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A Strategy for the Pacific – Will the US have the $$$ and the courage for a credible and survivable one?

[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“The US has not withdrawn from the war on terrorism and the Middle East … so it cannot afford to open a second front in the South China Sea,” he wrote…“[Military] action by a big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.

13 Responses to “A Strategy for the Pacific – Will the US have the $$$ and the courage for a credible and survivable one?”

  1. Cheryl Rofer Says:

    The "nonessential employee" definition is not what you think it is. I don’t have the official definition in front of me, but it’s closer to "everyone who isn’t keeping things going today." Could some employees be cut? Probably, but this isn’t the way to do it. And, um, "regular businesses" have been known to carry deadwood too.

  2. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi Cheryl, Many thanks! I’ve seen the nonessential employees, and most are. In a for-profit business that is not connected to the government and government requirements, there is less deadwood. My point is we’re in a fiscal position where we need to get lean quick and can’t afford business as usual.

  3. Ed Beakley Says:

    Scott, your point on "double dipping" too general. You seem to imply if someone can’t make Flag in a career, then he has no value and has failed in his military job.  The term seems to encompass everyone who legally retired after 20 + years, when in reality what it shoulds refer to is sweetheart deals for very senior personnel.  There’s one hell of a lot more to retiring at 20 than "not making the grade."
    Frankly an all encompassing "ban the retirees" concept would leave a lot of jobs manned by civil servants who may be technically sound or credible managers, but don’t know jack about what the mission – the real one –  of the Department of Defense is or how it needs to be done…  or understand the real costs.
    I see on a day-day basis good, well meaning folks who might as well be working for Google or Apple, etc… technologist all… just one more thing for software to handle.
    By the way, that second salary is retainer pay… you go inactive reserve and can be recalled:)

  4. Cheryl Rofer Says:

    Just curious, Scott. Do you have any studies to back that statement up about less deadwood in for-profit businesses?

  5. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi Cheryl, My experience as a business owner and associations with other business owners.
    Hi Ed, You’re right I was general, and perhaps a little harsh on the double-dipping thing. But I counted, and I have seen at least six O-5’s create a CS job prior to their retirement, retire, take the job. In the old days (pre-1990, I think) the pension was deferred and the candidate was paid CS pay. I offered my harsh assessment because a lot of well-meaning people are clogging up our system. We cannot afford business as usual. Further, in the late 80’s DoD made a conscious effort to shift CS personnel from a technical focus to a generalist acquisition focus—-and costs have followed.

  6. Chris Says:

    The sad fact is that when it comes to the sort of budget cuts which are needed, the choices of where they’ll fall are always in the hands of lobbyists, and as you note, many of them are former servicemen and women who now work for defence contractors. They’ve now got a vested interest in making sure that the faucet stays wide open for exciting (expensive) new platforms, and none whatsoever in ensuring that there is a decently sized military which can deploy and deal with threats.

    In the UK we’ve seen a few of the larger programs (aircraft carriers in particular) being cut, in order to show that the MoD is trimming the fat, despite the fact that overall the cost over the next couple of years will be higher than just building them, not to mention the lost jobs (3000 announced recently at BAE systems).

    In the absense of any real military strategy there will be no ability to make sensible well considered cuts. If there was a national grand strategy, either here in the UK or in the US, there might be an opportunity to go through everything and say "Hey, does this fit with our grand strategy? No? Then why is it being bought?"

    I could go on for the next couple of days as this is a topic I’ll rant at length on, but simply put, there is no political will in evidence to build a military which can deal with the real threats. Instead its all about the cosmetics of appearing to cut, while doing as little as possible to truly reform the military root and branch.

  7. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi Chris,
    Many thanks for your thoughtful comment.
    I made a comment on these pages a few days at another post sharing something I read on a men’s room wall years ago: "Never attribute to malice that which can reasonably explained by stupidity." I fear the political class is far to accomplished in politics and clueless on the art of national security—in effect, ignorant and governed primarily by greed, power and avarice. In the US, the disconnect has grown to produce dangerously incompetent "leaders." On the personnel front, this post was intentionally harsh. The inbreeding and greed has corrupted our system to the point solutions will be very painful.

  8. joey Says:

    Hi Scott,
    The cynic in me says that the US is so big and bad ass and so without credible near peer competitors that there is no pressure for reform, apart from transitory budget concerns,  which in a government department is a poor motivator for anything other than desk clutching.Unless spending is driven by the imperatives of a clearly defined Grand strategy there is little hope for real reform.  But as I mentioned above a country that has access to such overwhelming hard power, and so little to fear from peer competitors, does not suffer adversely in the near to medium term from a lack of grand strategy.  Until the day when the US encounters a peer competitor that has the power to seriously challenge the US on a global scale, there will be little need for real reform.  Think the ordinance reforms in medieval France,  the abandoning  of the sale of appointments in the British army after the Crimean war,  the wholesale reform of the Japanese military establishment in the late 19th century,  the Mameluke adoption of mongol tactics.. 

  9. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi Joey,
    Your cynical self is wise. But consider: the administration has been telling Taiwan they should pursue "survivable and credible" asymmetric  alternatives to upgraded F16 C/D variants and diesel subs. The US gov’t sold subs to the American public as "survivable and credible" (and they are), but seem institutionally ignorant with respect to the ROC request.
    Also, for all the talk of asymmetrical alternatives, China is doing a pretty good job. The PLA’s anti-carrier ballistic missile still has a few bubbas in the Pentagon scratching their heads. China has whimsical draft plans for huge submerged carrier—there is plenty of asymmetry on the PLA side—so if and when they become a peer competitor, it might be too late for institutional reform. 

  10. joey Says:

    China has potential for sure, but I still think it is many years away from a trial of strength with the US, esp if that conflict turned into a longer drawn out coalition conflict.  I’ve thought before that Americas position has some similarities with Ancient regime France, the largest power economically and military, and culturally. Its strength had underpinned a peaceful 100 years since the end of the 30 years war. But the rapidly growing power of the British created huge pressures in the system, culminating in the 7 years war, and after its loss the slow motion collapse of French power on the continent.For america those pressures are starting to be felt, but we are a long way from a 7 years war, and all the pressures for reform that would unleash.  And a country with Americas vast reserves of strength will always have enough in reserve for another bite at the cherry!  For the medium term we can only hope that Americas mistakes and defeats will continue to be cushioned by its vast power and central position in the world system.  

  11. Teresa Strub Molina Says:

    Some very ambitious goals discussed here. I wish I could believe that even the smallest of them are possible. Scott you are right about the deadwood in the private sector. It is a fraction of that in the federal government. I have worked in the private sector all of my professional life and we are accountable to a budget and to investors to a degree that is unimaginable to federal bureaucrats. Unfortunately for this same reason the reforms you advocate have little to no chance of coming to fruition. Whether it is DOD with their albatross of a procurment process or DOJ with their $16 muffins the addiction is the same. Even armed with evidence of real decline in our military capability the best intenioned at the Pentagon or in Congress will not be able to affect change until we are faced with a crisis. The resistance to change is no different than the smoker faced with the statistics on the correlation of smoking and lung cancer, the mindset is that it’s not going to happen to me. Until it does. Denial is a powerful force and all systems are resistant to change.

  12. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi Joey,
    Agree on America’s  power, but our eroding manufacturing capability would present a danger if we had to engage in a shooting war at sea. Ships/subs are long-lead time items, so my guess is we would be/are very risk averse to sending them into combat. Imagine if we lost two or three carriers…things would get tough. Part of our naval Achilles Heel is our confidence in our high tech, gold plated nuke attack boats. Are they the best in the world? You betcha. Are they more capable than diesel electrics? You betcha. But those less capable diesel boats whack our guys with an alarming frequency in training. Based on numbers, we would be highly challenged from a naval perspective if Iran started mischief in the Persion Gulf and the Chinese decided to follow through in the SCS in unison.
    Agree we have geography on our side, but we need more legs to get to the fight if we have to.
    Teresa, Welcome! [Teresa is one of my dearest and oldest friends] You are spot-on about denial and man’s inherent resistance to change. Herodotus said, "Custom is king."—an almost eternal truth born out in most modern highly hierarchal/bureaucratic organizations. Left unchecked, bureaucracies devolve into organizations that confuse their continued existence with the original mission—a bunker mentality from an innovative/self-awareness/self-critical perspective. One reason the suggestions were all personnel and all draconian—perhaps a few guys like Boyd will pick up and run with the concept(s), or a variation on the themes. Nancy Pelosi said when she took the Speaker’s gavel that she intended to drain the swamp—she didn’t—but the same metaphor should be on the minds of folks who work in the defense bureaucracy. We can and must do better.
    Thank you so much for commenting! Glad to see you here!

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