Thursday, May 6, 2010

Gates Re-ignites Interservice Rivalry

The milblogs have been abuzz over Sec Gates' negative remarks to the Navy League on May 3, 2010. The navy and marine boosters naturally are up in arms over Gates' future intentions to control budget growth. While seapower, indeed, has been the US's primary tool in military diplomacy, I think Gates' actions will do the navy a world of good.

Everyone has been concerned with the budgetary outlook of the near future. We know that Congress cannot keep growing the defense budget, and the services have been making plans in a budget-neutral fashion. However, no one on the policy side has ever come out with a clear statement on the budget direction. It is as if people are afraid that, by saying it, they will make the future self-fulfilling; that they could undercut themselves bureaucratically by making the first move, policy-wise. Therefore, we have a divergence between policy and budget, with policy clinging to the Long War, while the "base budget" quietly follows the steady state.

So basically, Gates is saying what everyone knows but fears to say. He is telling the services that they need to alter their policies to fit the budget. The services have three choices: 1. go along with the status quo budget plans that will put them on a gliding path downward; 2. innovate and get more for the same dollars; or 3. toss out the inter-service congeniality and start fighting for budget shares again. By first attacking the F-35, and then Navy carriers and Marine EFV, Gates is throwing the door open and putting everything under review.

This will be good for the US military and for the American people. The inter-service congeniality fostered by Goldwater-Nichols Act has kept contentious defense issues out of the public eye. The services stick with their given shares of the defense budget, and do not fight for a bigger slice. Taking their dominant procurement position as a given, the USAF, and the USN to some extent, have allowed themselves to get intellectually lazy and default to the status quo. The US Army and USMC similarly have not looked for fundamental innovations in operational concepts nor procurement. Now that the budget crunch is upon us, we have to face the budgetary monster we've created over the past 60 years.

So Game On, I say. A public thrashing over roles and missions of the services, and the associated strategic debate over employment of force, is good for the nation. The status quo has few incentives to innovate, and we're ending up in the procurement death spiral of less capability and less platforms for more unit cost. I've found personally that I think a bit faster in the middle of a debate. I hope that proves true for the brass as well. Without a fire under their pants, the military brass have no incentives to do things better for the good of the nation. As Prof Quigley would agree, an imminent threat to the bureaucratic institution is the best incentive for reform. A bureaucratic institution is on a calcifying trajectory unless disturbed by outside forces.

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