Readiness Trap Sprung: Battle of Encirclement Evolves into Budgetary
Equivalent of the Ulm Maneuver as Administration Leaves the Field

September 23, 1998

Comment: #191

Discussion Thread:  #190


[1] Steven Lee Myers, "Clinton Seeks More Money for Military Readiness," New York Times, September 23, 1998. Excerpts attached.

Sun Tzu said victory without fighting is the acme of generalship. Recent events suggest his wisdom applies to budget wars as well as real wars.

Sun Tzu's insight is more of an Eastern idea than a Western idea. Napoleon's encirclement of the Austrians at Ulm in 1805 is, nevertheless, is a pristine example of Sun Tzu's maxim. Today, in the Pentagon, there is much talk of asymmetric warfare, as if this were a new idea; at Ulm, the central asymmetry was a stunning mix of brilliance and incompetence, a combination found often in war and budget politics.

In 1805, the allies of the Third Coalition (Austria, Russia, and Sweden) prepared to wage an offensive war of revenge against France. At that time Napoleon's Grand Army (210,000 men) was concentrated in Boulogne on the English Channel, where he was in the midst of preparations to invade England. His only other major concentration was in northern Italy (50,000 men).

The Allied plan was for a 100,000 Austrians, closely reinforced by a coordinated western movement of 120,000 Russians and a Swedish contingent, to destroy Napoleon in detail, first taking out the French forces in northern Italy, then moving westward with overwhelming forces to defeat the Grand Army. In September 1805, the Austrians prepared for Phase I by marching west to Ulm in Bavaria, a small town on the upper reaches of the Danube River. Once the Russians linked up with the Austrians, the combined force would turn on the French in Italy, where they assumed Napoleon would make his main effort against them.

Napoleon, who used spies and knew how to control the media, got wind of the Allied plan, and he secretly transferred his Grand Army from Boulogne to a wide front on the Rhine River, northwest of Ulm. In late September, he infiltrated six flying columns eastward in a giant wheeling operation, sweeping north of Ulm, then turning south in a wide concentric movement, not unlike that of the Schlieffen Plan executed by the Germans in 1914, before advancing on Ulm from the East. While he was maneuvering into the rear of the Austrians at Ulm, his cavalry forces invaded the Black Forest in front of Ulm to capture their attention and distract their mental orientation away from the real threat.

Napoleon, like most great generals, benefited immensely from the incompetence of his opposition. This took several forms, but two factors stood out. The Austrian forces had a confused chain command made up of the nominal commander (Archduke Ferdinand) and the assigned commander (General Mack). To make matters worse, Austrian and Russian planners did not account for the ten day difference between the Gregorian Calendar used by the Austrians and the Julian Calendar used by the Russians. (One of the few good things the Soviets did for Russia was to switch to the Gregorian calendar in 1918.). The reforms of Pope Gregory had advanced the calendar by ten days in the 17th Century to better match calendar time with celestial solstices. By ignoring this difference, the Austrians assumed the Russians moved out sooner than they did, and consequently the Russian forces were too far behind the Austrian commanders' mind-time-space frame of reference.

It appears that Napoleon understood their error (spies?), and he timed his operational-level maneuver to take advantage of this window of opportunity. He successfully infiltrated 210,000 men over 200 miles in 13 days to place them between the Austrians and the Russians. The 100,000 Austrians, distracted by the cavalry in front of them and surprised by almost 200,000 Frenchmen in their rear, panicked, became paralyzed, and surrendered without fighting.

In 26 days, without fighting a major battle, Napoleon decisively defeated the Austrians on the Danube Front. This victory freed up his forces for the invasion of Austria, the occupation of Vienna, and the defeat to the Austro-Russian forces at Austerlitz during the next six weeks. Not bad for government work.

Now you may be thinking … Why is Spinney talking about Napoleon, Ulm and Austrian incompetence, when the subject is the budget battle?

Reference 1 to this message is a report in the New York Times that says the President has already agreed to increase the Pentagon's budget, because readiness is a perishable commodity. He surrendered before the opening round of the budget battle, which was to take place on September 29 at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee. If the Times' report is true, the President has agreed to reward the military-industrial-congressional complex for the behavior that maneuvered him into an impossible position, not unlike that of the Archduke Ferdinand.

To put this into perspective, think of Congress as Napoleon's cavalry. They are constantly demonstrating in the front of him, for example, making noise about accelerating missile defense programs each time the THAAD fails a test. Or making cries of readiness shortfalls that turn real readiness problems into political footballs (which even the Pentagon contributes to by covering them up or papering them over from time to time, see Comment #186 for example). Yet at the same time, the actions of Congress show that it is really more interested in shoveling pork to its constituents than in protecting readiness (e.g., see Comment #s 146 and 154 for a discussion of the CVN-77 and C-130J porking operations).

Meanwhile, behind the screen of a noisy Congress, the three flying columns of the main attack have been infiltrating deep into the administration's rear area for at least six years. Since the early 1990s, the Pentagon and its allies in the defense industry have been front loading and politically engineering the defense budget with a new generation of cold-war weapons that are so expensive, we can not buy enough of them to replace existing weapons on a timely basis, even if future budgets rise rapidly and there are no more cost overruns. The cost burden created these weapons produces a permanent modernization crisis, which the cavalry in Congress can use as ammunition to bash the administration. At the same time, the administration rewards the congressional disrupters with subcontracts in hundreds of congressional districts.

The second flying column of the infiltration strategy is to make the unaffordable program look affordable by promising future efficiencies and savings from acquisition reforms and base closings, and by promising lower operating costs in the future to reduce the rising cost of low readiness over the long term (e.g., like promises of lower life cycle costs like the assumption that the $100 to $150 million F-22 will cost 40% less to operate than the $40 million F-15C). These promises of future efficiencies permit planners to pump more growth into the procurement and less growth into the operating budget, thereby underfunding the readiness account. But by the time the lower operating costs do not materialize, readiness has already begun to decline, which hands even more ammunition to bashers in Congress.

A third prong of the infiltration strategy is to sow confusion and disorder (like that sown by the Gregorian-Julian mismatch and confusing chain of command) among allies and opposition by refusing to fix an unauditable accounting system. This makes it impossible for those charged with overseeing the process to understand what is happening or how to fix the problems, while at the same time undermining the most basic standards of democratic accountability established by the Constitution (see Comment # 169).

So, the readiness trap did not come out of thin air. The front loaders and political engineers have been laying the groundwork for years. All the while, Secretary Aspin, Secretary Perry, and Secretary Cohen (who inherited the problems his predecessors refused to address ) and their staffs have said repeatedly that readiness is the Defense Department's top priority. Despite their assurances to the contrary, a readiness nosedive is now being used to maneuver the President into ratcheting up the defense budget (see Comment # 190), at a time when projected budget surpluses could be better used to retire some of the national debt to reduce the burden of skyrocketing social security and Medicare costs in the next decade.

Does anyone see anything wrong here?

This question brings us to a big difference between the maneuvers of Napoleon and those of the Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex (MICC): He put his enemies in the cul-de-sac; we are doing it to ourselves.

Maybe its time to dust off Federalist No. 10 and see if Mr. Madison has any ideas that might be used to contain the uncontrolled excesses of factional politics at the end of the 20th Century.

Chuck Spinney

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Reference #1

Clinton Seeks More Money for Military Readiness
New York Times



But an administration official said Clinton—implicitly in the letter and explicitly in conversations with senior officials at the Pentagon—had indicated his support for the first significant increase in military spending since he took office.


It was unclear how the administration would pay for any increase in military spending. Another administration official said the $1 billion increase in the immediate future would most likely be obtained through cuts elsewhere in the federal budget.

As for future budgets, Clinton has pledged not to spend any surpluses until the White House and Congress agree on how to preserve the Social Security system.


The Council for a Livable World Education Fund, an advocacy group in Washington, said in a statement Tuesday that Congress was using "anecdotal evidence" of readiness problems to justify pork-barrel increases in weapons systems in their home states. The council added, "Congress is more interested in preserving local jobs than helping to solve any readiness problems."