Author Archives: Jonathan Rue

Misleading Numbers

The Wall Street Journal reported this morning that ten Washington think tanks are preparing a joint letter calling on Congress and the President to cut DoD overhead spending so that training and readiness can be preserved along with the Department’s burgeoning cyber and special operations capabilities.

Military analysts at think tanks from the liberal Center for American Progress to the conservative American Enterprise Institute to the libertarian Cato Institute will sign the letter to be released Monday. (When analysts at these think tanks reach an accord, it might be time to start thinking about a zombie shelter because

Specifically, the analysts will recommend another round of base closures, reforming the military health care system (Tricare), and cutting the Pentagon’s sizeable civilian workforce. Of the three, cutting the Department’s civilian workforce will be the easiest to achieve. Congress has rejected the administration’s proposals to increase some Tricare fees and is showing zero interest in another base closure round. Military compensation would seem to be another area ripe for reform, but the personnel subcommittee markup rejected DoD’s proposed cap for the 2014 military pay raise. For now, everyone seems content to let the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission put forward some proposals that have little hope of becoming law.

That leaves civilians and contractors holding the short straw.

Time magazine’s Mark Thompson linked to a new Government Accountability Office report showing that DoD’s civilian workforce (civilian employees plus contractors) outnumbers active duty military personnel. In FY11, DoD reported 807,000 civilian full-time equivalents (FTEs) and an estimated 710,000 contractor FTEs. At 1.5 million, civilians outnumber the 1.4 million active duty military personnel.

You know who else outnumbers active duty military on the U.S. Government payroll? Military retirees and their survivors / dependents. 2.4 million retirees and their survivors receive $100 billion a year and 5.5 million receive Tricare benefits compared to 3.3 million active duty personnel and dependents.

Putting aside for the moment whether or not the civilian workforce is too large, focusing strictly on the numbers of civilians, contractors, and uniformed personnel is misleading because it overlooks a key fact.

There’s a very good explanation for the current civilian to military workforce ratio: Civilians and contractors cost less. A lot less. (See above.) We’ve grown the size of our civilian and contractor workforce precisely because we can’t afford to grow our active duty military at the same rate. In the last ten years, our military personnel costs have almost doubled without a corresponding increase in size.

Cutting the civilian workforce will achieve less savings than cuts to uniformed personnel. In perhaps typical Washington fashion, we’ve decided to go for the easy fix that won’t actually fix much.

I don’t have the right answer for the appropriate mix of uniformed and civilian workforce so this isn’t an argument prioritizing one or the other. It’s simply about acknowledging the costs of each, so that we can build the force we need at a price that’s right. The problem is that the Pentagon doesn’t have an answer either. According to a recent Reserve Forces Policy Board report (full disclosure: I work for the chairman), “the Department does not know, use, or track the fully burdened and life cycle costs” for active duty service members,” and according to the aforementioned GAO report, “DoD has yet to assess the appropriate mix of its military, civilian, and contractor personnel capabilities in its strategic workforce plan as required by law.”

Based on anecdotal observations from my professional network, many DoD civilians and contractors are military retirees,* which means they’re drawing a pension, receiving subsidized health care, and shopping at DoD commissaries. So it’s ironic that that by cutting the civilian workforce, we’re inevitably harming some of the very retirees we’re trying to protect by avoiding the tough reforms to the military compensation and retirement system.

* I’ve searched far and wide for survey data that confirms or denies this anecdotal hypothesis but have yet to find it.

Posted in Analysis, Civil-Military Relations, Military | Tagged | 5 Comments


The U.S. Army recently discovered $900 million worth of spare Stryker parts, many of which are obsolete or unnecessary, collecting dust in a warehouse. None of the parts appear on the Army’s property books, a $900 million accounting error.

From Stars & Stripes:

Take, for instance, the $57 million worth of obsolete infrared equipment the Army has not installed in Strykers since 2007. It lingered at the Stryker warehouse until the Inspector General called attention to it last year.

Or, the 9,179 small replacement gears called pinions the Army bought as a temporary fix for a Stryker suspension problem that surfaced between 2007 and 2009. The Army took care of the root malfunction in 2010, but kept buying pinions.

It needed only 15 of the gears. The 9,164 extra pinions are worth $572,000, the Inspector General reported.

Dan Goure of the Lexington Institute, thinks it “much ado about nothing” because it’s “essentially miscommunication.” Miscommunication? Apparently, fighting a war and keeping good records are mutually exclusive tasks, never mind the fact that the Stryker Program Management Office wasn’t actually fighting a war, but rather working in an air-conditioned office in Michigan not balancing their books.

I understand that, given the size of DoD’s budget, this is essentially a rounding error. Maybe that’s because it’s too abstract. Using the DoD Comptroller’s FY2013 Program Acquisition Costs by Weapon System report, I calculated the per unit cost for weapon systems. Here’s a list of nicer things we could have had for $900,000,000:

2 Littoral Combat Ships
5 RQ-4 Global Hawks
11 F/A-18E Super Hornets
31 CH-47F Chinook heavy lift helicopters
45 MQ-9 Reapers
150 Strykers
562 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles
600 Tomahawk missiles

Or we can put this accounting error in the context of total military expenditures by country.

1. United States $689 billion
2. China $129 billion
3. Russia $64 billion

72. Serbia $920 million
73. Stryker PMO accounting error $900 million
74. Slovenia $788 million
75. Bahrain $731 million

Goure’s comments are actually insightful in that they show at least some segment of the defense community believes this incident to be completely normal. The lack of accountability will reinforce the business as usual response. The Department receives and spends so much money, and it’s so complex that it’s hard to keep track. And it’s never been audited so it’s nearly impossible to identify how it (mis)spends money except in cases like this where the Inspector General stumbles upon it. Panetta ordered DoD to be audit ready by 2014, which should force some degree of accountability.

So before we follow the recommendations of those who think DoD needs even more money, or that we can’t afford to cut a single dime, perhaps we should ensure the Department knows how to spend the money we already give it.

Posted in Analysis, Defense Acquisition, Military, Slightly Larger Arms | 10 Comments

Staff size and DoD overhead

Buried in Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s long and depressing article on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is an interesting statistic. The F-35 program office employs 2,000 people.

Two. Thousand.

For some perspective, here’s a list of offices, staffs, agencies, and commands and their estimated staff size (not including contractors):

  • Pacom                                              3,200
  • Joint Staff                                       2,800
  • OSD                                                  2,700
  • Centcom                                           2,000
  • Defense Logistics Agency              27,000

I know that the Joint Strike Fighter is an inordinately complex acquisition program that, after years of neglect and mismanagement, requires diligent oversight, but it’s still just a single acquisition program. And yet it employs the same number of people as Centcom, which hasn’t exactly been starved of work in the last decade.

As the Department’s budget grew after 9/11, so too did the overhead. Overhead consumes about 40% of the budget. As of FY10, that was $240 billion, equivalent to the entire Israeli economy. We’ve been trying to reduce it for years.

In 1997, Secretary of Defense William Cohen created a task force called the Defense Reform Initiative and tasked it “to find ways to improve the organization and procedures in the Department” by recommending “organizational reforms, reductions in management overhead and streamlined business practices.” The task force recommended: 1) OSD and associated activities personnel will be reduced 33% from FY 1996 levels; 2) the Joint Staff and associated activities personnel will be reduced 29% from FY 1996; and 3) Defense Agencies personnel will be reduced 21% over the next five years.

In 2010, Secretary Gates tasked the Defense Business Board with repeating the exercise. Again, a task force recommended reducing overhead by streamlining processes and eliminating positions. Some, like dissolving Joint Forces Command, were implemented (though most of these positions simply transferred to the Joint Staff). Gates also identified 102 general officer / flag officer (GOFO) billets to be eliminated, 65 of which were supposed to be eliminated no later than this month. To date, only 31 have been eliminated, mostly 1-stars.

And these are just the two most recent iterations of the game. Studies recommending efficiencies and reducing staff size go back to 1956. They all say the same thing.

The sequester is stupid. There’s no defense for reducing a department’s budget by slicing every line item by an equal amount. Not when there’s so much fat available. But it’s laughable when people act like the budget can’t be cut by another penny. To make that claim is to either betray an ignorance of how the Department actually spends money or put political ideology before analysis.

Lt Gen Christopher Bogdan, the F-35 program officer, recently announced his intention to streamline his office by trimming staff. Putting aside for a moment the almost comical goal of keeping JSF costs under control by trimming some staff, I’ve got one thing to say.

Good luck, sir!

Posted in Analysis, Military | 6 Comments

Auditing the Surge in Afghanistan

On Friday, I fell assbackwards into was asked to write an op-ed for The Guardian assessing the surge in Afghanistan. Before I tease you with the beginning of my piece in the shameful hope of getting you to visit the site and drive up page views so they ask me to write again, allow me to note the power of social media in the 21st century.

Ten years ago, hell, maybe even five years ago, someone like me is not asked to write an op-ed in a newspaper like The Guardian. They might publish something I submit, but they’re certainly not soliciting me. That’s because the editors don’t know who I am nor do they know what I write, if I write. But because a friend like Chris Albon pays me an enormous compliment on Twitter, likely directing an editor to my Twitter profile, which then leads him to Gunpowder & Lead, I receive an email asking me to write this piece.

Long story short: social media is an amazing tool and the great equalizer in the world of ideas.

But really, none of this is possible without my good friend Diana Wueger, who about a year ago asked me to write here because she thought I might have some interesting things to say. Thanks, Diana.

And now, to my op-ed:

As the Middle East erupted in violent protests two weeks ago, US efforts in Afghanistan sunk to new depths. There hasn’t been much good news out of Afghanistan since March 2003, but last week was particularly bad– highlighted by an audacious attack on Camp Bastion and the announcement that all combined patrols with Isaf and Afghan troops would be temporarily halted. Overshadowed by those incidents were two more insider attacks that killed six Isaf service members the same weekend. Indeed, good news is hard to find.

Reminiscent of similar attacks on Pakistani military bases, a small group of well-trained militants carried out the spectacular attack on Camp Bastion, one of Isaf’s largest bases in country. Fifteen well-armed militants disguised in US army uniforms breached the perimeter fence and split into three roving teams. The result: two US marines killed, including the Harrier squadron commanding officer, nine wounded, and eight AV-8B Harrier “jump jets” destroyed or damaged beyond repair. It was the largest, single-day loss of US military aircraft since Vietnam. At roughly $30m per copy, the loss of eight irreplaceable Harriers rendered VMA-211, the squadron hit, combat ineffective for the first time sinceDecember 1941.

Three days later, Isaf announced that most combined patrols with Isaf and Afghan troops would cease “until further notice”. Ostensibly done to limit Nato troop exposure to Afghans while anger over a disgusting anti-Islam video remains palpable, it’s hard to see this order as anything but a response to the growing insider threat – so-called green-on-blue attacks, when an Afghan soldier turns his weapon on his Nato partner. Thirty-six such attacks have killed 51 members of coalition forces this year, roughly 20% of all Isaf casualties. Given that Nato’s withdrawal strategy rests entirely on the premise of ensuring Afghan forces are capable of providing security on their own, and that as of April 2012, only 7% (pdf) of Afghan army units were rated as fully capable, the suspension of combined operations calls the entire strategy into question.

You can read the rest here.

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Tactical Patience: The Perils of Rapid Response

There’s been a lot of teeth gnashing and handwringing in the last 24 hours. Having one of your Ambassadors killed and two embassies stormed tends to get the juices flowing. But the embassy protests and consulate attack were just the opening act of a three-act play. Before Act I was finished, Mitt Romney entered stage right and launched a broadside against the administration for “apologizing for American values” and “sending mixed signals.” Act II thus became a referendum on the appropriateness of Romney’s remarks and their timing.

I agree with Rich Lowry and other conservatives who believe that the administration’s response is fair game for politics, although I do disagree with the substance of that critique. But Romney’s timing highlights another symptom of a world linked instantaneously by modern communications and a 24 hour news cycle: the “WE MUST RESPOND NOW!” Syndrome.

As the east coast woke up yesterday morning to the horrible news that our Ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, had been killed in an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Twitter began to light up with calls for statements and words of reassurance from the President. Mind you, the President had only been notified of Stevens’ death shortly before sunrise. That fact, and the fact that “the facts” were still trickling in, was irrelevant.

Others (mostly private citizens on Twitter) began calling for action. That’s not surprising. After all, our embassy in Cairo, sovereign American territory, was overrun and the U.S. flag was replaced with an Islamic flag. Some wondered why the U.S. Marine Embassy Security Guards had not fired on protesters. Others wanted to bomb Benghazi.

What links both of these reactions is the emotion driving them. Absent is calm, reasoned analysis, particularly of the second and third order consequences. Romney’s statement didn’t necessarily lack reasoned analysis, but by issuing it when he did and by doubling down on it in an early morning press conference, he displayed a remarkable lack of tactical patience. As noted by Dan Drezner had he held back, the media would have done his job for him.

People often think that the military is trained to react instantly. While true, there’s another lesson often taught to young officers that’s equally as important. It’s called tactical patience. In a nutshell, it’s letting a situation develop in order to 1) understand exactly what is happening and 2) ensuring that conditions are most favorable for a strike. Gunner Keith Marine relays this example:

A guy pulling a pitchfork out of the hay at night looks just like a guy taking a weapon out of a cache at first glance. Take the time to wait a few minutes and observe what the guys are doing before you shoot. The damage you cause may be irreparable. Along with that, if you are still covert and have the drop on folks, hold off they may bring in some of their friends and you can kill them too.

In a tactical engagement, a couple of seconds can be the difference between success and failure. On the strategic stage, seconds equals days or weeks. Sometimes doing nothing is okay. Saying nothing is okay. Not always of course, but sometimes letting a situation develop is as prudent as it is necessary. The 24-hour news cycle and social media provide strong incentives to be first, not be right. Leaders have a responsibility to resist that temptation — being right is far more important than being first.

When Romney stepped into Act I, he altered the course of the play. Act II became a narrative of the appropriateness of Romney’s attack itself. When the GOP nominee says that the President is sympathizing with people attacking American embassies (and ultimately killing an Ambassador), what does he expect that news cycle to look like? Thinking it would unfold any differently displays a stunning naivety of the news cycle and political reporters, and/or amateurish political instincts.

But of course Romney isn’t to blame for the WE MUST RESPOND NOW! Syndrome; he’s merely a product of the public sphere in which, thanks to the magic powers of The Google, we are all stakeholders. He said something because a segment of us wanted someone, anyone to say something, anything to make us feel like the U.S. government was on the case. He did this because as his audience we prioritize speed. Instead, we should prioritize patience.

P.S. — It looks like not even tactical patience can help Ralph Peters.

P.P.S — For a somewhat different take read this.

Posted in Analysis, Strategery | Tagged , | 5 Comments

Thoughts on Congressional Oversight of DoD

Rosa Brooks’ weekly column is up at Foreign Policy. She’s been writing mostly on civil-military relations but this week dives into runaway Pentagon spending. She echoes a lot of my own thoughts on the subject, particularly her last paragraph where she asks a lot of tough questions that I’m fairly certain nobody on Capitol Hill or in the Building is asking.

Congress, being the large, slow-moving target that it is, receives a broadside as a major culprit of wasteful DoD spending. Brooks writes:

When I was a newly minted Pentagon employee, one of the things that astounded me most was how hard it was to get Congress to stop funding stupid stuff. This should not have surprised me, since funding stupid stuff is one of Congress’ constitutional functions, but it surprised me nonetheless. I recall, for instance, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ so-called “heartburn letters” to congressional appropriators. Most of his complaints related not to proposed funding cuts, but to Congress’ insistence on giving DOD money for programs the military did not want or need, such as extra VH-71 helicopters or C-17 Globemaster IIIs.

My own thoughts on Congressional oversight of DoD are evolving–this is a really complicated relationship about which much more could be written–and what follows isn’t necessarily a rebuttal or a defense of Congress, but rather some food for thought.

In the 1960s, the Army began issuing new M-16 rifles to soldiers headed to Vietnam. Unfortunately, it did so with some really crappy ammunition. According to Army records, and courtesy of the inimitable C.J. Chivers, 80 percent of 1,585 soldiers surveyed in 1967 claimed a stoppage while firing. Publicly, the Army claimed that nothing was wrong and that the M-16 was best rifle available. A Congressional subcommittee investigation forced the Army into making improvements to the weapon and ammunition.

In 1985, Barry Goldwater assumed the Chairmanship of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Before the legislative session even began, Goldwater had decided to make defense reorganization his number one priority. The Pentagon fought reorganization tooth and nail for the next two years. Goldwater-Nichols, though not perfect, is widely regarded as one of the smarter pieces of defense legislation ever passed by Congress and it was done against strong objections from the Pentagon.

And my personal favorite was that time when George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, James Forrestal, Lauris Norstad, Clark Clifford, the Navy, and the Army TRIED TO GET RID OF MY BELOVED MARINE CORPS. Good times. Luckily, the Senate Naval Affairs Committee and later the Senate Armed Services Committee rejected their proposals to reorganize the War Department without providing the Marine Corps statutory authority.

I’m not trying to say Congress always gets oversight of the Department right, particularly when it comes to appropriations and acquisitions. Lord knows some things <;cough>; the F-35 alternate engine <;/cough>; can’t be defended. But just because the Pentagon says it doesn’t want or need something, doesn’t necessarily mean it knows what the hell it’s talking about. Sometimes, and I know this will come as a shock, large bureaucracies want what’s in the interest of… large bureaucracies.

*Thanks to Chris, Ryan, and Dan for helping me think through some of this.

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Four Percent for Freedom

It’s campaign season and the defense budget, after a decade of bipartisan support for steady growth, is once again a battlefield for Democrats and Republicans. Having used a credit card to fund a forty-year bender, both parties recognize the need – in theory if not practice – to get a handle on the national debt. Representing 20 percent of total Federal government spending and 50 percent of Federal discretionary spending, the defense budget is a large target. And while it may not be the primary driver of deficit spending, to use a basketball analogy, it’s dishing assists like John Stockton. Even some prominent Republicans recognize that some reduction in defense spending is necessary if cutting the debt is to be a real goal and not just a talking point.

Mitt Romney apparently didn’t get that memo. He has pledged to increase the defense budget, spending a minimum of four percent GDP. Pegging defense spending to GDP is not a new idea. The Heritage Foundation wrote a series of reports in 2007 under the tagline Four Percent For Freedom. Around the same time, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen also publicly supported the four percent baseline. In 2009, Sen. James Inhofe and Rep. Trent Franks introduced a joint resolution that would have required DoD base spending to remain above the four percent figure.

A couple of themes emerge among the arguments for pegging defense to GDP. Some argue that “measuring defense spending as a percentage of GDP is the most appropriate and realistic means to gauge America’s commitment to ensuring an adequate national defense.” Without the four percent baseline, they claim that “America’s military will become a ‘hollow’ force placing the lives of our young men and women in uniform at risk and jeopardizing the Pentagon’s ability to defend the nation’s vital national interests.” Others note that because it is the primary responsibility of lawmakers to “provide for the common defense,” DoD is not just another line item in the Federal budget and thus deserves a baseline. And perhaps the most common refrain is that setting a four percent baseline sends a message that the United States is committed to its security.

Of course, the Constitution does not stipulate minimum spending on defense. Instead, the Preamble states that “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense… do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America” (emphasis mine). The Oath of Office requires our elected leaders to “defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic” (again, emphasis mine). Neither of these texts, however, defines defense or how to provide for it. A narrow interpretation might hold that these clauses require defense against threats to the territorial integrity or political sovereignty of the United States. A more expansive definition might include defending against threats to American interests far away from our shores. The former would seem to be guaranteed by a vast arsenal of nuclear weapons and two oceans, and the latter by a robust navy, a moderately sized army, significant intelligence capabilities, a fleet of unmanned aerial systems, and special operations forces. Many might disagree with these prescriptions, and how well they serve in the defense of the United States and/or its interests, but that’s the point—there’s no Constitutional instruction for defense, and reasonable people can and should debate these points.

Instead, the premises often used to support a defense-by-GDP conclusion are a mixture of vacuous platitudes (hollow force!), red herrings (entitlements are the real cause of runaway government spending!), and/or irrelevant facts (we can afford it!) making the conclusion itself a giant non sequitur. Putting aside the illogical nature of the arguments, what are the practical consequences of setting a baseline on defense spending that is tied to GDP?

For one, pegging defense spending to GDP is divorced from the strategic environment. In the words of one budget specialist, it has “no analytical basis.” Defense spending does not occur in a vacuum. It takes place in the context of threats, interests, obligations, allies, revenues, and other spending requirements. None of these are static. Once upon a time, the U.S. fought Japan and Germany. Once upon a time, the U.S. faced an existential threat from the Soviet Union. Once upon a time, the U.S. didn’t have a large network of allies. Pledging to spend four percent of GDP on defense disregards changes to the strategic environment. Furthermore, it focuses on only one variable of a multi-variable equation. Richard Betts writes:

Today’s supporters of increased military spending justify their advocacy by pointing out that current levels of spending, measured by the share of GDP devoted to defense, are well below those of the Cold War. This is both true and irrelevant. The argument focuses on only one component of the equation — spending — and conveniently ignores that the scope of commitments, the choice of strategy, and the degree of risk accepted can be adjusted as well. And it draws the wrong lesson from history, which when properly interpreted suggests that today’s lesser threats could be handled with greater aplomb.

I’m sympathetic to the argument that setting a minimum investment in defense sends a message to other branches of government, allies, and potential enemies that defense is a priority. But does anyone think that if the U.S. only spent 3.5 percent of GDP, which is roughly $525 billion, on DoD’s base budget, that we would be any less secure? Conversely, if we spent 9 percent of GDP, roughly the proportion we spent in 1968, would lawmakers feel more secure? Would we actually be more secure? Remember, no amount of money will completely mitigate risk.

Pledging to spend four percent of GDP is no more than a campaign slogan. It serves to cast Democrats in the role of dove played opposite the familiar Republican hawk, but does so without evaluating the strategic environment or (re)assessing potential threats and American interests and how the military should be used to protect them. And the great irony is that many of the proponents of setting a defense baseline have stated unequivocally “strategy should always guide the defense budget.” Pegging defense to GDP as one’s starting point would seem to violate this maxim.

Except, in the Republican worldview, it doesn’t. Mitt Romney and the Defense Defenders’ (worst band name ever?) plan to devote increasingly larger piles of money to the defense budget makes perfect strategic sense. In their view, which for all intents and purposes is a neoconservative one, U.S. military power is the only thing holding this crazy, anarchic world together. Moreover, it’s the only tool the U.S. has for getting what it wants. Rather than reassess commitments and obligations, or tailor strategies, they would double down on old ones, like defending Europe as if it was 1984, and take on new ones, like periodically bombing Iran and intervening in Syria. Thus, a perpetually rising DoD budget becomes necessary, and pegging it to GDP, rather than Federal government revenues (which go up and down), forms an appropriate benchmark.

In reality, setting a floor on defense spending pegged to “the number of Big Macs meals sold at McDonald’s” seems to be a myopic scheme designed to ensure the defense budget rises in perpetuity while assiduously avoiding consideration of the possibility that after spending $4 trillion fighting violent non-state actors, deposing regional pretenders, and fighting wars that never seem to end that maybe, just maybe, we’re doing it wrong. Throwing money at a problem might be good politics, but it’s rarely sound defense policy.

Posted in Analysis, Military, Strategery, War | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Protecting Advisors

The bad news out of Afghanistan won’t stop. It’s like the longest nightmare ever and we just can’t wake up.

After seven green-on-blue attacks in the last eleven days, Gen John Allen has ordered all ISAF troops stationed on Afghan bases to remain armed at all times. The story does not specify if this order requires forces to be Condition 3 (magazine inserted, chamber empty) or Condition 1 (magazine inserted, round in chamber, weapon on safe).

When I last wrote about the green-on-blue problem in April, I wondered about this specific issue. Many observers will wonder why this order was such a long time coming, myself among them. But I think it would be a mistake to conclude that these pernicious attacks will be stopped simply because advisors are keeping their weapons loaded. To draw such a conclusion is akin to saying a movie theater patron with a concealed weapon would have stopped James Holmes before he killed twelve people.

I don’t recall a specific order from my team leader or our higher headquarters about our weapons condition. We were issued an M-4 carbine and an M-9 pistol as advisors. I carried both on the 200m walk from the advisor compound to my office. The advisor building was a windowless building located amongst the Iraqi office buildings. We had one entrance, with a high table just inside the door and sandbags stacked underneath. We kept two M240B machine guns nearby, I guess in case the Iraqis decided to lay siege to our building.

I never went to see my counterparts without my M-9 in Condition 1 status. Never. And this was in Iraq where the insider threat was much, much lower, maybe even nonexistent compared with the current situation in Afghanistan.

In the beginning, I tucked my utility blouse behind my hip holster so that the weapon could be easily seen, and reached. I tried to sit at the table with my back to a wall so that I could see everyone in the room and anyone who entered. After a couple months, once I got to know everyone (and some modicum of trust was established), I began covering my holster with my blouse. I sat with my back to the door. I let my guard down. Not so much that I was totally oblivious to my surroundings, but I definitely wasn’t constantly “at the ready.”

I’d like to think that I could have reacted quickly enough to save my life had someone walked in with a loaded AK and started spraying bullets indiscriminately. But the truth is I’m not sure that’s the case. The USMC taught me how to aim and fire the M-9 with lethal consistency, but it didn’t teach me how to draw like Doc Holliday. Not that it would have mattered–the aggressor in these attacks has the advantage.

Gen Allen’s order is welcome news, and long overdue. But we should temper our expectations about it making a significant difference in the lethality of green-on-blue attacks. Far more important than weapon status is the advisor’s mental alertness. Regular troops are used to keeping their guard up outside the wire, but everyone needs a place where they can let it down and recharge. At this point, ISAF advisors aren’t afforded this luxury. This obviously takes a toll over the course of a six- or twelve-month deployment.

Carrying a Condition 1 weapon is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for better protecting advisors. Hopefully, it will save some lives. But it wouldn’t surprise me if our advisors were abiding by Gen Allen’s order long before he issued it.

Posted in Afghanistan, Military, War | Tagged | 7 Comments

Decoration Day

No other country has vexed U.S. presidents over the last thirty years quite like Iran.

Jimmy Carter watched Iran go from stalwart ally to implacable foe when Iranian students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran. The ensuing hostage crisis sunk his reelection bid. Ronald Reagan sold Iran a bunch of surface-to-air missiles in an ill-fated attempt to free American hostages in Lebanon. At the same time, Reagan waged a low-level war against Iran in the Persian Gulf as the U.S. Navy sought to keep shipping lanes open and oil flowing. George H.W. Bush searched fruitlessly for the “elusive Iranian moderate.” Bill Clinton entered office deciding such a search was a waste of time, but left office having found that moderate in Iranian president Mohammad Khatami, only to have efforts at rapprochement thwarted by hardliners in the office of the Supreme Leader, Revolutionary Guard Corps, and the U.S. Congress. After cooperating briefly with Iran over post-Taliban Afghanistan in 2001, George W. Bush decided Iran was an “axis of evil” and refused to negotiate directly with it on any subject. As the U.S. became bogged down in Iraq, the Bush administration watched helplessly as the Iran provided Iraq’s Shia militias with powerful roadside bombs; Iran also restarted uranium enrichment. Barack Obama extended an olive branch, but when Iran burned the olive branch, he used it as leverage at the United Nations and instituted the most severe economic sanctions to date.

In The Twilight War, David Crist chronicles the ups and (mostly) downs of the troubled U.S.-Iranian relationship since 1979. During that time, the superpower and regional pretender have alternated between uneasy peace and de facto war. The relationship has always been long on emotion and short on understanding. Neither side understands the other because, as Crist said in a recent interview, “both sides are captive to history.”

To be sure, it’s a complex history, with both sides contributing to the impasse. Crist weaves together the narrative threads of the U.S.-Iran relationship in a way that illuminates why this struggle continues with no signs of resolution. Blood has been spilt by both sides: 241 sailors, soldiers, and Marines died at the hands of the Iranian proxy Hezbollah in Beirut, while 290 Iranian civilians died when the USS Vincennes accidentally shot down Iran Air flight 655. American troops have been killed in Iraq by Iran-funded militants. Iranian nuclear scientists have been killed on the streets of Tehran, and although U.S. involvement has not been conclusively proven, in the eyes of the Iranian regime it hardly matters. Perception is reality in this case.

Trust has always been hard to come by. After stating in his inaugural address “goodwill begets goodwill,” George H.W. Bush reneged on promises he made to Iran in return for the freedom of the last American hostages in Lebanon. Iran continues to enrich uranium in defiance with UN Security Council resolutions and refuses to come clean about prior work done on weaponization.

And even in moments of relative calm and clear-headedness, negotiation offers have been refused. In 2003, Iran sent a fax to the State Department via the Swiss ambassador offering to put everything on the table, including their opposition to Israel and support for Hamas and Hezbollah. The Bush Administration refused to negotiate, believing the regime was on the brink of collapse. In 2009, Barack Obama offered to negotiate with Iran, but Iran thought the offer was meant solely to buy time for more sanctions and so refused.

This sweeping chronicle comes at a critical moment. The U.S. and Iran are (again) seemingly on the march to war. Defiant in the face of economic sanction, Iran continues to enrich uranium and fund terrorist groups throughout the Middle East. It’s also threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz. Meanwhile, the United States political elite is debating—for at least the umpteenth time—whether or not to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities. It has 40,000 troops and an armada of aircraft carriers, guided missile destroyers, and submarines patrolling the Persian Gulf. Yet despite this build up of punditry and equipment, the elites of DC seem oddly unaware of the nuances of our history with Iran – and thus the value of Twilight War becomes clear.

Crist’s sources are top notch – recently declassified documents and personal records and interviews with all the major characters you’ve never heard of – and that’s just on the U.S. side. His sources in Iran’s political and military elite are every bit as good. He logged thousands of miles conducting over 400 interviews in the U.S. and throughout the Middle East.  The senior historian for the Joint Staff and Marine Reserve officer, Crist is at his best when describing in amazing detail the almost minute-by-minute account of the Tanker War. In fact, he spends roughly one third of the book recounting it. Those looking for comprehensive analysis of the major decisions and flashpoints of the relationship may be disappointed as Crist keeps his own cards close to his chest, only revealing some of them at the end. This, however, is a real strength of the book. There’s no angle and he’s not pushing policy. It’s simply a rich history of two antagonistic countries struggling to figure each other out.

Finding a way out of permanent hostility will take a diplomatic miracle, not to mention a large dose of political courage. As Crist notes, “neither side has much desire to work to bridge their differences. Distrust permeates the relationship. Three decades of twilight have hardened both sides.” In other words, the U.S. and Iran are the Hatfields and McCoys of international politics – caught in a cycle of distrust and animosity that feeds on itself. The actions of the last thirty years have shaped the political, foreign policy, and military elite of both countries.

Iran specialist Afshon Ostovar recently commented that the majority of leaders on both sides don’t want war. He’s right, but if the last thirty years are any indication of the future, neither side really wants peace either.

Buy the book, which I highly recommend, here.

Posted in Iran, Middle East, Reviews, War | Tagged , | 1 Comment

I Won’t Back Down

I have to admit, I’m a little nervous. When I write something, I fully expect people to disagree with me and to call me an idiot after reading my “analysis.” But I rarely expect to anger people. My latest article has the potential to really anger a lot of people. About 6 million of them.

I’ve got an op-ed at The National Interest on the need to reform Tricare, the military healthcare system.

The numbers, however, do not allow for continued inaction. Increasing health-care costs in DoD’s budget mean less money for bombs, bullets and training. Fielding a military but supplying it with obsolete equipment and minimal training is the definition of a hollow force. Sensible reforms, like the ones proposed in the administration’s FY2013 budget request, will not break faith with military retirees and their families. But Congress must acknowledge that Tricare is merely a policy, part of a larger military compensation package that seeks to recruit and retain the best men and women for military service. It was never intended to become an inalienable right.

Due to space constraints, I had to omit things that I fear might lead some readers to question my support for military retirees. I want to go on record with some things here.

  1. I do not believe Tricare should be abolished or that retirees should not have access to subsidized healthcare in some form.
  2. I do believe military retirees should contribute more than they currently do. They should expect to pay, on average, at least 25% of their healthcare costs as was intended by Congress when it established Tricare in 1996.
  3. Enlisted veterans should not pay as much as officers. Tricare enrollment fees should be tiered based on retirement pay.
  4. Working age retirees who earn over a certain amount each year (including retirement pay), say $150,000, should not be allowed to use Tricare. They should be forced to use their civilian employer’s healthcare plan. Once they stop working, they can join Tricare for Life.
  5. Reforms must grandfather some people into the current system.
  6. Tricare enrollment fees should be indexed to inflation for the general healthcare sector, which should go a long way toward stabilizing DoD’s costs.
  7. I do believe that we are dangerously close to viewing veterans as a privileged, entitled class of people. This I fear is corrosive to civil-military relations and widens the gap between those who serve and those who don’t. The challenge is fighting for and receiving the care veterans deserve without becoming entitled.

Andrew Bacevich used a great quote from FDR in a recent book review that I wanted to crib, but didn’t. After General MacArthur broke up the “Bonus Marchers” camp in Washington, DC, Roosevelt let it be known that “no person, because he wore a uniform, must therefore be placed in a special class of beneficiaries.”

Anyway, read the whole thing here.


Posted in Civil-Military Relations, Military | 11 Comments