[by J. Scott Shipman]
To have an executable strategy, a nation needs the wherewithal to pay for it. This applies the United States, too.
As the United States heads into an election year with rising unemployment, a double-dip recession threatening, and deep cuts to defense on the horizon (even as we continue to prosecute the war on terror) a controversy continues to brew in the South China Sea. China has increasingly heated up the rhetoric. On 30 September the Taipei Times reported on an opinion article in the Chinese Communist Party-run Global Times (the original article is here), calling on the Chinese to declare war on Vietnam and the Philippines over their intransigence with respect to China’s claim of the South China Sea as being part of China proper. While this tantrum might be a saber-rattling “fire for effect” exercise aimed at intimidation, the writer surmised the position of the United States:
“The US has not withdrawn from the war on terrorism and the Middle East … so it cannot afford to open a second front in the South China Sea,” he wrote…“[Military] action by a big country in the international arena may result in initial shock, but in the long run, regional stability can be achieved through great power strategic reconciliation.”
“It cannot afford” is writ large. What, indeed, would the US do if China followed the advice of this hot-headed pundit? The US Navy is operating at about 283 ships, and the op-tempo is wearing out both ships and crews—fast. A recent article in the Atlanta Constitution reported the USN is investigating extending the typical six month deployment for fast-attack submarines. As I wrote earlier, we are retiring our submarines faster than we’re replacing them. With the US defense budget under the axe for even further cuts, what is the proper course of action? And do we have a strategy supported by an adequate budget? Are we strengthening our relationships among allies, or are we neglecting relationships that will be vital if hostilities break out? I would submit the US refusal to Taiwan’s request to purchase modern F-16 C/D variants, offering instead upgrades for A/B sends a message of waning US resolve to honor the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). (A rumor within the Beltway is the upgrades were a first step, with what the administration hopes will be a request by Taiwan for the troubled and increasingly costly F-35.) The TRA requires the United States “to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character”, and “to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.” We may have that “capacity” today, but what are we doing to insure we sustain the capacity to maintain open sea lines of communications? Can we afford it?
Our friends in the South China Sea environs aren’t feeling the love. India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam have all expressed concern about China’s increasingly belligerent actions with respect to the South China Sea areas. All of these nations rely ultimately on the USN to keep the sea lanes of communication open. Most have modest defense budgets, but they’re beginning to realize the new reality and are acting and good for them—we could learn something in the reality department. Vietnam has ordered six Russian Kilo Class diesel boats (very good subs, btw), and the Philippines are shopping. Singapore has a pretty impressive sub fleet (six reasonably modern hulls) and national defense given her size. Taiwan has two 20-plus year old subs and two WWII era US boats that are 60 years old!
If we look at numbers, our strategy seems pretty puny. As our fleet continues to atrophy in numbers, the Chinese continue to build. An inventory of submarines in the area shows that between China and North Korea there are about 128 hulls compared to a total of 42 among the aforementioned nations. Our friends in the area will continue to need US submarine support in the area for the foreseeable future as subs are long lead time platforms.
In this theater alone, cutting our defenses seems nuts. Rather than cut line units, perhaps DoD should begin to improve/streamline our antiquated procurement and acquisition processes. Our acquisition process is so complicated we have a Defense Acquisition University (DAU)! At an estimated $124M for FY012, perhaps we should cut DAU first. Last year at Boyd & Beyond 2010, Dr. Ray Leopold shared the contrasts in commercial contracting versus government contracting. Commercial contracts are built on the presumption of trust, government contracts are written on the presumption of distrust. Rather than use normal legal remedies to hold mischievous and unscrupulous contractors to account, DoD has erected mind-numbing processes that attempt to eliminate any risk a contractor could successfully rip-off the government. And when a contractor does rip-off the government, the contractor pays a fine and continues to do business with the Pentagon. If someone steals from you, do you continue to do business with them? Not me. This would be a good place for DoD to begin true accountability—you can bet one defense company out of the market would send a message to the others. The sad truth is the revolving door between the military and the contractor community has created a incestuous and inbred swamp of rules and processes only the participants understand that are so impenetrable DoD has no idea how much money it is spending (never mind tracking waste)—so fiscal irresponsibility continues in an increasingly dangerous world with budget cuts guaranteed. What’s the strategy again? This madness is fast becoming an issue of national security. On our current track we could well be incapable of defending ourselves, much less our allies.
Here are few other ideas for consideration before touching a single line unit:
- DoD should lay-off every nonessential employee. Whenever there is a snowstorm in the DC area, nonessential personell are instructed to stay home or “liberal leave” is in effect. We need to disabuse ourselves of the luxury of the nonessential employee. Regular businesses don’t operate like this, neither should DoD. Every employee should be integral, essential, and necessary; if they’re not essential, we can’t afford them—not while we have troops in harm’s way.
- Stop double-dipping on 1 January. If a member retires from the military, they shouldn’t be able work for the government (often in the same office where they separated from service) and draw two salaries. If the member wants to work for the government, pick one, but not both. We can’t afford it and this contributes to the ongoing inbreeding in defense. And here’s a cruel truth: why should we pay a member who could not continue advancing in the military a military pension and a government civil service salary?
- Flag officers and members of the Senior Executive Service should have a minimum five year ban on working in the defense or defense lobbying industry. Stop the revolving door. Our current mess was created by many of these folks (even if well-intentioned), they should take a five-year time out and give others a chance to fix the mess they’ve helped create.
- Abandon the current acquisition process and close DAU. Hire commercial attorneys at a commercial rate to write contracts based on trust, but contracts with teeth. This would be cheaper than the bloated and incestuous bureaucracy we now carry. If a contractor defrauds the government, ban that company for 10 years from doing business with the government, and put the offending members in jail. Word will get around, and folks will behave.
- Allow contractors to earn 8-10% on their work and stop nickel-diming them on fee. Businesses are in business to make money.
- The government should assume more technical oversight/intimacy in procurement programs. We have too many generalist contracting officers who can be misled by an unscrupulous contractor, or perhaps worse, have no idea “what” they’re buying. The government needs to get engaged and informed and know “what” they are buying and know real costs.
- Develop a promotion system based on merit, not time in grade. Our promotion system breeds risk averse officers who focus on punching career tickets instead of doing. Following John Boyd’s “to be or to do” maxim, the promotion system should reward officers who think and take risks, not poster-boy/cookie cutter conformists. “We’re warriors, dammit!” was a phrase my old CO used—let warriors be warriors! Scrap time in grade and promote based on performance, and if folks don’t perform well enough to be promoted, separate them from service.
Robert Frost said good fences make good neighbors; well a good deterrent makes good neighbors, too—but fences and deterrence costs money. DoD can and must do better; business as usual is becoming a death of a thousand paper cuts for us, and our allies. We need a real strategy and the budget to make it happen—that won’t happen with our current acquisition rules. The axe should fall on the Pentagon procurement bureaucracy before it touches a single line unit.
America is better than this, we must raise the standard by bringing DoD into the real world of fiscal responsibility and contract law, so whatever our strategy it can have a sound fiscal and legal foundation.