WAIKIKI, October 23, 2012 – Social networks erupted with a firestorm of argument last night as President Obama blasted Mitt Romney with an invective that accused the Republican presidential nominee of being a bush-league lightweight on military tactics.
“I think Governor Romney maybe hasn’t spent enough time looking at how our military works,” Obama said. “You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets (laughter) because the nature of our military’s changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.”
“And so the question is not a game of Battleship where we’re counting ships, it’s – it’s what are our capabilities. And so when I sit down with the Secretary of the Navy and the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” President Obama continued, “We determine how are we going to best able to meet all of our defense needs in a way that also keeps faith with our troops, that also makes sure our veterans have the kind of support that they need when they come home. And that is not reflected in the kind of budget you’re putting forward, because it just don’t work.”
Ironically, Mitt Romney’s campaign has the support of over 300 retired general officers and admirals on his “Military Advisory Council” but in spite of this impressive cognoscenti he was not able to redirect and articulately explain why Obama’s defense model – or more perhaps appropriately, his new world order of fourth generation warfare – fails to impress.
Had Romney’s background been military rather than corporate or political, the public might just have had a substantive debate and a real lesson on defense statecraft last night.
Real Commanders Know It’s Not Enough Just To Listen To The Pentagon
Both President Obama and Vice President Biden routinely employ the platitudes we heard last night: they regularly sit down with the Joint Chiefs and the service secretaries and take their informed leadership cues from there. That sounds great on the surface and it passes for excellence for anyone whose understanding of the military stops at the tagline “Support our Troops!” but real commanders know you can’t base your defense model solely on what the Pentagon says you should do.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower – who himself had previously been Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during WWII and Chief of Staff of the Army afterward – understood that effective command was all about filtering the signal-to-noise ratio between the Oval Office and the bureaucracies. Recognizing that the Pentagon routinely overestimated some threats while grossly underestimating others, Eisenhower bemoaned during his term:
“God help the nation when it has a president that doesn’t know as much about the military as much as I do.”
Eisenhower didn’t just take the word of his officers, he filtered what they said and looked for the real, root issues that needed to be addressed.
What Eisenhower knew and warned us about should come as no shock or surprise to the American people: it’s basic common sense. French prime minister Georges Clemenceau likewise said “War is too important to be left to the generals.”
The Chinese master strategist Sun Tzu also said that a leader brings misfortune “by attempting to govern an army in the same way as he administers a kingdom, being ignorant of the conditions which obtain in an army.”
One must always understand that O-7s and above (generals and admirals) are by very raison d’être political creatures and the product of the last decade of SECDEFs and former presidential administrations alike.
Let us be absolutely clear: you cannot lead America based solely on memorandums from the Office of the Secretary of Defense or PowerPoint presentations from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The reason being is that you can ask an honest question like “How’s our readiness?” or “Do you have everything you need?” and the generals may answer “Good to go!” but the truth could be anything but.
Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Hugh Shelton calls that “the drinking duck syndrome” in his autobiography, where “Every one of the chiefs confidently confirmed that everything was just great, couldn’t be better – nodding their heads like a row of bobbing ducks at a carnival.” In reality, F-16s could be grounded with no engines, Marine battalions could be unfit for combat and more – but that information never reaches the top unless someone actually investigates it themselves.
It’s absolutely important that a commander in chief be aware of these kinds of dynamics. Obama needs to recognize that not everything is sunshine and rosy in the military right now. There are serious issues that need to be addressed and aren’t being addressed.
Yes, the nature of war is changing but that doesn’t mean that technology and information revolutions are the answer to everything. If “the military” is asking for something, are they asking for it because they really need it or are they asking for it because they think that’s what their commander in chief wants to hear?
Can America Survive A Major War With Obama’s Military?
It’s quaint to think that this new world order that we’re living in has the United States as the eternal superpower of the world, tasked with policing developing countries with no significant capabilities in land, sea, aerospace or information power but it’s simply not realistic. If the only mission of the United States military is to do commando raids in search of international bandits or to participate in humanitarian peacekeeping/military operations other than war, then yes, I suppose a tiny military consisting of propeller drones, rubber zodiac boats, littoral combat ships loaded with commandos and stealth helicopters is the right tool for the job.
But there are some of us who still believe the constitutional function of the military is national emergencies – that is, defend the United States at home rather than go intervening in developing nations around the world.
In the past, American military planners wanted a force that was capable, as Secretary of Defense Harold Brown famously said, of surviving even a well-executed surprise attack. The present military that Obama lauds – the one that has “ships that go underwater” and “these things called aircraft carriers” – isn’t what it used to be.
The point that Mitt Romney failed to articulate is that the cost of our military, in large part due to the excessive interventionism abroad, has us spending more money than ever before but we have less equipment and capability than we did before.
The reason why you want to have numerous bases and a robust force is because in war, redundancy is necessary. If America should ever be the victim of a nuclear first strike, how many of our forces would actually survive to defend the continent? The less we have and the more centralized they are in “joint” bases, the less likely they are to be survivable.
Again, this is an area where civilian politicians who are experienced only in corporate business or community leadership just don’t get it. If you’re the CEO of a company, cutting a manufacturing division or laying off workers means making the business more efficient and profitable relative to production and market demand.
If you’re the President of the United States of America, cutting fighter squadrons (or failing to recapitalize them) means less air defense capability and redundancy in the event of war.
We could barely handle fighting Iraq and Afghanistan at the same time. What happens if Russia and China aren’t so cordial with us in the future? Do you honestly think that the United States can fight a “real” adversary with the kind of leadership we have?
Perhaps the biggest problem of our modern day thinking is we have become so self-absorbed in concepts like “force multipliers” and “information warfare” or “calculated ambiguity” that we have neglected to pay attention to historical patterns and basic military necessity. Both Obama and Romney mean well, but as far as I’m concerned, neither of them “get it” when it comes to foreign policy and military. It’s time to bring our forces home, revise our military doctrine to defense and work on being a strong nation again.
As for last night’s debate, I’m not impressed.
Why should we listen to President Obama as an authority on Navy matters when his own party displayed Soviet ships in place of U.S. vessels at their own national convention? So let us rather, in closing, remind ourselves of the warning of Sun Tzu before it is too late:
“When you engage in actual fighting, if victory is long in coming, then men’s weapons will grow dull and their ardor will be damped. If you lay siege to a town, you will exhaust your strength. Again, if the campaign is protracted, the resources of the State will not be equal to the strain. Now when your weapons are dulled, your ardor damped, your strength exhausted and your treasure spent, other chieftains will spring up to take advantage of your extremity.”
“Then no man, however wise, will be able to avert the consequences that must ensue.”
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