Monday, May 16, 2011

Stubborn as the Mule: Why the Department of Defense Has Resisted Military Change

By Daniel Brooks

Unlike most MSU senior students, I did not start my Capstone on the first day of class this past spring semester, but rather on the streets of Rabiah, Iraq in 2009.

It was my 3rd Marine Corps deployment to Iraq since 2005, and although much had been accomplished there was still sporadic fighting and the ever-present threat from al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Along with many of my multi-deployment, Jarhead colleagues, I began to ask the increasingly persistent question: “Why are we still here?”

Accordingly, when I was informed that our Senior Capstone topics were to be chosen and formulated by ourselves, I could think of no better research question to try to answer for myself, my fellow Marines and—if I dare say so—my fellow students, faculty and fellow Americans. Why, 30 years after the fiasco of Vietnam, are we still confronted by asymmetrical warfare conundrums (such as combating an enemy who withdraws to the anonymity of citizenry)? Realizing that this was much too broad a topic for a paper limited to 20 pages, I was able to narrow it down with a focus on the Department of Defense (DoD) and its resistance to change. Thus the title of my Capstone: Stubborn as the Mule: Why the Department of Defense Has Resisted Military Change.

Looking at three factors, I hypothesized that the DoD is resistant to change because of: 1) institutional change constraints, 2) concern of politicians about the image of weakness, and 3) the conventional warfare core value inherent in the military leadership of the DoD.

These are not the only factors stymieing change, clearly, but through my research I deemed them the most influential due to their augmentation of each other.

Before addressing these factors, I felt it necessary to explain why the DoD needs to change. To do so, I drew from the work of Colonel Thomas X. Hammes, The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century, in which he outlines the evolution of modern warfare through four generations. Starting with the Napoleonic Wars (1st Generation Modern Warfare) and ending with insurgency-based warfare (4th Generation Modern Warfare), Hammes provides a roadmap showing how warfare has developed and how historically it has never retraced its steps to past generations, and thus consequently calls for military change to address the asymmetrical battles we face now.

Institutional constraints are the first factor to hinder change within the DoD, the most influential being organizational structure. Simply put, the DoD is enormous. Boasting the non-official title of being America’s largest employer, the DoD has a ‘staff’ of over 3 million people. With the Secretary of Defense at the top, there are 35 sub-branches within the chain of command, creating a hierarchy model in the shape of a pyramid. This pyramid is a supremely robust resistor to change as vertical and horizontal attempts to create change are overwhelmed by transaction costs and imperfect information, to put it into economic terms.

The second factor impacting on the DoD’s inability to change are politicians persistent in their almost blind support of American conventional military preponderance out of fear of appearing weak, or ‘soft’ on defense. Essentially, if a rival candidate can make the argument that a standing politician’s weak military policies jeopardize our way of life, it is unlikely that the latter will remain in office. One of my main arguments to support this point is the current policy of President Obama, who is supportive of the proposed $7 billion increase to the defense budget. Dealing with an economic recession plaguing the country, unemployment hindering American productivity and a crippling national debt, this ‘liberal, democratic’ president cannot resist the temptation of shoring up in more conservative circles by showing support for the institution that creates the image of security for voters—the American military, namely, the DoD.

Lastly, the military leadership within the DoD reinforces the conventional warfare ‘core value,’ which also inhibits change. Rising through the ranks with a large emphasis on physical strength, courage, and obedience, members of the military embrace the ethos and norms of the conventional-warfare warrior.

I do not mean to imply that the men and women running the Department of Defense are ignorant yes-men, better suited to charge hills. Most have highly-specialized academic degrees and understand warfare very well. However, most have achieved their rank because of an understanding of conventional warfare, bred into them through their 20-plus years of service. Their understanding of warfare predisposes them to support conventional warfare values, and object to a switch away from the warrior ethos.

Because of the personal nature of the project, I feel that I became entrenched in my own narrative and was remiss in addressing some very important questions solicited to me during my presentation to the panel. Particularly, if these are the three most important factors, how can change occur, if at all? Where does General David Petreaus’s concept of COIN, or ‘Counter-Insurgency’ warfare (‘hearts & minds’), and its ‘long war’ implications fit into the picture? How does the Andrew Bacevich critique of Petreaus and COIN (‘semi-permanent war’) address the need for change?

Though these questions are beyond the purview of a 20-page paper, they are important, and I look forward to future research into these aspects.