It is dangerous to promote an ideal and pretend it’s not for entertainment purposes only.
From time to time, motivational slogans like “national interest” and “grand strategy” have proved useful in prodding the slothful along. Fiction has power to move people and move people it does. Mixing up myth for reality, however, leads to cognitive whiplash when reality steps, as it must, on myth. Many gleaming ideals are little more than bright colors painted on after the fact to cover up grimy back stage shenanigans and less than visionary ad hoc improvisations, usually for temporary short-term political gain.
Entering politics, if you lead with your idealistic chin, you will soon discover you have a glass jaw. As Warren Buffet might have said once, “If you’ve been playing poker for half an hour and you still don’t know who the patsy is, you’re the patsy.” This is true even in organizations that are reputedly non-political. Experience suggests that, the more someone protests how non-political they are, the more political they prove to be. Consider three of the most consequential peace treaties of the twentieth century:
“Key West Agreement” (Function of the Armed Forces and the Joint Chiefs of Staff)
Signed: April 21, 1948
Belligerents: United States Army, United States Navy, United States Air Force
- ‘The Navy would be allowed to retain its own combat air arm “…to conduct air operations as necessary for the accomplishment of objectives in a naval campaign…”‘
- “The Army would be allowed to retain aviation assets for reconnaissance and medical evacuation purposes.”
- “The Air Force would have control of all strategic air assets, and most tactical and logistic functions as well.”
Signed: November 4, 1952
Belligerents: United States Army, United States Air Force
- “removed the weight restrictions on helicopters that the U.S. Army could use”
- “widened the range of tasks the Army’s helicopters could be used for”
- “created an arbitrary 5,000 pounds weight restriction that limits the Army’s ability to fly fixed-wing aircraft”
- “the U.S. Army…is dependent upon the U.S. Air Force to purchase and man fixed-wing ground-attack aircraft to fulfill close air support missions”
Signed: April 6, 1966
Belligerents: United States Army, United States Air Force
- “the U.S. Army agreed to give up its fixed-wing tactical airlift aircraft”
- “the U.S. Air Force relinquished its claim to most forms of rotary wing aircraft”
“The truth is that for reasons that have a lot to do with the U.S. government bureaucracy, we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on which was weapons of mass destruction as the core reason,” Wolfowitz was quoted as saying in a Pentagon transcript of an interview with Vanity Fair.
The magazine’s reporter did not tape the telephone interview and provided a slightly different version of the quote in the article: “For bureaucratic reasons we settled on one issue, weapons of mass destruction, because it was the one reason everyone could agree on.”
America’s armed forces are, and always have been, dens filled with vipers scrambling for procurement bucks. For every John Boyd willing to subsist on morning dew and lichen gnawed from the bottom of rocks for principle, there are fifty James Wilkinsons with eyes single to the glory of their personal bottom line.
Some of this is due to unideal incentives to let slip the inner sociopath when someone, previously constrained by circumstance of the most bootlicking sort, acquires power. A professor of H.W. Brands used to observe “a country gets the foreign policy it can afford”. This is why, since political power is a form of supply that generates its own demand, today’s U.S. has a finger in every global pie. Similarly, a problem at a lower rank can become a catastrophe when promoted to higher rank. More power comes with more opportunities for pratfalls: an officer gets the Paula Broadwell he can afford.
Politics of the most unideal kind takes place at a level so extravagant and visible that it can’t be seen. Like this:
People like to talk about a 1/3, 1/3, 1/3 split in the defense budget. This is not now true, nor has it been true for some time. Mostly because only about 80% of the defense budget actually gets split among the services, with OSD skimming off 19% or so for its growing fiefdoms. What is true is that through multiple strategic reviews, National Military Strategies, QDR’s and Bottom Up Reviews–the Department of the Navy, Air Force and Army get a remarkably consistent portion of the defense budget. The Navy—with two services—gets about 29%, the Army about 25% and the Air Force about 27%. That’s right. No matter WHAT military strategy our nation has pursued since the fall of the Berlin Wall, we’ve split the base defense budget in essentially the same way.
This may not be ideal ideal, but it is politically ideal. J. Scott Shipman linked this article earlier today titled “The Air Force’s Awesome Attack Plane Has a Pretty Sad Replacement. The A-10 is the best warplane for saving lives?—?too bad its days are numbered.” Following the Ideal, righteousness and common sense demand that close air support be taken from the Air Force and given to the Army despite three treaties against it. I agree with this Ideal: I think the Air Force should be abolished as an independent service since its nonsensical existence has tormented this nation long enough.
The logic of politics dictates otherwise. The A-10 was procured without a natural political support base. Any weapons platform has two missions:
- provide patronage for political supporters
- defeat the nation’s enemies
Since war is occasionally interrupted by bouts of peace and small wars killing primitive savages are more frequent than large wars fighting peer savages, patronage often becomes the more important mission of a weapon. Consider the wisdom of our Founders:
Secretary Knox suggested to President Washington that six different construction sites be used, one for each ship, rather than building at one particular shipyard. Separate locations enabled the alloted funds to stimulate each local economy, and Washington approved the sites on 15 April 1794. At each site, a civilian naval constructor was hired to direct the work. Navy captains were appointed as superintendents, one for each of the six frigates as follows:
Ship Site Guns Naval constructor Superintendent Chesapeake Gosport, Virginia 44 Josiah Fox Richard Dale  Constitution Boston, Massachusetts 44 George Claghorn Samuel Nicholson  President New York, New York 44 Forman Cheeseman Silas Talbot  United States Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 44 Joshua Humphreys John Barry  Congress Portsmouth, New Hampshire 36 James Hackett James Sever  Constellation Baltimore, Maryland 36 David Stodder Thomas Truxtun 
The original six frigates had little technical effect on outcome of the War of 1812. Early victories they scored over British peers produced important political outcomes: Americans were heartened after our disgraceful failure to extend our natural frontiers to the Arctic by liberating Canada from the Canadians. Britons were embarrassed that some two bit country had challenged their rule of the sea during the glorious age of Nelson.
But that role made no military difference: Britain ruled the seas and clamped down the Atlantic seaboard after our impertinence stirred them to action. Sequential warship-to-warship actions were a military waste of a good frigate anyway: frigates reached peak effectiveness when cumulative preying on enemy shipping, either by direct action or by causing enemy shipping to go out of its way or stay in port because the U.S. Navy represented a Pirate Fleet in Being. The first rule of war is to favor strength on weakness encounters over strength on strength or weakness on strength encounters.
Judged by political standards, the six frigates are models of victory. They divided the goods between six voting blocs, even targeting the South where floating thingeys on “water” are usually seen as a sinister Yankee conspiracy. Geographically, most of the preferred materials for building the frigates were ideally placed for spending money in the Southern Piedmont. Southerners have historically been suspicious of Yankees but they’ve proved less suspicious of Yankee money as long as it comes Yankee-free.
There have been many formidable defensive works made throughout history. The Great Wall around the Peking region. Vauban’s frontier fortresses. The Siegfried Line. The poor unfairly maligned Maginot Line.
Compared with the fortifications erected around around a large-scale American weapon program, these are chicken scratches in the barnyard dirt. The Iron Triangle of the congressional-military-industrial maze, anchored by the defense in depth of the F-35 Line, is more formidable than Vauban could ever have imagined. Compound it with tribal defensive lines like those dividing the services from each other and branches within services from each other, and you have an arrangement that finds resilience in the awesome scale of its fragility. Its tribal sparring all the way down.
Before you can gauge the defenses of the United States, you have to get past any illusions about seeing it as a ideal that can be solved by contemporary America’s go to magic bullet: heroic
Führerprinzip leadership. This is the core political fallacy of the times: if we only get the right square-jawed man in the right place, his heroic brow will banish politics from politics. In reality, you can’t divide zero by zero. Politics happens. The only non-political group of people you will ever encounter is a graveyard. Only the dead have seen the end of politics. It is appalling to the Ideal but every weapons procurement request should be designed to not only win the nation’s wars but buy enough senior bureaucrats and congress critters and voters in Mississippi to keep the system afloat.
For example, in combat, a Littoral Combat Ship would sink with the first paper cut inflicted by serious Chinese print stock. However, it has already fulfilled its primary mission as a political platform for patronage distribution and has even taken on new additional missions like fighting for gun control. Children can sleep soundly in coastal Alabama and Mississippi tonight knowing that an LCS on patrol from its dry-dock in Mobile, vigilantly keeping their bills paid. It may never sink anything bigger than a row boat but it will always sink any attempt to keep it from occupying dock space in the nation’s most uncritical harbors. The tragedy of the A-10 is that while its 30 mm GAU-8/A Avenger Gatling-type cannon can fire 3,900 rounds per minute, it is fatally crippled by its inability to divide power between critical supporting constituencies at a similarly devastating clip.
Idealists march in where angels know not to tread. However, the nation is better served by idealists with eyes pre-opened who will even live on dew and lichen gnawings if pushed to extremes. Those who maintain an iron curtain of idealistic obtuseness should be warned: Politics happens. You will be gamed.