritters don’t want to eliminate jobs in their district. Why did the EFV last for 20+ years in development?

    The vexing problem is that the rules are written by the people who benefit the most from it– lawmakers. Sure it’s legal and all of that, but in the end it doesn’t benefit the poor soldier, sailor, marine or airman at the end of the food chain.

    What is needed is a group of defense-minded strong-willed senators and representatives that care more about defense than they do getting re-elected and let them lead the way to rewrite the procurement rules, defense spending guidelines and listen, and react appropriately to the operators. I am sure they’re out there, but getting them to have the courage to place country above themselves and politics is the challenge.

  • Robert

    I agree with the comments regarding doing more with less on the mission side however on the business side, there is plenty of marbled fat that has yet to be trimmed. Just a few examples:

    Mike O’Hanlon from Brookings points out a great example in his new book. A senior military officer and an equivalent from State were meeting a foreign official overseas. The military officer was accompanied by an entourage of six people and flew on a military aircraft (with crew). His State counterpart came alone and flew on a commercial flight.

    CNIC uses 11 regions (one or two stars each) to manage its bases. In comparison, the army uses 4 to manage more bases. Why do we even need military officers running bases in CONUS? CNIC had to build a school house just to train military officers how to be the “town mayor”.

    I was recently on a small base in Norfolk and came across a motor pool of about 40 gov’t owned sedans. Why does anyone need gov’t sedans in CONUS? Think of the cost across DOD. If you need to travel around base or in the local area, use your POV and be thankful you still have a job.

    POGO recently conducted an excellent analysis on the problem with “Star Creep” and the cost associated with maintaining so many GO/FOs. Will we see the flag ranks trimmed commensurate with the total force – doubtful.

    There is plenty of room to do more (or at least the same) with less when you take a critical look. Good Sailors are being FIRED just to maintain our outdated and inefficient ways of doing business…

  • UltimaRatioReg


    Agree with your comments. Getting rid of goofy, or needlessly inefficient (the DoD has some inefficiencies which MUST be maintained, because they are not a business, but a military) ways of doing business would be a great thing. How much meaningful savings? I don’t know. The “less” I refer to is the conscious reduction of combat units, systems, and capabilities. Two divisions are not three, eight CVBGs cannot give the same global coverage in a burgeoning crisis as can eleven. Forty fighter squadrons cannot do the work of fifty properly employed units. 215 ships don’t lend as many options for forward presence as do 285 or 313.

  • Byron

    Paul, don’t forget the flag officers that routinely pimp a weaponss program and three years later wind up working for the prime contractor on the same program…

    Worst of all are the Congress-critters who force crappy programs and then make them stupid expensive for litle or no reason..

  • Not just in the military, but throughout government, on small everyday scale that accumulates to big bucks over time, the procurement system for even smallest items waste time, hurts job performance, and ultimately adds to cost.

    Much of it is intended to keep “the little people” from cheating the government, but when big cheats are found, nothing much happens anyway, just make a new law to get more in the way.

  • You may be correct Byron. Perhaps I am not aware of how screwed up military procuremwnt is. All I can speak to is what we are witnessing ourselves and that,in a nutshell is:

    From the mouths of many comes nothing but LIPSERVICE when it comes to really caring about the WAR FIGHTER

  • Matt H.

    How much do we spend on drug testing, DAPA, redundant driving tests, lawyers, ORM studies, fancy new uniforms, and other such measures centering on either appearance or avoiding liability. “Suck it up” or “just get this done” are no longer accepted retorts to those who insist the paper is more important than the product. Procurement, especially on the navy side, is based on what we would “like” to be rather based on identity than what we “need” to be based on reality. We’re becoming the wrong one of the two militaries described by Jean Larte:

    “I’d like to have two armies: one for display with lovely guns, tanks, little soldiers, staffs, distinguished and doddering generals, and dear little regimental officers who would be deeply concerned over their general’s bowel movements or their colonel’s piles, an army that would be shown for a modest fee on every fairground in the country.

    The other would be the real one, composed entirely of young enthusiasts in camouflage uniforms, who would not be put on display, but from whom impossible efforts would be demanded and to whom all sorts of tricks would be taught. That’s the army in which I should like to fight.”

    It IS a result of having the luxury of so much money. We have not been forced to prioritize. We’ve been recruiting hard, rather than smart. I remember a shocking example when I had an SN on my ship, from Gambia, who spoke fluent French, English, and Swahili and in-depth knowledge of local politics. When I asked a superior WHY we were wasting such talent painting a capstan instead of getting him to AFRICOM, I was told he had to “do his time.” Clearly, someone thought this remarkable SN “doing his time” was more important than our organization being able to “do our job.” Too many leaders assume we have the luxury of waste.

  • Paul P

    Officers going from serving the country to working for a company that they used to buy from as an officer should be illegal– punishable by jail time. What’s more– whatever that weapon system may be that they pimped should be canceled immediately.

    Cutting down on flag rank is a great idea– always felt there were too many high end officers doing the work that could be done by lower rank officers with the same skill sets.

    Of course if I was DOD, I’d cancel the LCS, and reprogram the $$ to refurbish every FFG-7 with new engines, VLS, and accommodations for a reinforced Marine platoon with two helos for “littoral” work, turn them over to hard-charging 0-4’s and 0-5’s and put them to work.

  • UltimaRatioReg


    There was never a luxury of “so much money”. We made the questionable choices anyway.

  • Matt H.

    @ UltimaRatioReg: Fair point and I agree. We -imagined- we had that luxury, but reality is closing in alot little faster now.

    @Paul P: I don’t want defense companies that don’t have people who understand the needs of the fleet. There are honest guys out there who work for contractors. As for the FFG-7, it’s time is up. The hulls are cracking from the O-2 level 76, they’re drafts are too deep, by the time you’ve finished playing the musical chairs below-decks necessary to install all these items from VLS to the jet-drives, you may as well have bought a simple new corvette. The FFG-7 was imagined as a temporary force-planning spot weld; its time has come to move on.

  • Matt H.

    *their… wow. I should be shot for that kind of grammatical error.

  • UltimaRatioReg


    Do what I do, and yell “damned auto-correct!!!”

    Plausible grammar deniability.

  • RickWilmes

    Edward Luce at FT puts the military budget in it’s proper context.

    The mirage of Obama’s defence cuts.  29 Jan 2012

    ” US defence spending has almost doubled in real terms since the 2001 World Trade Center attacks. Mr Obama’s cuts would shave 8 per cent from the budget over the next decade – a bagatelle against what is taking place in Europe. But even this overstates the reduction, since Mr Obama’s headline $487bn “cut” is from a 10-year projection that assumed yearly increases.
    Such is the state of Washington budget speak that even the most cautious fiscal recalibration can be made to sound draconian. Far better to deal in absolute measures. On that count, Mr Obama is only barely shifting the needle. By 2017, once his cuts are in full flow, US defence spending will be $567bn against what would have been $622bn. That is still almost six times what China spends today and more than the next 10 countries combined.