Air University Review, July-August 1981

Military Reform: Past and Present

Lieutenant Colonel Walter Kross

This book is not just another one of many on defense.* James Fallow’s National Defense is part of a plan to reorder the U.S. military fundamentally. By necessity, therefore, Fallows’s work must be reviewed in a broader context: as part of the efforts of a small group of well-placed civilian analysts who want to recast the United States military in their preferred mold.

*James Fallows, National Defense (New York: Random House, 1981, $12.95), 205 pages.

A nation’s military is almost always in need of reform. In the past, reform usually came the hard way: the result of resounding defeat on the battlefield or social upheaval on the home front. The U.S. military—indeed, the nation’s defense establishment—is no exception.

There are two forms of contemporary military reform. Orthodox reform is well under way within the Department of Defense (DOD), impelled by the Reagan administration. The promised changes are orderly, evolutionary, and relate primarily to the two major management tools of DOD: the Planning-Programming-Budgeting System and the Weapon Acquisition Process. The success of these incremental changes remains uncertain: Even if the alterations take hold, cost analysts of the Office of Management and Budget will maintain more control over Air Force flying hours than does the Chief of Staff. Congressional staffers still will have more influence on pay and benefits than does the Secretary of Defense.

A second, more militarily pertinent reform movement is being fostered by a tight-knit, dedicated group of about a dozen defense critics called The Reformers.** Their professed purpose is to change U.S. military strategy, planning, tactics, and force structure in order to fight and win a modern theater war. They would markedly alter the way DOD prepares for war, establish significantly different war-fighting concepts and attendant force structure, and change the way weapons are developed and procured. Their motivation is simple: they are patriots who believe the United States will lose the next war unless their ideas are adopted.

** They chose the name "Reformers" themselves. The group is small but well placed: a few staffers in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, one in OMB, a few in Congress, several consultants, a few think-tanks intellectuals, and, of course, a few journalists, Falllows being the most prominent. Their combat experience is virtually nil, even including combat training experience. The Reformers mostly quote and footnote themselves, the same one dozen experts.

The Reformers’ assertions and recommendations appear very compelling, but are they valid? Is the movement sincere, or is it simply an attempt by a few bureaucrats to force their ideas on the military?

The Network

The Reformers have an effective network in Washington. They maintain a strong power base within government. From this vantage they hold the services at bay, blocking key programs they oppose—an important tactic in a period of unprecedented inflation. At the same time, the Reformers build their case amidst an environment of general bureaucratic apathy. Good connections both inside and outside of government enable the Reformers to market their views through their Washington network to decision-makers and the public.

The Reformers apply to bureaucratic war the very principles they seek to infuse into the military. This daily struggle is fought on the Reformers’ own terms. Their tactics are well timed, designed to keep the services off-balance. Meanwhile, they outmaneuver the services to undermine hard-won programs, usually in a forum where the services have little influence. As a result, a handful of critics is close to precipitating a fundamental change in U.S. military strategy and forces—not because they are necessarily right but because they make their case more persuasively in Congress and in the media than do the military services.

The Basic Creed

These defense critics have survived through several administrations. Last spring, their influence grew widespread because they were able to seize upon the major initiative of the Reagan administration: large increases in defense spending. Turning the issue to their advantage, the Reformers argue that blind increases in defense spending will not guarantee greater military capability. Instead, they say more spending could yield even less capability if we continue to buy expensive, complex, vulnerable weapons that are costly to operate. Our military leaders, they assert, are transfixed on a losers’ game: attrition warfare.

The Reformers suggest a different approach to modern war. First, military operations should rely on maneuver, deception, decentralized C3, and exploitation of the enemy’s weaknesses. Second, force structure should be recast to emphasize simpler, cheaper, more easily supportable weapons that really work in combat. In this way, the Reformers hold out the promise of more capability for less cost. There it is—more or less—a fiscal aphrodisiac guaranteed to gain widespread support, both inside government and with the public.

The Public Campaign

Enter James Fallows, the media point man for the movement. Two years ago, the Reformers, frustrated for years within DOD, decided to go public with their case. They began to tutor Fallows, Washington editor of Atlantic Month1y. In October 1979, Fallows published an article called "Muscle-Bound Superpower," a work laced with the Reformers’ creed. National Defense is a second-generation expansion of that first effort: more polished, more studied, and a reflection of the many hours he has spent with the Reformers’ inner circle.

National Defense has become the centerpiece of the Reformers’ public media campaign. The book is supplemented by a constant flow of newspaper and magazine articles, some written by journalists who pick up on the movement. Here, too, Fallows has played a strong role, mainly by presenting monthly excerpts from National Defense in Atlantic Monthly.

The relationship between Fallows and the Reformers is truly Faustian. He portrays them in a favorable light and carries their case to the public as only a gifted writer can. In return, they provide the seemingly compelling logic and stark examples Fallows needs to vault himself to the apex of defense journalism.

The Inner Circle

The Reformers have been around a long time. Four key members are worth noting. The central figure is retired Air Force Colonel John Boyd. A national asset, in Washington he is a rarity: a man measured by deeds. Air former fighter pilot, his pioneer work in applying the theory of energy maneuverability to practical tactics is still used extensively. More recently, he has analyzed military history in search of a formula for winning wars. His ideas are contained in a masterful four—hour briefing called "Patterns of Conflict." The cornerstone of the Reformers’ movement, it should be mandatory viewing for all Air Force officers. Nonetheless, like inventor Thomas Edison, Boyd has good ideas and poor ones. Today, he serves as consultant to a small OSD office.

If Boyd is the military messiah, then an OSD analyst named Chuck Spinney is his prime disciple. A former Air Force engineering officer. Spinney, too, has a four-hour briefing. Using tacair as the prime example, this briefing is boundless indictment of the military’s fixation with oversophisticated, overcomplex weaponry. Entitled "Defense Facts of Life," it is the most publicized work of the Reformers. If Boyd’s work is the Rosetta Stone, then Spinney’s is the National Enquirer—about as accurate and just as out of context. Nonetheless, the briefing gets high marks from those unfamiliar with the tactical air forces and their missions.

The third important member of the Reformers is Pierre Sprey, the bureaucrat emeritus of the movement. A former DOD analyst, Sprey is well known as an uncompromising maverick. His long-standing connections in Washington open many doors for the Reformers. Sprey and some other Reformers have written a pamphlet entitled, "Reforming the Military," published under the auspices of the Heritage Foundation, a prominent think-tank.

A fourth Reformer has been as much a catalyst as Sprey. He is William Lind, congressional staffer for Senator Gary Hart. Lind, a noted defense critic, facilitates the movement on Capitol Hill.

The Charges

National Defense is a definitive statement of the reasons why the Reformers are gaining strength. Fallows declares three major themes. First, our national defense is being borne away by theory and is losing touch with facts, historical experience, and common sense. Second, the conduct of war and preparations to avoid it are unique and must be understood on their own terms. And third, the truly urgent military questions have little to do with how much money we spend.

Fallows states his assertions well. They crystallize the important issues confronting the U.S. defense establishment today. These important issues can be distilled into five basic charges:

In the end, Fallows proposes restoration of the military spartan spirit, procurement of cheaper weapons that work, and encouragement of more skeptical reason in strategic nuclear theology. Above all else, Fallows argues for greater coherence in the way the nation makes its choices for defense.

Fallows—and the Reformers—are on target in several important areas. Most assuredly, the rising cost of weapons must be harnessed, but without harsh penalties in capability. Also, the officer corps could put more emphasis on war-fighting leadership and less on management skills. And, the draft seems the only way to interest the white middle class in military service—short of war for a very popular cause.

Yet, in substantiating his basic themes and charges, Fallows’s logic breaks down because his perspective is incomplete. As he proceeds, he displays the naiveté of a defense journalist inexperienced in his subject but intellectually captured by a singular set of unbalanced values. But to many readers, Fallows’s onesidedness is lost amidst his fine turn of phrase, sensational examples, and frequent footnotes. Sadly, Fallows rarely leaves the shallows of investigative journalism.

The Myths

In several crucial ways, Fallows and the Reformers do the military and the public a disservice by creating some myths and perpetuating others.

Myth: Our senior military officers are a cut below their counterparts in other walks of life. Our defense situation reflects the quality of our military leadership. In support, Fallows writes:

Most of today’s generals and admirals are men who got there because they were procurement wizards, or adept at punching their tickets, or careful not to make waves. Simply on a human level, I was struck by how little "edge" most of the generals seemed to have to their characters, how bland most of them seemed, not only in comparison with the captains and colonels beneath them, but also compared to successful men and women in other fields—politicians, doctors, businessmen, teachers, and writers. (p. 122)

Alternative: Fallows and the Reformers display a contempt for military leaders rarely expressed so openly by those largely serving in government. As one who consciously avoided service, Fallows himself cannot indict today’s general officers without being openly challenged.

The present general officer corps is more diverse than ever before, a reflection of our many missions and necessary government requirements. Compared to their predecessors, today’s officers are better educated. They have been exposed to a wider range of conflict, including three wars. The competing demands on the resources under their control is greater than ever. These officers have experienced, and been party to, an exponential growth in weapon performance that is well beyond the comprehension of their successors.

Our general officer corps has its share of men whose vision and talent rival the Marshalls and Arnolds and whose warrior spirit equals the Pattons of the past. Only history and circumstance will single them out—not the Atlantic Monthly.

Myth: The military wants to quantify everything and tends to ignore decisive factors that cannot be reduced to numbers.

Alternative: This is closely related to the first myth. In the name of civilian control, micro-management by OSD, OMB, and Congress has slowly pressed the military professionalism into the bureaucrat mold. Endless reviews by civilian staffs cost time and money. Many officers want to extol the importance of factors like flexibility and shock effect and tactics, but the civilian staffers will not tolerate anything that cannot be quantified. Even the Reformers operating within government will stand repeatedly on analytical grounds to block programs they oppose. C3 and electronic warfare programs are cases in point. "Paralysis by analysis" has been inflicted from the top. Now it pervades the officer corps. As a result, many uniformed professionals lose initiative, creative drive, and motivation.

Myth: The military is obsessed with attrition war and ignores the value of maneuver to exploit enemy weakness.

Fallows says that ever since the Civil War, our battle strategies have been based on attrition. He says the Soviet Union can endure head-to-head attrition war better than the United States, and we must use a different approach to prevail.

Alternative: This popular charge is more a Reformer tactic than a reality. It makes the military look intellectually rigid, too flat-footed to deal with modern war.

Actually, maneuver is an integral part of modern military planning and operations. Yet it cannot be an end in itself. Maneuver must set up something else: confusion, delay, disruption, or the high certainty of attrition you if do no cooperate. History includes many examples of smart maneuvers that could not be capitalized on by a Sunday punch. Stonewall Jackson’s Shenandoah campaign is a good example.

The Reformers’ distrust of technology clouds their vision. They cannot see the major contribution today’s weapons make to maneuver strategy and tactics. Theater level flank operations are commonplace. Air power itself is the essence of maneuver in theater-wide operations. Airlift can be a decisive maneuver factor through rapid movement of a small potent force. On the battlefield, covering and trapping operations are a way of life. Air Force close air support is a powerful maneuver element, moving among important battles as needed. Attack helicopters make land armor look static by comparison. Battlefield interdiction operations are designed to disrupt the enemy’s building forces, thus weakening, delaying, and even deterring an armored thrust.

Recognizing that we cannot match the Soviets weapon for weapon, our forces place high priority on exploiting enemy weakness. We plan to attack the enemy’s central nervous system through counter-C3, defense suppression, and special operations. The Reformers oppose many service programs that support modern military maneuver.

Myth: History proves that increased defense spending will not be available. The military should recognize this fact of life. In support, Fallows states that defense spending has been held to a narrow range since the Eisenhower era: $125 billion, plus or minus $10 billion (1980 dollars).

Alternative: Fiscal fatalism is a dangerous, self-fulfilling prophecy. In fact, spending exceeded the high limit in eleven of those years. As a percent of GNP, defense spending has decreased from about nine to five percent. Since 1970, the Soviets have outspent us by $300 billion. Their spending exceeded ours by

50 percent in 1980 alone. The defense increases proposed by President Reagan do not close this gap but only hold it constant.

There is a chicken-egg concept here. Many of the maladies cited by the Reformers are actually the result of the meager fiscal commitment of the 1970s in the face of growing requirements. This crunch posed unacceptable choices—especially in tacair. In the early 1970s, Air Force leaders knew we had to modernize our 1950s/’60s vintage fighter force worn out by Vietnam. But there was not enough money for both modernization and full readiness. The decision was made to modernize first, then restore full readiness. Then unforeseen and unprecedented inflation hit the readiness accounts hard. To hedge against uncertainty, modernization was slowed, but readiness was not substantially increased. The result was higher aircraft procurement costs and low spare-parts inventories. Pay and benefits began to lag inflation, causing good people to leave and others not to join. About this time, the Reformers began to exploit the condition, which reached a nadir in early 1980. Since then, the defense increases of 1981 and 1982 have dramatically helped modernization rates, readiness accounts, and pay.

Myth: Only the Reformers can interpret history correctly. The officer corps is historically illiterate.

Alternative: The Reformers see what they want to see in history. They ignore historical lessons of weather, sound offensive counterair and electronic warfare operations, and a balanced quality/quantity force structure. Fortunately for the Israelis in 1967 and 1973, they did not misinterpret history.

The Reformers venerate General Heinz Guderian because he put a radio and a radio operator in each German tank in 1940. Yet they oppose modern equivalents of this important action. Had they been on the German General Staff in 1935, they might have accused Guderian of being fixated on overcentralization and high technology. In his book, Fallows uses a chart to illustrate the futility of modern military C3, but the chart has fewer nodes and links than any small business in America.

Myth: History shows that numbers are the dominant factor in air combat.

Alternative: The power of Colonel Boyd’s tactical insights notwithstanding, the most decisive factor in air combat in Korea may well have been the quality built into the F-86. Its hydraulic controls enabled the F-86 to change combat maneuvers faster—the origin and heart of Boyd’s theories — than the MiG-15, which had only manual wire and rod controls.

Other factors are important. In Korea we achieved a 10 to 1 kill ratio by fighting over neutral territory near the range limit of the MiG. We fought against a backward nation probably too far out in front of itself in technology with the MiG-15 and ground radar. In Korea, we were not numerically dominant, but the qualitative superiority of our pilots gave us a considerable edge.

By contrast, in World War II and Vietnam we achieved only a 2 to 1 kill ratio. We were numerically dominate, posing many targets to an enemy who chose his battles carefully. Most important, we carried the fight to the enemy’s heartland, into his GCI/ground defense/interceptor net. Perhaps these factors are as important as numbers. Korea is not the simple base line it seems.

Myth: Air Combat Evaluation/Air Intercept and Missile Evaluation (ACEVAL/AIMVAL) is the true predictor for modern air combat, and only the Reformers know how to interpret it.

Alternative: The Air Force and Navy learned more lessons from ACEVAL/AIMVAL than did the Reformers. First, we learned that our current medium-range missile was a handicap to our longer-range shooters, the F-15/F-14s. It was slow, and it drew our best aircraft into visual dogfights unnecessarily. This prove a major disadvantage particularly when faced with a revolutionary, point-and-shoot weapon:

the fast, all-aspect infrared missile. As a result, we initiated the advanced medium range air-to-air missile program to produce a fast launch-and-leave missile for firing beyond visual range. Second, we validated that enemy GCI has to be neutralized. Third, we confirmed how important it is to retain first-shot advantage over a numerically superior enemy. Fourth, we learned the need for new tactics. Fifth, we learned the importance of beyond-visual-range identification. Sixth, we learned the importance of superior pilot skills. Even so, the F-15s and F-14s had a superior exchange ratio to the F-5 in ACEVAL/AIMVAL—a battle fought over neutral territory in clear weather by pilots of equal skill well within range of all aircraft.

The Reformers learned different lessons: buy only cheap, visual dogfighters and abandon the beyond-visual-range air battle as a hopeless concept.

Fallows says that intangible factors are often decisive. He is right, but he ignores some obvious ones. Israeli experience belies the ACEVAL conclusion that, in many air battles, numbers dominate and complex weapons are a handicap. The Israelis have defeated numerically superior enemies, whipping them with U.S. aircraft and missiles that the Reformers oppose. And, at this writing, the F-15 is still undefeated in air combat. In fact, the Israelis have repeatedly beaten air forces which were heavily equipped with the

MiG-21, an aircraft almost identical to the Reformers’ favorite, the F-5.

The Reformers’ overemphasis on ACEVAL/AIMVAL distorts the scope of modern theater war. They would have the public believe that the visual air battle is the decisive activity. It is crucial, but so are other missions. Historically, 90 percent of all aircraft are lost to ground fire. We must prepare well for many missions under many conditions.

Myth: Compared to simpler aircraft of World War II and Korea, today’s complex weapons are in a poor state of readiness and are virtually unmaintainable.

Alternative: This is a very large myth, unsupported by combat experience. Sortie rates in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam did not exceed 1.0 sorties per day for any 30-day period. Modern aircraft can sustain higher rates. Last year, the Air Force demonstrated that its two most sophisticated all-weather fighters, the F-111 and F-15, could exceed their planned rates. Despite being limited to partial operations by the host European nations, the F-111 flew twice its wartime rate, and the F-15 averaged more than three sorties daily for two weeks.

Fallows uses a chart to indict F-15 maintainability. Even the old data used showed the F-15 broke down less often and required less manpower than its predecessor, the F-4. The F-15 has continued to mature, and more recent data show the newer F-15C/Ds require about half the maintenance of the F-4E.

Fallows cites Colonel Everest Riccioni’s argument that the F-15s are a "phantom fleet," producing only one-tenth the sorties as an equal-cost F-5E force. But his cost figures and sortie rates are debatable. Slight adjustments in the ratios yield an equal number of sorties for both planes. Still, the number of raw sorties per dollar is a poor measure—combat-effective sorties is the goal. The F-5E is a point defense interceptor capable of guarding a small area on a nice day. How useful would it have been in the Battle of the Bulge when air power was crucial? Good weather fighters flew .5-.8 sorties per day in December 1943-June 1944.

Myth: The United States Air Force pursues technology for its own sake to the exclusion of quantity and simplicity.

Alternative: We pursue sophistication when needed for the mission. Our all-weather air-to-air fighter (the F-15) and our all-weather attack aircraft (the F-111) constitute only 19 percent of our fighter force. From 1975 to 1986, we will modernize our force with F-15s, F-16s, and A-l0s: about 3000 aircraft. Only about 800 will be F-15s, the rest are simple, basic day-visual fighters. We will selectively modify some of the F-16s and A-10s with extra capability, but only as needed.

Dealing with Reform

These and other myths demonstrate the lack of analytical balance in National Defense. That Fallows and the Reformers have gone unchallenged is testimony to both their bureaucratic skill and the apathy of the officer corps.

Still, the Reformers’ movement is a fact of life. The military services must deal with it effectively. Otherwise, the military will jeopardize its role in determining strategy, tactics, and force structure within the U.S. defense establishment.

There are some important steps that the military services should take in the face of attempted reform.

Like it or not, National Defense is with us. Its controversial nature has generated reactions which vary from reverence to revulsion. In the final analysis, National Defense is an important statement of the Reformers’ case, and it is receiving wide acclaim. In this sense, it is the most significant book on defense in recent years.

The U.S. defense establishment always needs reform—but in moderation. The fear of many professionals is that these particular Reformers have gone beyond the bounds of moderation in both method and objective. The Reformers might better be called the "Replacers," because they would have the military trade one set of problems for another. In doing so, they pose a serious threat to us all.



Lieutenant Colonel Walter Kross (B.S., Niagara University; M.S., Auburn University; M.S., Southern Illinois University) is a research fellow at National Defense University. He has flown both tactical and airlift aircraft, including the F-4, C-141, VC-135, and VC-137, with 157 combat missions (100 over North Vietnam). He has served as a staff officer in the Tactical Forces Division, Directorate of plans, Hq USAF, and as a member of the CSAF Staff Group. Colonel Kross is a Distinguished Graduate of Squadron Officer School and Air Command and Staff College and a graduate of Air War College.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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