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#41 - Divest to Invest - The Pentagon's Boldest Strategic Gambit Ever
On 13 March, the Pentagon released its largest Research & Development (R&D) budget ever. This is a historic request and possibly the most fateful strategic throw of the dice for the US military in the emerging 21st century. Decades from now, the history of this R&D request is sure to become the stuff of Pentagon lore - whether it be legendary or the first seed of failure.
Budgetary and Bureaucratic Double Hairpin Turn
In the very near past, the DoD was planning for budget cuts and a reduction in requirements following the termination of major operations in CENTCOM (namely Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan). The realities of fighting/supporting conventional wars against Russia and China quickly dashed those hopes. This is the first hairpin turn of events.
In the face of China executing the quantitatively largest and possibly most rapid military buildup in contemporary history, the Pentagon is planning its second hairpin turn. The strategy of the department at this time is to cut active duty capabilities in order to fund research into next generation military technology. The US Navy has repeatedly requested to decommission ships, the Marine Corps is in the process of cutting 4 infantry battalions and roughly 4 squadrons, the US Army is not replacing the equipment it sent to the Ukraine Army, and the Air Force has made deep cuts against the original planned numbers of F-22 and F-35 fighters in the air fleet.
There are more examples, but the current trend is that all the services are getting rid of current combat capabilities (divesting) to spend money on future capabilities (new units/equipment, and research for new equipment). It will be many years before these new capabilities come online, leading to serious gaps in the current fighting force generally until 2028-30 or later.
Historical Precedent - Assault Breaker
The closest historical analogy to today’s situation is the 1970’s. By 1973, the US emerged from roughly twenty years of counterinsurgency warfare in Vietnam. The focus on Southeast Asia came at the cost of conventional preparedness in Europe along the inner German border, the frontline between NATO and the Warsaw Pact.
US military planners belatedly realized that the Red Army was adopting new operational plans and tactics throughout the 70’s. The Soviet Union significantly built up the conventional strength of the Warsaw Pact in the belief that conventional war in Europe was possible beneath an umbrella of unemployed nuclear deterrence. The Soviets planned on attacking in multiple echelons (with a first and second wave along with a third reserve line at minimum) with the main effort either across the North German Plain, through the dual channels of the Fulda Gap, or down the Danube River valley.
A typical NATO line battalion (not a regiment/brigade) could realistically expect 120 Soviet tanks attacking their position within thirty minutes. To make matters worse, the Red Army developed the Operational Maneuver Group (OMG), a force of two Tank Armies (consisting of two corps equaling four divisions) flexibly deployed to exploit any significant gap in NATO lines opened up by the first and/or second echelons.
Outgunned and outmanned (and in some limited cases, behind in technology), US military planners devised a method to offset Soviet conventional strength. The effort was initially centered in the offices of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). In 1978, the foundational research and application for the programs that would become GPS, JSTARS, Brilliant, ATACMS, and technologies that would lead to the Global Hawk. The plan was that a new generation of precise long-range cluster weapons would rip the heart out of the Soviet second, reserve, and operational maneuver groups. This would leave the first wave of the Red Army isolated and exposed to the full weight of a NATO counterattack.
Assault Breaker II
The Pentagon’s proposed solution has been christened Assault Breaker II (AB2). As the linked document outlines, AB2 will rely on long-range fires, short-range fires that are pre-emplaced before conflict, survivable intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms, and resilient communications nodes. The operational vision is that these capabilities will slow down Chinese forces enough to buy time for a traditional US counter-intervention response.
Washington is betting the house on the success of AB2. If US long-range fires are not quite effective enough, the battlespace is simply ceded to the adversary. After absorbing the initial AB2 strike, China may simply be able to flow more forces onto their objectives and begin digging in. At that point, both sides will have exhausted their exquisite munitions, and the fight will become something akin to the brutal island hopping campaign of WWII.
Consequences for Strategic Competition:
The US runs the risk of allowing budgetary pressure to drive strategy. This choice has historically ended poorly, since goals should be the driving force behind strategy. Regardless of whether goals or resources comes first, the Pentagon also runs the risk of simultaneously underfunding both the active force and the fielding of new capabilities.
As the wealthiest and most powerful country in human history, the US needs to get its military house in order. First, DoD needs an efficiency overhaul. Second, as systems become more efficient, additional funding must be appropriated to enhance capabilities validated as efficient. In terms of percentage of GDP, the US military is roughly half of where it needs to be based on Cold War budgetary history.
There are many obvious areas of low-hanging fruit to increase DoD efficiency. For example, the DoD currently employs 830,000 civilian officials, the most in its entire history. It is unclear that even half of these support roles are necessary, since the active uniformed force is at its smallest size since before WWII. DoD has become a jobs bureaucracy, and Congress must have the courage to make deep cuts to a civilian force which is of highly questionable value.
Training not focused on lethality must go. The military’s violence prevention, trafficking in persons, equal opportunity, tobacco cessation, sexual health/assault, diversity/equity/inclusion training, transgender training, and other nonfunctional courses must be cut or compressed into 10 minute training blocks. Too much time and effort is wasted on these ankle biter tasks force wide, resulting in literally millions of man-hours of wasted effort. These training courses have become totemic of a military culture that is losing its focus on lethality.
More combat and logistics units must be shifted to the reserve/national guard force. During major combat operations, the active force melts away quite quickly through casualties, end of service contracts, and forming the supporting establishment which trains new members. Reinvigorating reserve and national guard formations is a great way to increase DoD capabilities while keeping costs down. Before this happens, drill days will need to be reoriented towards training and lethality, not knocking out administrative tasks.
Another questionable decision on the part of DoD is to consider information technology as a cost rather than an enabler. The Pentagon skimps as much as possible on computers and software (except in high speed operational units) and is shocked when operations run slowly. We will end this article with an open letter from Michael Kanaan to the DoD:
You tell us to accelerate change or lose, then fix our computers.
Before buying another plane, tank or ship, fix our computers.
Yesterday, I spent an hour waiting just to log on. Fix our computers.
Before spending another dollar on a Request for Proposals from industry asking for the same thing you asked for last year, fix our computers.
Want innovation? You lost literally HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of employee hours last year because computers don’t work. Fix our computers.
Are you reading inputs from any of the various idea/innovation programs? Fix our computers.
I Googled how much the computer under my desk costs in the real-world. It was $108 dollars. Would you ever buy a $100 computer? Fix our computers.
Are you a senior leader visiting a unit? Ask if their computers work.
I opened an Excel file today … my computer froze and needed to be restarted. Fix our computers.
I turned on my computer and it sat at 100% CPU usage. Fix our computers.
Tanium battling McAfee for scans all day takes up 40% of the processes inside the machine. Fix our computers.
My computer updated and restarted 10 times today. Fix our computers.
We’ve been doing more with less for too long. Fix our computers.
What happened to the cloud? Fix our computers.
Why am I using Internet Explorer? Fix our computers.
Making computers so useless that nobody can hack them is not a strategy (yet they hack them anyway). Fix our computers.
We’re the richest and most well funded military in the world. I timed 1 hour and 20 minutes from logging in to Outlook opening today. Fix our computers.
Ultimately, we can’t solve problems with the same tools that made them … and yet somehow fundamental IT funding is still an afterthought … it’s not a money problem, it’s a priority problem.
Sincerely and on behalf of,
Every DoD employee