Toys vs. Boys (I): The Emerging Defense Policy Debate It's
Either the Contractors or the Troops

October 23, 1998

Comment: #202


[1] "Defense Merger Policy Allows Contractors To Bill Taxpayers," Fort Worth Star-Telegram
October 18, 1998 (By The Associated Press )

One would think the central reason for having a military is to have a capability that is READY to defend or promote America's EXTERNAL security interests, what ever they may be.

Well, think again.

There are more important social issues at stake. One dimension of this larger picture can be seen when we juxtapose the information in Reference #1 to the needs of the grunts at the pointy end of the spear. I recently received two disturbing email messages from a Captain who recently commanded a company in one of America's premier "first-to-fight" Army divisions. When reading about his problem, bear in mind his division is at the FRONT of the readiness food chain.

Captain XXX's problem will help readers to appreciate the absurdity of the choices now facing a politicized national security decision-making process that is sinking rapidly into a miasma of intellectual chaos and moral decay. [I urge new readers to this list, or those who think this characterization to extreme, to peruse the archive hot linked beneath my signature block, starting with Comment # 169, "The Constitution, Situational Ethics, & the Phony Debate Over More Defense Spending."]

Email from Captain XXXX:

"Chuck, a few weeks ago I sent you an email lamenting how they cut my 60mm mortar ammo allocation this coming FY [Fiscal Year 1999, which began Oct 1] to 468 rounds of HE. Well I was wrong. That is not for my company's mortars. That is for all the company mortars in the battalion. Seems they devised a new simulator round that is cheaper to use. More to follow on that one."

My knee-jerk reaction to Captain XXX's lament was 'Why do we need simulators for 60 mm mortar rounds, which are about as cheap as weapons can get? Besides, it is good policy to let combat troops become familiar with live ammo that goes boom.'

To put this allowance in perspective, I checked out the Army's standard requirements with another Army officer. The battalion in question has three line companies, each with equipped with two 60mm mortars, giving a total of 6 mortars per battalion. According to my second source, the Army has set a standard firing schedule of about 80 mortar rounds per tube per quarter to maintain combat proficiency. So the battalion needs at least 1920 rounds per year to be combat ready in 60 mm mortar capability, according to the Army's official standard. A load out of 468 rounds per year is only 24% of what the Army says this battalion needs to be combat ready.

On the other hand, having been in the military, it occurred to me that that the real requirement was probably larger than the official requirement, because weapons expenditure standards have a tendency to be reduced budgets stop growing and the competition for money intensifies. So I asked Captain XXX, who is a highly regarded infantry officer, how much ammo he thought he truly needed to maintain a "first-to-fight" unit in a combat ready condition.

He responded in a second email—"In my estimation, as a former rifle company commander, a mortar section needs to range shoot at least once every 4-6 weeks, plus shoot in every platoon level or higher level live fire [exercise]. This allows the mortars to maintain very perishable gunnery skills plus gives the unit the opportunity to cross train 11B riflemen as emergency mortarmen and allows the commander to train his Infantry and Fire Support element to maintain proficiency in call for fire (more than just basic level also)." ["call for fire" is the command and communication procedure used to coordinate the firing with the needs of the troops.]

"I have had mortar ranges where I brought out all squad leaders and above to practice 'call for fire.' Sadly, this was the first time many of them had ever really called for live indirect fire. Additionally, I brought out rifle platoons and had every soldier in the platoon, even brand new Joes right out of AIT [advanced infantry training], call for fire, adjust the rounds, and call a fire for effect using one of the three methods. Plus he got to go on the gun line and train as an assistant gunner."

"If you assume a minimum of 100 High Explosive (HE) rounds just per range ( I have had as much as 150 HE rounds), that is at least 1000 rounds per COMPANY just to shoot mortar marksmanship in a year. This does not take into account illumination rounds to fire night missions and white phosphorous rounds to fire suppression and obscuration missions."

"If you factor in 3 rifle platoons shooting both a day and night live fire (6 iterations) doing this 4 times a year and maybe 2 company live fires a year, you get 26 mortar missions. Even if each mission was a pathetic 10 rounds of HE, that is an additional 260 rounds of HE per year per COMPANY. They are giving the six tubes in a battalion 468 rounds of HE for the year. I would estimate we need 3700 round per year. Of course, we would never get the time to shoot that much. Which would be my next gripe....."

Captain XXX's comments illustrate how a professional soldier sees his job. He wants to do MORE than the uniformed bureaucrats (milcrats) in headquarters require him to do, because he understands that things will never work out as planned in real combat. If his mortar team or radio men are killed, he will need immediate replacements, and more than likely, they will be infantrymen in his own unit. Consequently, he wants to cross train his riflemen extensively to use and control mortars under a different variety of conditions. To achieve this end, he believes he needs far more ammo than the Army says he needs, and therefore an allowance that is only 24% of official requirements drops to 13% of what he thinks he needs to have a combat-ready mortar capability. He is in charge of people's lives, yet he can not do what either Army says he needs to do, nor can he do what he thinks is necessary to prepare his people for the bloody test.

Back in the Pentagon, the milcrats and their civilian cohorts have a very different set of values. While they have been pinching "pennies" by cutting firing allowances for 60mm mortar rounds, their top priority is to figure out how to shovel more money to the defense contractors. Attachment #1 shows one way how they squander money on a gigantic scale.

It is official policy to spend millions of the taxpayer's dollars to subsidize mergers of defense contractors or more precisely, to use cost-plus contracting provisions to ACCELERATE the flow of subsidies to the merging contractors. These subsidies will help create monopolies among the very companies that concoct the complex technologies and supporting political power games that create the cost growth, together with the political paralysis, that is at the vortex of the Defense Death Spiral [i.e., the interactive effects of a high-cost modernization program that can not modernize the force, a plummeting readiness condition and the rising cost of low readiness, and a corrupt accounting system that makes it impossible to understand, let alone fix, the readiness and modernization problems. New readers to list should examine the three reports hot linked at web site beneath my signature block].

Manure rolls down the hill, and the chaos generated by the defense death spiral sucks away the money needed feed the grunts at the pointy end of the spear with enough ammo to train realistically with, even though the total cost of that ammo is smaller that the round off errors of the unsupported adjustments to the Pentagon's unauditable books.

Does anyone see a problem with a system of priorities that permits cutbacks in 60mm mortar ammo allowances for troops who may go into harm's way while subsidizing mergers of the multi-billion dollar private companies who are producing the unaffordable technologies that have created the readiness and modernization crises?

If our national policy is to protect the industrial base, promote monopolies, and manage the industrial dole at the expense of the troops at the pointy end of the spear, we could at least be honest about the goal and transfer the acquisition budget to the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, where they understand how to operate a welfare program and deal with economic dependency.

On the other hand, we could truly privatize by removing subsidies and let the free market work its magic. Who knows, we might even get good weapons at an affordable price.

Then, we could use the savings to buy Captain XXX enough 60mm mortar ammo to properly prepare his people for the time when they are in harm's way and maybe even return some money to the taxpayer. Perhaps the fires of a free-market competition would restore the balance between risk and reward by replacing the current socialist system of private profits and public losses with a capitalist system of private profits and private losses. Who knows, perhaps a competitive struggle of variation and selection conditioned by the choices in a free market would even help some of these companies evolve advanced enough in new technologies to catch up with the commercial sector and produce commercial products they could sell on the open market for a profit.

But my friend Ernie Fitzgerald, the last of the old time cost cutters, has no use for my idealistic musings about how we could increase our military and commercial strength by using competition to wean the defense industry off the government dole. He says, somewhat condescendingly, "You just don't get it, Chuck. We are in the business of BUYING COSTS, that is what cost-plus contracting is all about. You always get what you subsidize."

Or course Ernie is right. That is why Attachment #1 makes perfect sense to the Plutocrats on the Potomac (otherwise known as the Washington POPs), if not to unwashed Captains simulating 60mm mortar fires in the mud. Unlike their brethren in Boston, the Washington POPs are monotonic — just one giant sucking sound.

There is a lesson here: the grunts ought to shut up and play with their simulators and leave the real business of defense to the POPs, who understand the big picture. After all, the POPs have gone overboard to make that picture clear to the grunts. They even went so for as to portray it with official Armed Forces Day posters for the last three years, which celebrated weapons and ignored the soldierly sacrifices of our men and women.

But then, real soldiers will never get the message, which is one reason why they are leaving in increasing numbers.

Chuck Spinney

[Disclaimer: In accordance with 17 U.S.C. 107, the following material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.]