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The U.S. military needs to invest in troops, not technology

Frederick W. Kagan is director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute.

President Obama’s new defense strategy champions the same arguments military downsizers have invoked since 1991: The United States must invest in technology and disinvest in active-duty military personnel. The plan unveiled Thursday by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is based on two such tenets: It must “protect key investments in the technologically advanced capabilities most needed for the future . . . [and] no longer size active forces to conduct large and protracted stability operations while retaining the expertise of a decade of war.” The budget thus eliminates 92,000 soldiers and Marines on the premise that future wars will require new weapons systems but not large numbers of troops. Should America need more troops, this thinking holds, it will be easy enough to find them. Technology takes longer to develop and field.

These well-worn syllogisms are the reverse of reality. Technology development can be accelerated in wartime. The development of capable military leaders cannot.

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Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on potential cuts to defense spending.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on potential cuts to defense spending.

Military technology rests on the technological status of society at large, especially today, when our military increasingly prefers modifying off-the-shelf solutions to building its own. A failure to invest in military technology does not stop the development of technology useful to the military, though it is an unwise and dangerous strategy.

Indeed, every major war of the past hundred years has prompted, in months, technological innovations that in peacetime would have required years. Even the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — which were not supported by any significant technological or industrial mobilization — spurred the rapid fielding of systems and vehicles to counter improvised explosive devices, the primary technological challenge to our soldiers. It is easier, of course, to build mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles than an F-35 fighter jet. But it need not take two decades to build a stealth fighter or even to refurbish an aircraft carrier, if the equipment is urgently needed.

There is, on the other hand, no way to accelerate the fielding of good military leaders. Certainly soldiers can be recruited rapidly and their training courses shortened. Junior officers can be swiftly promoted, skipping the career steps and educational requirements of peacetime. More senior officers can be drawn from reserves and staff positions. During World War II, entire divisions were recruited, trained and deployed within a year. But the brigade and battalion commanders in those divisions did not know how to command brigades and battalions. The company commanders might not have seen combat. They learned awfully fast in North Africa, Europe and the Pacific — at a very high price in lives.

The development of military leaders cannot be accelerated beyond a certain point without seriously degrading quality. People can learn, adapt and assimilate experiences only so rapidly. Good software or other distributed learning tools help individuals master enormous amounts of information, but there are innate limits.

Military leadership is more than knowledge and technique. It requires fundamental changes in personality, patterns of thought and perception, emotional control and interactions with others. That is as true for fighter pilots as battalion commanders. Inexperienced leaders panic when seasoned veterans would calmly carry on; unseasoned commanders leap to conclusions where salted warriors comprehend the entire situation.

Advanced technology generally exacerbates these problems by flooding hastily promoted officers and noncommissioned officers with information as they fight to retain or regain emotional balance and rational perception. And there can be no real preparation for the loss of soldiers under one’s authority except to live through that horrible experience. The U.S. military is overwhelmingly composed of officers and noncommissioned officers who have developed these human skills in ordered progression of promotions and schooling (which were wisely not seriously disrupted during the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq despite strains on the force) and in ­combat.

The president proposes to let some 92,000 of them go in favor of preserving investments in technology. Those military personnel are a repository of knowledge about how to conduct complex, lethal operations across a wide area in distributed formations. They are not merely the world’s leading experts on counterinsurgency but also the leading experts on exactly the kind of targeted operations Obama’s strategy envisions. There is no more precise weapons system than a highly trained soldier who can hit whatever he aims at but also knows when not to shoot. Over a decade of conflict, our troops have refined formations, doctrine, techniques and theory to the highest level ever. Rapidly reducing the force will flush away much of that expertise before it can be institutionalized.

Advocates of the president’s strategy say that we do not need that human capital or expertise in ground operations because we will never again fight wars that put large numbers of our soldiers at risk. Technology, they say, will make future wars precise, rapid and decisive. We have heard this argument many times since the Cold War ended, from George W. Bush as enthusiastically as Bill Clinton. Yet every U.S. president since Ronald Reagan has ordered tens of thousands of troops into ground combat. Obama himself sent 70,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. Tens of thousands of U.S. troops have been deployed abroad to wars or peacekeeping operations for 38 of the past 70 years — and nearly continuously since 1989. The argument that next time will be different is unpersuasive.

The question is not whether the United States will again send troops to fight in far-off lands. The question that should weigh most heavily on Congress as it considers the defense budget is what kind of leaders those troops will have and how well prepared they will be.

 
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