How to fix the U.S. military.

Repairing some of the worst Bush administration screw-ups.
March 31 2008 7:12 AM

The Military

How to fix the U.S. military.

With President Bush's approval rating hovering in the 30s, just about everyone has an opinion on what George W. has done wrong in the past seven years. But not everyone can explain what the next president must do to fix it. So we've called in some experts to tell us. Fixing It is a 10-part series to be published over the course of this week with contributions from seom of our favorite writers, offering detailed policy prescriptions for the next president, whoever that may be, on how to quickly undo some of the damage. One of our contributors wryly describes the series as "News You Can Use. If You Happen To Be President." Read the other entries here.



Fred Kaplan chatted online with readers about this article. Read the transcript.

Illustration by Jason Raish. Click image to expand.

The next president will inherit a military in strange shambles. Its soldiers fight extremely well, but its army is on the brink of breaking. Its budget is enormous, but most of the money goes to weapons that have little to do with promoting real security. Some official documents detail the problems and outline solutions, but too often they aren't translated into action. The principal task, therefore, is to do just that—in the face of enormous bureaucratic resistance.

Fix-it List: Military

• Overhaul the budget. If you'd awakened from a 20-year-long slumber and glanced at the current defense budget, you'd think the Cold War were still raging. President Bush's budget request for the next fiscal year—totaling $541 billion, not including money for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—is dominated by aircraft carriers, submarines, fighter jets, and ultratech combat fighting vehicles, i.e., the sorts of weapons you'd need to fight the sort of comparably armed superpower that no longer exists. Members of Congress impose no discipline on this extravagance—they scarcely even ask whether all these programs are necessary—for fear of accusations that they're weak on defense or soft on terror.

Yet there is a way out of this paralysis. In each of the past few years, Bush has put all the costs of Iraq, Afghanistan, and "the longer war on terror" into a separate "supplemental" to the budget. The next president should ask the defense secretary to do two things: First, make sure everything in the supplemental really is needed for those wars (tens of billions of dollars' worth don't appear to be); second, announce that everything else is back on the table. There hasn't been a "bottom-up review" of the defense budget—a systematic look at the requirements of security—since the end of the Cold War. It's time to conduct one, seriously. We don't have the money to stay this course.

• Rejigger the military services. One obstacle to rational military planning is that, for the past 40 years, by unspoken agreement, the defense budget has been evenly split among the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force. To do otherwise—to announce, for instance, that the Army needs 20 percent more money and the other services could each get by with 10 percent less—would set off a firestorm inside the Pentagon and wreck the interservice cooperation that has marked U.S. military campaigns in recent years. So, over the next several years, certain missions should be played up, others played down. Because the current Air Force is dominated by fighter pilots, the Air Force's No. 1 priority today is to build as many F-22 fighter planes as it can, at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars—even though they would play no role in any foreseeable war over the next two decades. One way to wean them off such weapons is to build up (and put more money into) other Air Force missions—for example, cargo-transport planes (to carry ground forces and their gear), close-air-support planes (to fire shells or drop bombs in support of troops on the ground), or to provide security for bases (many Air Force personnel have been reassigned to do just that). The defense secretary could announce that the service's continued share of the budget depends on boosting the importance of those missions. (This is, bureaucratically, a long-term project.)

• Fix the Army. The Army is (barely) meeting its recruitment goals by lowering standards and dishing out large bonuses. And, despite paying equally large rewards for retention bonuses, it is now hemorrhaging talented junior and midgrade officers. The Iraq war, with its grueling and never-ending deployment schedules, is the main reason for this. (Defense Secretary Robert Gates said recently that Army recruiters face a serious challenge as long as signing up means getting assigned to Iraq.) But Iraq is only part of the problem—and thus getting out of Iraq will provide only a part of the solution.

• Invest in people. When the draft ended in 1973, the Army chiefs shifted incentives from veterans' benefits (such as the GI Bill) to enlistment bonuses. This approach has now gone too far, resulting in a "transactional" mindset that hurts morale and warps the military's credo of service. The next defense secretary should shift back to the old approach: Fund civilian education for enlisted personnel and officers; provide leave for them to pursue bachelors' and graduate degrees between deployments; give educational grants to family members as compensation for the hardships of repeated moves; invest in immersive training in foreign languages and cultures. These things will produce better officers, as well as happier ones.

• Promote the right leaders. Owing to a shortage of officers, almost anyone can get promoted to lieutenant colonel. Beyond that, the Army's promotion boards are a hidebound lot—notorious for favoring officers who resemble themselves and for especially screening out intellectuals, mavericks, and strategically minded warriors. (Gen. David Petraeus—who possesses a rare mix of leadership talent, soldierly prowess, intelligence, raw ambition, and luck—is one of a handful of exceptions.) Junior officers read each year's promotion list as they would tea leaves; it tells them what types of officers are desired and what types are not. Many creative officers leave the Army after realizing that it holds no future for them.

Technically, the president and Congress must approve all promotions. Therefore, either could require that a certain percentage of new brigadier generals possess specific qualities or backgrounds—for instance, that they have trained foreign military forces or proven adept in other skills that will likely be essential in future conflicts. (There is precedent for this: As a result of the Goldwater-Nichols reforms passed by Congress in 1986, all new generals must have experience in a joint—i.e., multiservice—unit.)) The Army should also consider "360-degree evaluation"—i.e., consultation by junior, as well as senior, officers—in order to identify the most talented leaders in its ranks. (Corporate America has long employed this technique.)

• Create incentives for a real nation-building or counterinsurgency capability. The Army's new field manual on "Full-Spectrum Operations" says that "stability operations" are just as important as combat. However, these words will ring hollow unless and until more troops are trained in such operations and more officers with expertise in that area are promoted to general. A year ago, a unit was created in Ft. Riley, Kan., home of the 1st Infantry Division, specifically to train advisers—officers who would go advise Iraqi and Afghan security forces. Several Pentagon officials, including Secretary Robert Gates, said that this was one of the Army's most important missions. The commander of the unit was Lt. Col. John Nagl, one of the Army's top experts in counterinsurgency. But Nagl has since complained that the unit was filled on an "ad hoc" basis and that many of the trainers had no experience as advisers. He has now decided to leave the Army. We—and, more importantly, other officers—will know that the Pentagon is taking this putative goal seriously when the unit is commanded by a general and when officers who go out in the field as advisers are promoted as routinely as those deployed as infantry fighters.

• Spread the responsibilities around. Civilian experts are probably better than sergeants at the kinds of stability operations described above. So, the next president should see that more money goes to the State Department, USAID, and other agencies—many of which have nascent offices of stability operations and foreign assistance—and let them do the jobs. Secretary Gates urged this course (even if he didn't volunteer to hand over any of the Pentagon's billions). Some senior Army officers have told us that, for certain urgent tasks in Iraq and Afghanistan, they would rather have 500 more Foreign Service officers than 5,000 more soldiers. If wars—or foreign policies generally—are national campaigns, the burden should be carried by the national government more broadly.

• Taxes. On that subject, if we're not going to return to military conscription, more citizens have to contribute something to national defense—if not their blood, then more of their treasure. All the steps outlined above—especially those that involve recruiting and retaining qualified personnel—are very expensive. And they can't all be paid for by canceling the F-22 and other Cold War relics. Nor should they be paid for by borrowing more cash from China. If we want to continue the kind of military we're pursuing, and the kinds of wars we're fighting, then let's pass a surtax to pay for it. If we don't want to pay for it, then let's drop the whole idea—scale back our missions in the world and figure out some other way to fulfill them.

Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and the author of Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power.Phillip Carter is a former Army officer and Iraq war veteran who edits the Convictions blog for Slate.

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