Pentagon May Need A Better Answer Than 'Because'

The Greek word sôphrosúnê in modern English means “unto reasonableness.” Unfortunately, this is a concept lost in the debate taking place among pundits, politicians and the newly-arrived to the administration over what weapons programs to keep and those that should be canceled.  

The facts leave no room for the test of “reasonableness.”  The Air Force either needs no more F-22 “Fifth Generation” fighters, or it needs many more than the 183 F-22s planned to be bought.  Either the F-22 is a “Cold War” relic, or it has the advanced combat systems and sensors that make it essential in both an irregular warfare combat environment and to ensure air supremacy in future conflicts. The nation either must be able to intercept and destroy incoming enemy missiles with a robust ballistic missile defense system, or there is no need to have such capability at all.  There is no in between.  

For those who want to cut the defense budget regardless of the consequences to national security and who are convinced that peace will break out spontaneously, this polarizing of the defense weapons acquisition dialogue is just what they want.  They, then, can fall back on the argument that is best for them: “Why?”  Why does the Army need a Future Combat System?  Why does the Air Force need an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter?  Why does the Navy need a new generation of air craft carriers?   Why is money being spent on conventional forces, when it’s irregular warfare and fanatical jihadists that represent the greatest challenge?  If a strong defense of the nation is to prevail, the answer to “why” from our military leadership simply cannot be “because.”

But all too often that is what appears to be the Pentagon answer to advocacy for defense systems.  Now, is this comment fair? Probably not. There are very smart people in the military services that are putting out herculean efforts everyday to establish the case for a dominating defense capability.  But that’s just the point.  The focus on “capability,” or, as it is described in the Pentagon, “capability-based planning,” leaves the national security advocates somewhat defenseless when faced with the dreaded “why.”   

It is important to first understand that the “capability-based” approach was a reaction to, as James Blaker explains in his book Transforming Military Force, a “force planning template [that] remained lodged in Industrial Age assumptions and tied to images of a confrontation with another military superpower.”   It was also a response to the notion that “more is better” and build the threat big enough and any number of sophisticated weapons will be justified.  

The “threat-based” thinking that had represented the “Cold War” response to national security had to go.  Looking at U.S. military capabilities and how they compared to what a potential adversary might develop to take advantage of U.S. vulnerabilities is the essential task.  

The problem with this line of thinking is that answering the “why” question is much more difficult.  When the Department of Defense is trying to explain to Congress the importance of a weapon system and the quantity needed based on “capability,” and then try to tie in risk to the nation if Congress does not agree and reduces the funding request, it is a tough sell.  If Congress doesn’t get it, there is a good chance the American people won’t get it either.  Explaining military needs in terms of the word “threat” on the other hand works, and it is how it has worked in the past.

Back in the Reagan era, we had a formal process called “Defense Guidance.” It measured what America’s capabilities were, what adversaries were capable of, and specified the difference.  That difference defined what we had to build in order to fill the gap.

The Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force looked at their “mission area” and analyzed the nature of the threat posed by an adversary’s political, economic, and government stated intentions for the use of their military, as well as the size and technical quality of their ground, sea and air forces.  This assessment was used to develop a requirement for meeting the threat posed by a potential adversary.  

For example, a potential enemy might have designs on its neighbor’s natural resources and have the ability to move its forces rapidly beneath triple-canopy jungles unseen.  If the neighbor is a nation friendly to the U.S. and our national interests depended on keeping the neighbor as an ally, then the potential enemy’s ability to move unseen to attack its neighbor is a threat.  So, to mitigate the threat there is a requirement to observe maneuver and movement of this potential adversary in a triple-canopy jungle environment.  That requirement had to be answered by an appropriate capability.  The capability may be satellite sensors, unmanned aerial vehicle sensors or some other form of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance equipment.  

The quantity and effectiveness of the capability come at a cost. But — given that analysis — Congress had a better opportunity to understand that the capability was needed. If Congress did not want to pay the price, then the resulting reduced capability did not meet the requirement and the threat was unmet with an attendant risk.  

In a threat-based approach to meeting the needs of national security, risk is directly tied to budget and an attending factor to meeting the threat. This approach also allows for more than an all or nothing method acquire weapon systems.  When a decision is made by Congress or the administration to accept more risk and the dollar dial on the budget is turned down, that becomes a middle-ground option.  It allows for going forward in meeting national security needs “unto reasonableness” or sôphrosúnê.  Advocacy for a defense budget then can be made a matter of national security risk and the pesky question “why” can be addressed with more than “because.”  

In a conversation I had with a defense commentator, he could not understand why the leadership in the Pentagon did not accept his recommendation for what weapons to buy and when to use them.  I explained that he had the luxury of knowing that what he suggested was just that: “a suggestion.”  His view did not carry with it the personal responsibility of putting our nation’s warfighters lives at risk.  For him it was an academic exercise.  He could be wrong, and the only consequence he would suffer was an opportunity for another op ed piece describing how there were other alternatives to what he proposed.  When the leadership in the Pentagon is wrong, our fighting men and women are put at peril, often, great peril.  As I write, I’m keeping this in mind.