On War #254: Dollars and Sense

By William S. Lind

At a recent book party for Winslow Wheeler’s new history of the Military Reform Movement of the 1970s and 1980s, I was asked for my views on the prospects for genuine reform. I replied that “So long as the money flow continues, nothing will change.” Chuck Spinney, a reformer who spent decades as a polyp in the bowels of the Pentagon, agreed.

Events on Wall Street suggest that the day when the money flow stops may be approaching. Despite President Hoover’s assurance that “Prosperity is just around the corner,” the American economy is in free-fall. After decades of frivolity, that economy now amounts to little more than a pyramid of financial pyramids, all requiring a constant inflow of borrowed money. The inflow is endangered by the developing Panic of ‘08, where the junk mortgage crisis and the collapse of the housing market combine to dry up lending. What happens to pyramid schemes when money stops flowing in at the bottom? Maybe a recession; maybe a depression. That’s why pyramid schemes are illegal, unless the government runs them.

A tanking economy and world credit markets tighter than Scrooge’s sphincter will require large cuts in federal spending. That will include the Pentagon. If a new administration were to turn to the military reformers and ask us how to cut defense spending while still securing the country, what would we advise?

Here’s what I would propose:

First, adopt a defensive rather than an offensive grand strategy. America followed a defensive grand strategy through most of her history. We only went to war if someone attacked us. That defensive grand strategy kept defense costs down and allowed our economy to prosper. We do not have to be party to every quarrel in the world.

Second, scrap virtually all the big ticket weapons programs such as new fighter-bombers, more Aegis ships, and the Army’s Rube Goldbergian Future Combat System. They are irrelevant to where war is going.

We should not plan for conventional wars against hypothetical “peer competitors,” which can only be Russia or China. We should do our utmost to make Russia an ally, and we should make a fundamental, bi-partisan national strategic decision that we will not go to war with China. Regardless of who “won” such a war, it would destroy both countries, just as the two World Wars destroyed both Germany and Britain. The world needs China to serve as a source of order in what will be an increasingly disorderly 21st century. We should welcome the growth of Chinese power, just as Britain learned (reluctantly) to welcome the growth of American power in the 20th century. It is only a threat to us if we make it one.

Third, as we cut, preserve combat units. That means, above all, Army and Marine Corps infantry battalions. Cut the vast superstructure above those battalions, but keep the battalions. Infantry battalions are what we need most for Fourth Generation wars, which we should do our utmost to avoid but which we will sometimes be drawn into, even with a defensive grand strategy.

In the Navy, keep the submarines. Submarines are today’s and tomorrow’s capital ships, and geography dictates we must remain a maritime power. Keep the carriers, too, though there is little need to build more of them. Carriers are big, empty boxes, which can carry many things besides aircraft. Mothball most of the cruisers and destroyers. Build lots of small, cheap ships useful for controlling coastal and inland waters, and create strategically mobile and sustainable “packages” of such ships. Being able to control waters around and within stateless regions can be important in 4GW.

Fighter-bombers are largely useless in Fourth Generation wars, where their main role is to create collateral damage that benefits our enemies. Keep the air transport squadrons and the A-10s, and move them all to the Air National Guard, which flies and maintains aircraft as well as or better than the regular Air Force at a fraction of the cost. Reduce the regular Air Force to strategic nuclear forces and a training base.

In all the services, vastly reduce the baggage train: the higher headquarters, the development commands, the education bureaucracies and the armies of contractors. As Mark Twain said of the male teat, they are neither useful nor ornamental.

Finally, as we cut, undertake reforms that cost little but will make our remaining forces more effective. Reform the personnel systems to create unit cohesion, eliminate the surplus of officers above the company grades and reduce careerism by ending up-or-out. Reform tactics and doctrine by moving from the Second Generation to the Third, which is to say from French attrition warfare to German maneuver warfare. This requires a change in military culture, in education and in training. The adoption of Third Generation tactics, doctrine and culture must be real, not just words on paper as it has been in the Marine Corps.

A program of military reform along these lines could give us more effective forces for Fourth Generation wars and such minor conventional wars as we might face within a defensive grand strategy than the forces we now possess. It could do so for a defense budget half or less the size of the current budget. To the reigning Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex, that potential is a threat, not a promise. When the MICC’s money runs out, it will suddenly become a necessity.

William S. Lind, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.

To interview Mr. Lind, please contact:

Mr. William S. Lind
Free Congress Foundation
717 Second St., N.E.
Washington, D.C. 20002
Direct line: 202-543-8796

5 Responses to “On War #254: Dollars and Sense

  • 1
    March 11th, 2008 17:05

    ok, I’ll kick off the inevitable string of But What Abouts that will follow:
    mothball all destroyers? how to give local protection to our global seaborne commerce should a guerre de course develop and require convoys? [mostly take to the recommendations — thought there was something in my eye upon reading the suggestion to eviscerate the regular USAF]

  • 2
    March 11th, 2008 18:22

    One small political note on China: If both USA Republicans and Democrats agree that they will not go to war with China, Japan and Taiwan will be cut loose.

    The most likely event is that Taiwan will capitulate and start paying taxes to Beijing. That would be economically disruptive. And the the USA would probably see a huge increase in spying, because the Chinese would see no downside to cranking up espionage.

    The unlikely possibility is that Japan would seriously increase its military presence to single-handedly defend Taiwan. That would be politically disruptive.

  • 3
    US national security - the budget version : Global Dashboard
    March 12th, 2008 06:33

    […] to the military reformers and ask us how to cut defense spending while still securing the country, what would we advise?“.  Some highlights: First, adopt a defensive rather than an offensive grand strategy. […]

  • 4
    March 14th, 2008 17:09

    I think the above piece by Mr. Lind is again, right on the money…

    moon wrote:
    ok, I’ll kick off the inevitable string of But What Abouts that will follow:
    mothball all destroyers? how to give local protection to our global seaborne commerce should a guerre de course develop”

    Note that Mr. Lind stated to build many and smaller ships. With todays technology would that respond to your objections? Note that he also recomended retaining our carriers. Each one of these ships can control entire geographic areas if properly supported.

    judasnoose wrote:

    “The most likely event is that Taiwan will capitulate and start paying taxes to Beijing.”

    Is China capable of doing this? The native Taiwanese do not consider themselves Chinese and in fact are not Chinese. If they choose to fight for their independence, I don’t think that militarily China could do a damn thing about it. The independence party, which now controls the government of Taiwan, doesn’t want to take this step for fear of economic consequences. But would they surrender? I doubt it.

    I think this piece by Mr. Lind, where he sticks to purely military considerations, is more than plausible


  • 5
    March 17th, 2008 12:58

    As usual, it’s difficult to disagree with Mr. Lind’s central points, but I do agree with the sense of some of the other commentators that Mr. Lind’s naval advice is a bit questionable.

    I think we should mothball the carriers, for if we retain them, we will continue to have to protect them. Carriers are far more than mere “empty boxes”–they are floating cities with lots of very expensive electronic and mechanical systems. To lose a carrier would be disastrous to the U.S. for many reasons (aside from the cost of thousands of lives, consider the blow to morale and to the prestige of the U.S. Navy); like the dreadnoughts of an earlier era, they are ships that are far too expensive to risk lightly–especially against an asymmetrical threat. For good reason, carriers never travel alone; they travel as part of a carrier “task force”–and the task of the force is to protect the carrier. That’s why we have Aegis cruisers.

    Theoretically, the “carrier group” forms an impregnable defense against other surface ships, hostile planes, and submarines. From the center of this floating fortress, the carrier launches its planes to “project force”, as the phrase goes. I use the word “theoretically” to mean “not really true”, or “fairy tale”. In the recent couple of years, Chinese submarines have surfaced in the midst of U.S. carrier groups during naval exercises. This was not a test conducted by the Chinese to determine if they could penetrate the “force protection” screen of the task force. Had this been their mission, they wouldn’t have surfaced. They surfaced because they had something to tell us: “your carrier groups are vulnerable. Don’t fool yourselves”.

    So I say, junk the carriers. I don’t know about the destroyers…they used to be small, cheap ships whose primary mission was antisubmarine warfare. I’m sure that a U.S. navy destroyer is far from cheap these days. But I do think we need destroyer-class ships, for they would be ideal for the role Mr. Lind envisions: global coastal security. So I’m for keeping destroyers. If we build new ones, they should be on the cheap side, though. Also, what the Navy really, really, needs is more mine-sweepers.

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