‘Plan B’ – How to Make Military Power Sustainable Again

By Dr. John Bruni
CEO & Founder of SAGE International Australia (SIA)
Adelaide, South Australia


The Dilemma

An article written by Max Boot and published by Foreign Policy in late 2017 entitled, ‘America’s Military Doesn’t Have Enough Money to Do Its Job’ has sparked this following thought bubble on ‘what if?’

Boot’s article flagged all the usual culprits in what was causing the hole in the current US defence budget, most importantly the lack of governmental commitment to fix what seems to be a never-ending problem, that is, securing enough resources to sustain America’s global strategic reach.

Politicians/advisors/administrators on both sides of the political divide in the United States seem powerless to stop the rot happening within the Pentagon. But what has led America down this path? And does it spell the end of US military superiority except in niche areas?

The rise of the phenomenon called the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) can be blamed for some of the dilemma. RMA evolved out of a school of thinking in the US military establishment but RMA’s origins were Soviet. RMA recognised the exponential growth in military technology, and that systems were becoming so miniaturised and sophisticated that their capabilities would transform the nature of warfare. For example, artillery, armour, warships and bombers would be able to target enemy installations and units, whether moving or stationary, with heightened precision. Computer Aided Design or CAD would make next generation military planes, ships, submarines and other platforms able to evade enemy detection.

But there was a cost for this development.

US defence industries, while at one time extremely efficient and effective at producing lower cost weaponry for frontline units during World War II, became far less so during the Cold War and post-Cold War periods. The reason?

Buoyed by their own success, US defence industries began to believe in their own mythology of being the only force capable of producing war winning technologies. This mythology was largely unchallenged, especially by American allies, dependent as they were on a steady diet of American military products for their own armed forces.

So began a mutually reinforcing phenomenon.

But, the more sophisticated the weapon, the costlier it was to produce and the costlier it was for armed forces, whether US or allied, to buy. This peculiar trend has now become manifest both in the US and among America’s allies. Where once an air force could command hundreds of fighters and bombers, navies could sail tens of warships and submarines, and armies could field hundreds of tanks and artillery pieces, today most air forces can only fly tens of combat aircraft, sail a handful of ships and submarines and deploy only a few fully manned army brigades.

Military forces have become the precious commodities of the state’s security structure that can only be used judiciously in smaller engagements and certainly not against near peer competitors in larger scale strategic conflicts.

And while it is true that contemporary weaponry is far more efficient in delivering payloads at greater distance more accurately, on the battlefield numbers still count.

Numbers count psychologically. An enemy will be cowered not only by a technologically superior opponent, but most importantly by one able to sustain itself and bring up reinforcements in a timely manner to conduct a protracted struggle and possible long-term military occupation.

Take the current crisis over North Korea.

While Pyongyang fears the technology the US has at its disposal to launch a devastating first strike against known and suspected nuclear weapons, artillery and fixed ballistic missile sites, it also knows that Washington has only one shot at disabling the DPRK armed forces. If the US fails to knock it out entirely, the likely North Korean response against South Korea and US forces based in South Korea may well prove devastating. Furthermore, what keeps the current crisis from being resolved is that while North Korea does not have the sophisticated weapons of the Americans or its Asian allies, it has mass. That is, it has an army of the size that could cross over the 38th Parallel. This could cause South Korea and its capital Seoul extraordinary damage were the order given. Even if the North Koreans initially poured over the border, and were pushed back into North Korean territory by South Korean and American firepower, remaining DPRK units loyal to Kim Jong-Un could conduct a defence-in-depth. In such a scenario, North Korea’s numbers produce a psychological advantage that has to be taken into account by American war planners over and above North Korea’s operational nuclear weapons.

The crisis over Iran’s strategic reach in the Middle East can be seen through a similar lens.

The Rise & Reach of the ‘Technological Lilliputians’

Iran’s armed forces, like those of North Korea, are largely bereft of Western-style, ‘high-tech’ weapons. And yet this fact has not prevented the country from conducting a series of highly successful asymmetric campaigns in Iraq, Syria and Yemen which has expanded the country’s reach at the expense of the Western-backed states of the Arabian Gulf.

The Gulf States, due to their oil wealth are able to buy Western developed weapons in numbers that even Western countries have difficulty emulating. Nonetheless, their cost and complexity, owing to their foreign origin, has thus far prevented a decisive push-back of Iranian power.

Figure 1. IRCG Naval detachment. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Even the mighty US naval presence in the Gulf has been harassed by Iranian small boat naval detachments from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). There is a threshold of conflict with Iran that the US presently cannot, or will not cross because the expense of fighting a war against Iran may just break the US treasury.

Then there is the other sin that dare not be named among US and allied circles. Conscription, or National Service.

Moving away from conscription to fill out its ranks in the 1970s, had a deleterious effect on military manpower both in the United States and allied states.

Largely as a consequence of its unfortunate experience during the Vietnam War (1965-75), the US made the decision to move away from conscription to mobilise military manpower.

The post-Vietnam funk, felt deeply by the US public, which also displayed signs of anti-militarism at the time, did not want its sons and daughters deployed to wars that they did not understand. The solution? Get rid of conscription – a move hailed by a US public confident in its technological prowess to replace manpower intensive systems and tactics with automated and semi-automated systems.

To a point, this worked.

But reliance on the US military-industrial complex was hard for Congress because of its exploitation of, and in many instances corrupt dealings with lucrative defence contracts where shameless ‘gold-plating’ of next generation weapons saw even a humble bolt on a seat, that could be produced for a few cents, sold on to the US military for a few dollars and to allies for a few dollars more. The effect of this was a sharp and sustained increase in the price of next generation weapons that began to have a significant effect on the US military budget. So, while high technology systems in the civilian sector saw high-tech systems become cheaper over time, this was not happening in the military sector. Of course, the PR firms of major US defence companies sang the praises of next generation technology as ‘war winning’.

1975-1990 Interregnum

Figure 2. US Marines in Grenada, October 1983. Image Credit, Wikimedia Commons

Between 1975-1990, (inclusive of the decade-long Reagan military build-up 1980-90) the military conflicts that the US was involved in were hardly noteworthy and were certainly conducted against states low on the spectrum of international conflict. The 1983 US intervention in the Caribbean island-statelet of Grenada was hailed by the Reagan administration as the war that threw off the funk of Vietnam. But when researching this intervention it showed that, in spite of it being a US military victory, it was a victory against a small force of armed ‘Cuban workers’ and the tiny Grenadan ‘Army’, who, in spite of US high tech, still put up an extraordinary fight before their ultimate defeat.

In 1990, there was the US military intervention in Panama – Operation Just Cause. There were elements to this struggle that showed a clever use of US psychological operations that prevented this war from being a protracted guerrilla fight, fought from Panamanian jungles. But a war against a Third World dictator cum drug baron (on the CIA payroll) who led a generally impoverished country with a lacklustre military, is not the same as a war waged against a larger and more sophisticated opponent.

Then, also in 1990, came the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Here was a much better battlefield in which to test whether RMA was effective. The ground was flat; there was no dense jungle and the Iraqis played by textbook Soviet formations, easily spotted from the air, and if not from the air, then from American satellites.

The US formed a ‘Coalition of the Willing’, based in Saudi Arabia; a force largely armed with US or similar levels of military technology.

This was ranged against the military forces of Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein. Prior to hostilities starting in 1991, speculation had it that Saddam Hussein’s military forces were formidable, armed with a mix of recent Western and Soviet technologies. However, apart from the obvious Coalition ‘mass’ ranged against Saddam’s occupation forces in Kuwait, the ground was well prepared against Iraq prior to the first shot being fired.

Iraq was diplomatically isolated.

Having no country that supported his actions against Kuwait, Saddam had to fight to retain Kuwait with the forces he had. Those forces, though battle-hardened, were largely exhausted due to the eight-year long traumatic war with Iran (1980-88). (It needs to be mentioned that those forces had little time to replenish and modernise equipment or to rest and recuperate its personnel before the next big war.)

Figure 3. Destroyed T-62 Iraqi tank. Image Credit: Roland Gautier Wikimedia Commons

Saddam’s sclerotic leadership and domination of the brittle command structure of the Iraqi military, made that military reliant on the direct orders of the Iraqi leader to field commanders –  a key vulnerability the Americans rapidly exploited. Among the US-led Coalition’s first targets was Iraqi command and control. The US, having supported Saddam during his war with Iran, had a good knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of the Iraqi military. Iraq, on the other hand, had very poor intelligence of US intentions and tactics, which put the country squarely on the defensive from the start, banking on the fact that the US did not want to be involved in a Middle East quagmire. Iraq in effect tried to use the threat of its ‘mass’ to act as a deterrent to a Coalition action. But this Iraqi gambit failed. Baghdad was rapidly and effectively cut off from its field commanders operating in Kuwait and throughout Iraq proper, preventing any coordinated Iraqi counter attack to the Coalition’s military assault to liberate Kuwait. The war was fought and won by the Coalition in a matter of weeks. Kuwait’s liberation and the humiliation of the Iraqi leader was hailed as the RMA’s greatest test and success. Smaller, high-tech units, manned by an all-volunteer force (AVF) could fight and win a war against a reasonably-sized military power. As a consequence the military-industrial complex simply accepted that it was moving in the right direction. It was understood that manpower could be steadily downsized as the Pentagon upsized the automated component of the US war machine. The Pentagon was unquestioning in accepting this. More soldiers, sailors and airmen were shed from the US military force structure, replaced by new and more daring strategies on how to best use all this new technology to maximise America’s image as the world’s most advanced and most powerful military.

But with this evolutionary chain, a problem began to emerge, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Robbed of a peer competitor who was also trying to steal the march on American technological developments, a level of abject complacency took hold of the major US defence companies. They became used to charging the American taxpayer extortion rates for their products. Backed by a military hierarchy who maintained that the US should pay any price for the best quality equipment, the defence industry gravy train rolled on. Expensive programs were given the green light by Congressmen who worried about the effect that cutting them would have on local employment opportunities and, of course, on their re-election. Backing the military-industrial status quo in the US was not just about retaining an international lead on military innovation and technology, it was also about supporting pork-barrel politics. Some of the more onerous military programs like the Sergeant York air defence system was cancelled; but this proved to be the exception rather than the rule.

Destructive patterns of procurement emerged during the Cold War where simple and affordable systems were eventually crammed with expensive and untried technology. In fact, the whole test and evaluation process of military products was largely corrupted. Weapons and weapons platforms were not adequately tested prior to being pressed into service. System failures in the field had to be dealt with as they occurred, which just added to an already expensive cost structure. Procurement cost blowouts in the US and elsewhere became routine. There were few critics of this. The money in the hands of the established defence industry giants was too much to resist their siren calls of ‘it will be the best thing you’ve ever seen.’

The early 2000s was a time of defence transformation. No longer prepared to fight conventional military opponents, the rise of non-state actors such as terrorist groups like Al Qaeda, showed the future of warfare. Extraordinarily expensive fighter planes that were designed primarily to secure air superiority against a similarly equipped adversary, were relegated to ground attack duties against poorly armed insurgents and terrorists. Warships, except aircraft carriers and those carrying cruise missiles, were of limited utility in landlocked battlefields. Even the Army morphed into an auxiliary force with Special Forces being granted the premier role in kill or capture missions deep inside enemy territory in Afghanistan and later in Iraq.

Interestingly, if one were to accept the thesis that the technological developments in the United States were ultimately beneficial to the projection of US power, then the initial operation in Afghanistan that started in October 2001, ending in December 2001, which levelled the Taliban as a governing and fighting force in that country, was the best way to go. It required a clever combination of intelligence assets (represented by the CIA), Special Forces, the application of air power and the use of local proxies. Together, this combination of foreign and local units contributed to the Taliban’s then decisive defeat. But then came the political mission to turn Afghanistan into a functional state. This, apart from some tactical successes, was a strategic failure.

War ‘Light’

Come March 2003, the Bush administration invaded Iraq.

Figure 4. Bush, Rumsfeld & Wolfowitz. Image Credit: DoD photo by R.D. Ward. (Released) Wikimedia Commons

By this time it became glaringly obvious that the US lacked the manpower necessary to occupy and stabilise Iraq and fight a counter-insurgency.

Technology was no substitute for trained manpower. And the complex political environment within the United States at the time, split as it was between those who agreed that Saddam needed to be removed, and those sceptical of the benefits Saddam’s forceful removal would have on US policy in the Middle East, meant that the war itself suffered from a lack of full legitimacy. This also was reflected in the somewhat smaller international Coalition that Washington cobbled together to destroy Saddam’s dictatorship than the one it put together in 1991 to liberate Kuwait.

Furthermore, the current generation of Americans, raised on the ideas promulgated by the surgical nature of modern warfare and the lack of tolerance for casualties, meant that an expectation developed that a government’s commitment to war was OK as long as it was American soldiers doing the killing and not the dying. The 2003 invasion of Iraq showed the pitfalls of believing too much in theory. Strategically, RMA failed. And while the body count may well be against the enemy for the duration, if the enemy is sufficiently motivated to fight, their sacrifice will drive more and more to their cause. This was a lesson that the US should have learnt from their experience in Vietnam. In a different place and time, America was the technological giant sent in to destroy the gnat of North Vietnam and its Viet Cong proxies in South Vietnam. America lost that war. It also lost the war in Iraq, only to enable its mainstay enemy in the Middle East –  Iran – to pick up the spoils of Baghdad, and stretch its influence across the Levant to the eastern Mediterranean.

Tech Overkill?

Lacking sufficient manpower, the very technology that promised so much in terms of relieving Washington of US military casualties, of killing without exposing US service personnel to mortality, of actually replacing the human in the loop, can appear to have an effect at a tactical level. But it can fail strategically. The problem will not be solved with more technology and more public monies spent on higher levels of automation. Indeed, the budgetary and manpower issues currently gripping the US and its allies can only be solved by considering the following:

  • There should be a level of acceptance that military power is predicated on creating a structure that is designed to destroy and be destroyed. Only sufficient training and motivation of those in uniform will enable the military to persevere and come out of a war victorious.
  • Plateau the levels of technology used.
    • A fighter plane designed in the early 1970s-mid 1980s is not too dissimilar to next generation models flying today. It has a pilot, on-board targeting computers, precision guided munitions (PGMs), jet engines and an aerodynamic body. Why insist on building new planes like the JSF

      Figure 5. F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

      from the ground up?

    • The plane currently costs some USD200 million per aircraft. It is arguably the most problematic aircraft ever built by the US. The JSF had so much money, (American and international) injected into it that the project became ‘too big to fail’.
    • The peculiar nature of the international supply chain, constructed to support the JSF, in fact means that no one country, except for the US, can produce an entire aircraft, even if it bought into the project.
    • Planes would need to be purchased at market rates from producer Lockheed Martin.
    • Service requirements would also need to factor in that Lockheed Martin factories in the US would be where the planes would have their general overhaul and servicing done. This would be a net problem for countries geographically removed from the United States – as most are. It would also be a net drain for countries worried about their sovereign risks should they be involved in a war with a country the US either trades with, or does not want attacked. For example, the US would be able to pressure Lockheed Martin to deny service and spare parts to JSF fleets either in Europe, the Middle East or Asia. And what about replacing aircraft lost to combat or accident? While it is assumed that this would be very unlikely considering the high levels of technology embedded within the plane, no jet fighter, especially one as complex as JSF, is impervious to destruction, whether caught by a stray missile or steered in the wrong direction by an exhausted pilot.

Figure 6. F-14 Tomcat. Image Credit: Airman Dale Miller, Wikimedia Commons

Jet fighters could be far less costly if some older but tried and proven designs were brought back into production. Take the beloved F-14 Tomcat. By taking this design, reengineering wing edges, tail assembly, engine, intakes, engine nozzles and furnish the cockpit with modular systems that can be easily upgraded, one could theoretically replicate the utility of the F-14 airframe but have it employ some stealthier characteristics than the original, all the while making it more fuel efficient through the use of improved jet engines and lighter alloys. If we stay on the jet aircraft theme, and we assume that the Precision Guided Munition (PGM) is the killing weapon and in the air-to-air role, a Beyond Visual Range Missile (BVRAAM) is the killing weapon, dogfights are likely a thing of the past. No pilot would want to get within radar reach of another aircraft. It would be better for the missile to seek out the enemy aircraft. Building five reengineered F-14 Tomcats would be far more cost effective than building one JSF. Financially, losing a reengineered Tomcat would not hurt the budget bottom line as much as losing one JSF.

We could run similar simulations involving an array of weapons platforms and come up with similar answers. By capping the extraordinary costs associated with building new weapons from the ground up, to recreate older tried and proven platforms incorporating elements of modern technology, a force structure suddenly becomes affordable. One can build more and the more one builds the cheaper it becomes without foregoing quality. Pushing the technological boundaries in a never-ending quest for perfection is a recipe for an unsustainable force structure.

Keeping the Human in the Loop

Moreover, manpower will need a makeover.

The idea of re-establishing conscription can be a driving force to strengthen the military instrument.

It will also give national ownership and responsibility of war to the people who are fighting. No longer would war appear remote and detached – for members of an all-volunteer praetorian guard – the sharp tool of the government it serves. In order for wars to have meaning, the military instrument must be connected to and sustained by the national community. There is a sense of nobility in knowing what is worth fighting for. Because citizen-soldiers may become the next tranche of political leaders and through their sacrifice and experience in combat, or simply in the military environment in peacetime, ought to have a strong communal sense of what the nation needs both in times of conflict and during times of peace.

For all the perceived illegitimacy of the Iraq invasion of 2003, the US could get away with it because an all-volunteer force is a tool directed entirely by the president and the national executive. A national military made up of citizen-soldiers, needs the support of the people or else the mission fails completely as Vietnam showed. And in spite of the all-volunteer force structure, strategically the missions in Afghanistan and Iraq failed too, yet the governments that started these campaigns could just walk away from these failed enterprises, showing no accountability to their electorates for the damage to the nation’s reputation and the damage wrought on to targeted countries.

A conscripted force structure may also allow for a faster and more efficient rotation of service personnel so that those on station are not overworked to the point of exhaustion, a situation that has recently been exposed by some high-profile accidents at sea involving US Navy warships. All volunteer force structures are expensive to maintain. Pay and conditions need to be competitive with those in the civilian community to retain the talent and prevent it from bleeding back into the civilian community. Conscripts who are taught that they are doing their patriotic duty for a short period of time can be paid considerably less than their AVF compatriots. Indeed, a hybrid structure is ideally the best to move forward with. There needs to be a core element in any armed force that has fully paid professionals for continuity of corporate memory, for continuity of training and command experience. Highly skilled young people with IT backgrounds coming in for a two-year period to operate platforms that are at a reasonably high-tech level, would be a net benefit to the armed forces, be they US or allied.


So, what is ultimately missing is a debate on this issue.

There is no debate because the US military industrial complex has a plan. That plan? More technology. Robots have already been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq either in the form of drones or in the form of bomb disposal units and the Research and Development (R&D) personnel at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are currently working on mule-like robots and human like robots, obviously replacements for the gaping holes in existing military manpower. Human personnel are about to get scarcer.

Is outsourcing war to machines armed with artificial intelligence, able to conduct operations powered by algorithms and an alien logic the new normal?

Will these machines be able to distinguish and make snap decisions in real time on whether to shoot or not to shoot?

Arguably we will have to accept this development as there is nothing standing in the way of defense companies from pursuing this profitable option. After all, in the neo-liberal age, it is not for governments or regulatory authorities to stand in the way of the ‘wisdom’ of the market. The market dictates and the customer follows. Ethics and morality have no clear and binding role on how markets operate. Defence forces have been simply reduced to the status of monopsony customers to a handful of extraordinarily wealthy global corporate military service providers. For defence planners closely following the latest technological trends, the attractiveness and desirability of owning the latest gadget is now as much a part of defence acquisition culture as it is part of the personal acquisition culture of those who desire the latest iteration of the iPhone or Android product. No real thought is given on whether the new item is actually needed, it is simply a reflex purchase, fulfilling the need to ‘keep up’.

On the positive side, machines built and maintained by man will suffer from man-made problems of over promising on capability. In that case the armed forces depended on them, they will become suboptimal to their task over time, allowing the Technological Lilliputians of the future, whether state or non-state actors to continue to successfully challenge Western military power asymmetrically.

On the negative side, war may be a blight on humankind, but war run by self-replicating, autonomous AI machines could be the last war we as an already vulnerable species may ever see.


Views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of
SAGE International Australia


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