Thomas E. Ricks is an adviser on national security at the New America Foundation, where he participates in its “Future of War” project. A former Post reporter, he has written five books about the U.S. military, most recently “The Generals: American Military Command From World War II to Today.”
Want a better U.S. military? Make it smaller. The bigger the military, the more time it must spend taking care of itself and maintaining its structure as it is, instead of changing with the times. And changing is what the U.S. military must begin to do as it recovers from the past decade’s two wars.
For example, the Navy recently christened the USS Gerald R. Ford, an aircraft carrier that cost perhaps $13.5 billion. Its modern aspects include a smaller crew, better radar and a different means of launching aircraft, but it basically looks like the carriers the United States has built for the past half-century. And that means it has a huge “radar signature,” making it highly visible. That could be dangerous in an era of global satellite imagery and long-range precision missiles, neither of which existed when the Ford’s first predecessors were built. As Capt. Henry Hendrix, a naval historian and aviator, wrote this year, today’s carrier, like the massive battleships that preceded it, is “big, expensive, vulnerable — and surprisingly irrelevant to the conflicts of the time.” What use is a carrier if the missiles that can hit it have a range twice as long as that of the carrier’s aircraft?
Indeed, if the U.S. Navy persists in its current acquisition course, it runs the risk of being like the Royal Navy that entered World War II. As ours is today, the British navy then was the world’s biggest and could throw more firepower than any other sea service. Yet it proved largely irrelevant in that war because its leaders had missed the growing significance of submarines and aircraft carriers, not grasping how both had changed the nature of maritime warfare. They thought of carriers as scout ships, providing far-seeing eyes for battleships, when, in fact, carrier aircraft had replaced battleships as the striking arm of the fleet.
Yes, the Royal Navy won the Battle of the Atlantic — but that’s partly because the United States gave it destroyers and other escort ships the admirals had neglected, as well as some crucial long-range land-based aircraft. (One-third of U-boats sunk were hit by aircraft, with another third knocked out by combined air and surface-ship action.)
The issue, therefore, is how to have not the most powerful military today but rather the most relevant military at the point of necessity — a point that cannot be known. To have that, the United States needs a military that is not necessarily “ready for combat” at any given moment but instead is most able to adapt to the events of tomorrow.
The wrong way to prepare is to try to anticipate what the next war will be and then build a military — on land, sea and air — that fits that bill. Guesses about the future will almost certainly be wrong. In 2000, no one thought we would invade Afghanistan the following year. In 1953, Vietnam was a faraway country about which Americans knew little. In 1949, Korea was thought likely to be beyond our defense perimeter. And so on.
The best form of preparedness is to develop a military that is most able to adapt. It should be small and nimble. Its officers should be educated as well as trained because one trains for the known but educates for the unknown — that is, prepares officers to think critically as they go into chaotic, difficult and new situations.
Eugenia Kiesling, a professor of history at West Point, observed that in the period between the world wars, “Smaller forces brought fewer logistical constraints and more rapid adaptation to changes in technology.” That observation is an argument not for a big jack-of-all-trades military but for one that is smaller and optimized through its spending to be nimble.
My point is not to beat up on the Navy. All branches of the U.S. military face the same issue. By and large, the United States still has an Industrial Age military in an Information Age world. With some exceptions, the focus is more on producing mass strength than achieving precision. Land forces, in particular, need to think less about relying on big bases and more about being able to survive in an era of persistent global surveillance. For example, what will happen when the technological advances of the past decade, such as armed drones controlled from the far side of the planet, are turned against us? A drone is little more than a flying improvised explosive device. What if terrorists find ways to send them to Washington addresses they obtain from the Internet?
Imagine a world where, in a few decades, Google (having acquired Palantir) is the world’s largest defense contractor. Would we want generals who think more like George Patton or Steve Jobs — or who offer a bit of both? How do we get them? These are the sorts of questions the Pentagon should begin addressing. If it does not, we should find leaders — civilian and in uniform — who will.