The Washington Monthly

In the Year of Our Lord 2020, the young pilots of America’s armed forces will fly aircraft designed in a previous century for that earlier century’s wars. The Army’s ground troops will be weighed down by leviathan systems unsuited to the knife-fight conflicts of the coming decades. And the Navy will be splendidly prepared for the Second World War. Along the way, the United States may pay a trillion dollars for weapons that constrain rather than enable, that bankrupt the services, and that preserve cherished traditions at the expense of practical capabilities.

The world has changed even more profoundly than we have noticed. Nineteen eighty-nine marked not only the end of the Cold War, but the end of half a millennium of history dominated by the rise and fall of European empires. For the American people, a 250-year tradition of fighting empires came to a close – our major wars engaged empires and only empires, first those of kings, then those of demagogues. Even our Civil War was fought to cast off the vestiges of imperial inheritance, from human bondage to a loathsome aristocracy of landholders. The American purpose, unspoken but accomplished, was to destroy empires and their patterns of human organization. Now a quarter-millenium’s mission has been fulfilled, and we are victorious but without compass.

Our military does not know what to do, so it does what it long has done: It organizes for grand wars against conventional militaries. No matter that the few such establishments still in existence do not, cannot, and will not threaten our nation and, at most, are positioned to annoy their neighbors – the portion of our wealth spent on arms will purchase systems to fight a reflection of ourselves. To exploit the weapons we are buying, we would have to share them with our enemies, or divide into teams and fight each other. Meanwhile, under-funded soldiers and Marines will do our nation’s dirty work abroad, while in the skies and at sea we display a shining, irrelevant legacy. We have entered the age of the impassioned butcher, with a crude weapon in one hand, a cell phone in the other, and hatred in his soul. As of this writing, we see him in Kosovo, and we shall often meet his like again.

In this age of brilliance and dissolution, individuals and organizations long for verities. This manifests itself in religious fundamentalism, ethnic separatism, rejectionist terrorism, and Pentagon stubbornness. Our military hides behind technologies that give an illusion of progress, while preserving the old ways of thinking, organizing and fighting. But our military thinking, such as it is, looks backward, our organizations are ponderous and grotesquely inefficient, and, when allowed to fight by our political leadership, combat commanders must improvise their way to victory.

We are a land of fabulous, but not unlimited, wealth. As weapons costs increase – even as their versatility and dependability decrease – we must make sensible choices. Almost without exception, the services are determined to make disastrous ones. Our country will be ready for the war that will not come, but unprepared for the urbanizing, chaotic and morbid conflicts whose coming is already upon us.

Consider a few purchases in progress: At a time when no power can match our control of the skies and none intends to confront us with dueling aircraft, we are buying three new fighters at a cost of $340 billion dollars, according to the Congressional Budget Office’s accounting. The CBO’s figure is that of an apologist, and does not include the metastasizing costs of fitting these systems to the force and keeping them there. Further, the General Accounting Office – our government’s unpopular honest broker – states that “cost increases of 20 to 40 percent have been common for major weapon programs” and that “numerous programs experienced increases much greater than that.” The trend-line for cost overruns rises sharply.

Of those three “indispensable” aircraft, the most promising is the Navy’s F/A 18E/F, based upon a proven airframe and fulfilling at least some legitimate needs. The Navy insists the program is within budget, but maintains its numbers only by deferring problems. The F-22 Raptor, a supremely-unnecessary air-superiority fighter, is over budget $667 million years before the first plane has been produced for combat. The contractor, in a wonderful blackmail effort, has warned that costs will shoot higher if the Air Force does not continue to buy an unwanted aircraft, the C-130J, to keep assembly lines open. The final aircraft, the Joint Strike Fighter, is lagging in development, but being rushed forward. Its purchase will force an annual doubling of the aircraft procurement budget, even if costs do not increase one dollar beyond current projections. Yet, in an air campaign such as those in Yugoslavia or Iraq, it offers little more than planes we have.

Ultimately, we can fund these three evolutionary systems that slightly improve current capabilities (if, unlike the B-1 and B-2 bombers, they work as advertised). But, consequently, we will not be able to afford the truly revolutionary technologies that will become available early in the next century. We will be imprisoned by these lavish purchases of past designs. Worse still, the trend in military technologies is toward cheap kills of expensive systems. We may spend well over half a trillion dollars to buy aircraft that will be defeated easily by innovative technologies available at a discount. While the generals, admirals and the defense contractors who hire them upon their retirement will argue that threat-testing shows that these new aircraft are virtually invulnerable, the word in the Pentagon corridors is that tests that might expose weaknesses in the survivability of the aircraft are being watered down or simply avoided. Increasingly, our national defense is a business, and its business is not defense.

The Army, lumbering and unimaginative, cannot match the Air Force or Navy in the size of its expenditures, but exceeds them in its enthusiasm for yesteryear’s solutions to tomorrow’s problems. The centerpieces of its procurement program are the RAH-66 attack helicopter, an improved but far from revolutionary system little better than the currently-fielded AH-64 Apache, and the Crusader, a leviathan artillery system that will be difficult to deploy, hard to re-supply, and irrelevant to the most frequent threats the Army will face. Obsessed with building the perfect division at Fort Hood, Texas, the Army refuses to accept that the number one requirement for the future is the ability to get out of Texas on short notice. The Army is so overweight it cannot get to a crisis promptly. In an age when global mobility based upon advanced concepts of organization and lethality is the core military requirement, the Army’s combat systems grow ever heavier, ever more costly, and ever more dependent upon a sprawling maintenance infrastructure. Instead of investing in research and development to design weapons for the future, the Army is determined to perfect the past.

Bewildered by the utter disappearance of enemy fleets, the Navy cruises toward the iceberg of irrelevance, still buying Congressionally-beloved submarines and surface combatants that have little combat power but enjoy tremendous political patronage. The Air Force and Army at least face genuine threats, if not those they crave. The best our Navy can do is to provide expensive, marginal firepower from inefficient ships and diplomatically-useful but low-combat-power aircraft carriers.

And what about the Marine Corps? Breaking ranks, the Marines have taken an honest look at the likely future of conflict and have begun to prepare for it – mind you, this praise comes from a retired Army officer and traditional rival of the Corps. Accustomed to doing things on the cheap, the Marines have developed innovative doctrine and training to prepare for everything from sorting refugees to fighting in the hell of urban warfare. The Marine Corps is the only defense bargain the taxpayer gets among the services.

Given the traditional image of the Marines as straight of back, straight of mind, and straight into the wall, it’s startling to encounter more freedom of thought, impassioned internal debate, and plain honesty in the Corps than anywhere else in our defense establishment. Even the Marine Corps’s primary acquisition program, the V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft (an ugly hybrid of helicopter and propeller transport) fits actual strategic and tactical requirements – it moves forces into combat quickly, with ten times the survival rate of the best transport helicopter. It isn’t glamorous, only useful.

The generals and admirals who recommend or acquiesce in the purchase of most of the systems we are buying resemble the middle-aged man who buys a Porsche he cannot afford instead of the family van he needs. Our military is short of spare parts, training funds, trucks and infantrymen. We are buying the future force the generals and admirals, Congressmen and contractors want, not the one we will need. This is waste just short of treason.

Why, in the face of daily evidence of the changed nature of conflict, do we insist on buying systems of marginal or no relevance? Tradition is sometimes the reason, often the excuse. Congressional pork chopping is a major factor – President Eisenhower got it only two-thirds right: We face a defense-industrial-Congressional complex. Defense contractors contribute mightily to political campaigns, as well as providing the world’s most expensive jobs in voting districts. In the defense community, corporate welfare is an art form. All this is clearly wrong. So why do the generals or admirals, whose patriotism is ever on their lips, fail to take a stand even against a rival service’s gold-plated mistakes?

The reason is greed. Anyone who has served in the Pentagon has slipped on the slime trails that retired generals and admirals leave in their wake as they navigate the hallways bearing a defense contractor’s business card with their name on it. The employment of retired senior officers by the nation’s largest, increasingly-monopolisitic defense contractors is a scandal costing the taxpayer hundreds of billions of dollars, and it may cost our troops their lives. These men wear flags upon their lapels, but their minds are on the money. Their actions are not illegal because we have legalized corruption. When, in the mid-1980s, a few voices on Capitol Hill called for closing this particular revolving door, representatives from the defense industry and the threatened officers themselves put on their red-white-and-blue war-paint and chanted that the defense industry needed the expertise of senior officers. But colonels and captains, warrant officers and sergeants are the ones who have current expertise. Generals and admirals have connections.

We have seen the Babbitization of the officer corps, the rise of the huckster and shill with stars on his shoulders, and we will pay dearly for it. Like the small-minded, grasping anti-hero of Sinclair Lewis’s novel, our senior leaders spout moralistic and patriotic slogans, but go for the bucks. Certainly, some retired four stars – men like Generals Colin Powell, John Galvin, Barry McCaffrey, and many a Marine flag officer – have continued to serve their country in other fields. But most insiders take the money. Often, if a general or admiral is not employed by a defense contractor, it tells you he was not a member of the club.

Who is to blame? In the end, not the generals and admirals themselves so much. They are only living up to the values of their lower-middle-class backgrounds: speak piously and grasp vigorously. They are not all without genuine patriotism, but they have been accorded privilege for so long by the system they served that they have come to confuse the national interest with their self-interest. We cannot expect today’s military to think, because the thinking men have left the military. Neither rigorous reflection nor self-criticism are common virtues among senior officers. Only a few of these men are willfully venal or consciously corrupt. Most simply rationalize their behavior, convincing themselves that the armed forces truly need the systems for which their service has acquired an appetite or their employer a contract.

The real blame for the practical and moral shambles in which our military finds itself lies with our nation’s elite, whose privileged members turned their back on military service when our Indochina wars gave them an excuse.

Here I must inject a personal note – I never shed blood upon the field of Sidwell Friends, nor did I fight the battles of Yale Law. I am a miner’s son, and my father was a self-made man who un-made himself during my youth. Education was not a family legacy, and my kin belonged to the United Mine Workers of America, not to Skull and Bones. My forebears fought this country’s wars from the bottom ranks, and I began my own military career as a private. I have felt the full arrogance of those to whom much was given and, personally, wish that I might come to bury the elite, not to praise them. Yet, those who would rise need examples to emulate. It grates on me to write it, but our military needs the return of the nation’s elite to the officer corps, to the extent that a traditional elite, with its spotty but essential ideals of service, still exists.

Certainly, our nation’s elite never provided a majority, or even a large minority, of the officer corps even in wartime. When they served, the Navy was preferred by the bluebloods, the Army by the new-bloods. Plenty of the well-to-do did well by avoiding service, paying a three-hundred-dollar bounty to avoid service in our Civil War, or finding placement in an “essential” government job in World War II, or donning a Brooks Brothers uniform to serve Father’s friend in Washington or London for the duration. But enough served to make a difference. It takes only a bit of seasoning to make the stew.

The elite, too, produced its cowards and incompetents. But it also produced officers such as George Washington and George Patton, Robert E. Lee and George Marshall (the latter sprung of small-town gentry – even slight privilege once inspired obligation). Those officers had been imbued with social rules of integrity, both moral and financial, that set a tone for others to study and attain. Imagine but one of the men named above accepting a retirement job flogging metal for Lockheed Martin or Northrop Grumman. Such men knew when to take a stand, and would have turned in their stars before they acquiesced in looting the public.

Of course, many of our finest officers rose from humble origins. But Dwight Eisenhower served under and looked up to Marshall; in Mexico, Grant admired the golden Lee. Moral quality is infectious. The military knows this, and speaks nobly of leadership by example. But the men who mouth those words now speak of ghosts.

Vietnam harmed our nation less than commentators imagine, but struck our military a savage, lasting blow. In each war until then, the sons of Harvard and Princeton served. Their names are etched on memorials to the dead. But something happened in our Indochina years. We fought worse wars, but thought them better. Somehow, in a manner Sociology does not explain, those who benefited most from America arrived at a new assumption that privilege no longer carried a burden of responsibility. Perhaps it only marks the decrepitude of the old elite – surely, they are not the social factor they once were. Yet the best of them are missed. Today, the military’s uniforms do not even fit properly (except for the Marines again), and the sense of self-sacrifice, despite a torrent of self-congratulatory rhetoric, barely finds a place in the upper ranks. Young officers still believe in our country, middle rankers serve it with increasing cynicism, and the generals sell it. We have come a long way down.

I do not believe there was ever a perfect world or a perfect military. Upper-crust cadets mocked Tom Jackson the bumpkin, who was as stolid and dreary as a stone wall, and Grant won brief approval only because he could outride them all – but when he led victorious armies the officers from privileged backgrounds lost no chance to brand the hero a drunk. McClellan was closer to the elite than Sherman, and the South’s highest sons brought the Confederacy low with their love of Walter Scott and slaughter. But enough men served who had been bred to take a stand – and who could afford to walk away from a career.

As I write, we are waging a thoughtless demi-war in the Balkans. In a curious manner, it illustrates our loss of moral example. The shared drabness of service no longer informs president or senator, and ignorance of military matters rules. When the Kennedys no longer serve, the Clintons will not. Today’s aspiring politicians regard military service as a blue-collar detour unworthy of their time. As a result, an administration unparalleled in its arrogance has blundered into a disaster that has swiftly cost a people its homeland, that threatens America’s last shreds of strategic credibility, and that may gut the NATO alliance. While weeks lie between this electronic dash of ink and the printed page, even a miraculous turnabout in the Balkans will not erase the incompetence with which the adventure was begun. At the heart of our nation’s government, not one person has worn a uniform. We have seen the Babbitization of the Presidency, too.

The past is a dangerous trap. Our military is caught in it. Perhaps my longing to see our national elite return to military service is only another lapse into nostalgia. But we have an Army run by a “Board of Directors” that is a combination mafia conference and small-town business club, a Navy intent on fighting against the future rather than against our nation’s likely enemies, and an Air Force whose only strategy is budgetary gluttony. Something must be done. We are about to spend that trillion dollars (perhaps less, but don’t count on it) on an arsenal of mediocrity. If no one rises to lead our military by example, our next significant expenditure may be in lives.

Ralph Peters is a retired Army officer and the author of two new books, Fighting for the Future: Will America Triumph? and Traitor, a novel about corruption in America’s defense industry.

Washington Monthly - Donate today and your gift will be doubled!

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation