Really Best Military Advice

Embracing political process—not avoiding arguments—is the path to better decisions

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Last month, the RAND Corporation issued a report intended to help the Department of Defense “understand the current character of interservice competition and how service culture impacts the ways in which the military services posture themselves to secure institutional relevance.” DoD’s Office of Net Assessment sponsored the study, whose authors somehow concluded that the department’s premier strategists needed someone to read Carl Builder’s Masks of War for them.

Builder’s 30-year-old RAND study found that each service’s distinct character and culture inform its strategic outlook and make it resistant to rational changes or compromises that challenge that outlook. Builder and the RAND analysts who dusted off his thinking are right to emphasize the importance of culture. But culture alone cannot explain why our military services have trouble with change today.

When the unit of analysis is a branch of the military, everything that informs service culture—history and myth, tribes and traditions—clearly informs service decisions. For example, because the modern Marine Corps was forged in the carnage of battles where help from other services was lacking, organic fire support for Marine units is now a service mantra. This is how the Navy’s Army ends up with its own Air Force, among other peculiarities of America’s selectively joint fighting force.

When we look at how uniformed officers engage with civilian leaders in the executive branch and Congress, however, service masks of war become less important than the concept of best military advice (BMA). BMA is by definition an up-and-out perspective that seeks to separate internally developed recommendations from higher-level political decisions.

An often ignored byproduct of BMA is a broader skepticism toward making decisions in a collaborative or transparent way. Rather than culture-fueled rivalries, the expansion of BMA into a broader neglect of political dialogue inside or outside the ranks may be the larger factor promoting bad decisions and eroding the credibility needed to enact good decisions.

BMA: Politics as a problem

Military leaders and many civilian observers often frame BMA as the best way to assert the principle of civilian control: generals advise; secretaries and presidents decide. Others view BMA as something that cannot be disentangled from civilian decision-making, since the expansive role of military operations in U.S. foreign policy and the relative popularity and expertise of military leaders makes it difficult for elected officials to ignore their generals. Still others argue that BMA is calculated to win support for the military’s preferred options by painting them as informed, rational, and altruistic reflections of hard realities, in contrast to the presumably naïve, emotional, and partisan positions of civilians.


What all these perspectives on BMA have in common is the military’s actual or rhetorical retreat from political process. In this view, if policy is a football, a military staff marches down the field to carry the ball to the red zone. Then the policy is handed off to a squad of politicians and civilian appointees, whose job is to score by aligning BMA with national objectives, other instruments of national power, and political will.

If the ball makes it in the end zone, the pols can take the credit. If the pols don’t deliver, no one can argue that the military squad didn’t do its best to put them in scoring position. Either way, military officials are shielded from the consequences of anything that happens in the political red zone.

While this metaphor oversimplifies the reality of senior officers who always have at least one foot in the political ring, it underscores the attractiveness of BMA as the one mask of war that rules them all. It also suggests how BMA can inform military discourse not only up the chain of command but down and outside it as well.

Fundamentally, BMA is not a simple deference to civilian authority. It is a philosophy that a military leader in the position to offer BMA can avoid or end any argument by asserting that they have played their full part in the political process. They have provided their best advice, and if there are other, better ideas then eventually someone else will voice them, and decision-makers will choose.

Insurgencies within services: Air Force fighters

The problem with BMA’s aversion to arguing as a leadership style is that more and more U.S. military personnel want to argue. They expect their leaders to follow them into arguments and remain open to persuasion and compromise. A leader who abandons argument becomes difficult to distinguish from a leader who has abandoned his (and it’s almost always his) followers.

There are many examples of how avoiding arguments has eroded trust within the military services. Many soldiers and Marines question why their excellence in combat and strategies their commanders endorse have failed to move America close to anything that could be described as success in Iraq or Afghanistan. Sailors are worried about the Navy’s handling of fleet safety concerns. No one seems happy that military families needed to get reporters and Congress involved in fixing military housing issues. But for a short case study of the BMA phenomenon, we’ll focus on what has happened within the Air Force’s fighter community.

In Builder’s analysis, the Air Force’s strategic outlook is driven by the now familiar boys-with-toys mentality that considers aerospace technology and innovation as the best path toward gaining and maintaining U.S. military advantage. That facade has cracked in recent years, however, as senior officers who prefer to stay out of the political red zone have unintentionally fed insurgencies among Airmen who want to play politics, or feel they need to with leaders who equate a narrowly informed position with BMA.

The Air Force’s infamous decision to retire the A-10 Warthog offers a case in point. In retrospect, the move is remembered as a kind of validation of Builder’s thesis. In this telling, the Air Force wanted a new, sleek, fast fighter, the F-35. To pay for it, the service proposed to chuck the A-10, an aging, slow, ugly titanium bathtub that started as a tank killer but became a mainstay of air support to ground troops.

But the A-10 debate actually started as a textbook case of BMA. The joint community had committed to buying the F-35 for future wars. Under spending caps imposed by the Budget Control Act, the Air Force only had money and people to operate three fighter fleets: its F-22 and F-15 air superiority fighters, its multi-role F-16 fighters, and the older and more highly specialized A-10s. If one fleet had to go to make way for F-35s, then the rational choice was the A-10.

The Air Force’s position against the A-10 was not just a case of fighter pilots employing a BMA argument against sister services or civilian leaders, however. It was a case of fighter pilots using BMA to take on themselves.

Some of the most prominent critics of the move were part of the tribe: former Navy pilot Sen. John McCain; former A-10 pilot Martha McSally, who was elected to the House of Representatives in part on a platform focused on saving the plane; and Sen. Kelly Ayotte, whose husband was an A-10 pilot. Warthog pilots flocked to social media to oppose the decision, leading rather than lagging the soldiers and Marines who piled on to the issue.

In January 2015, Maj. Gen. James Post, the vice commander of Air Combat Command, told an audience of fighter pilots they would be “committing treason” if they lobbied Congress to keep the A-10. While Post’s outburst may have been unthinking, the crafted apology he issued after his removal was telling: “The objective of my comment was simply meant to focus the attention of the audience on working within the command's constraints.” In other words, the decision should be interpreted as fiscally informed BMA, not as a political debate.

The A-10 had been tactical airpower’s darling in two wars in Iraq and a third in Afghanistan. Pilots’ careers were centered on mastering the aircraft and the close air support mission. Yet the Air Force’s decision arrived without much prior dialogue with affected Airmen and with no clear plan for preserving careers or warfighting expertise. The reaction from the A-10 community was predictable, so why did the Air Force fail to lead with concern for its own?

Drawing from Builder and the more recent RAND report’s findings about internal battles among Air Force specialties, we could ignore the BMA themes in the debate and conclude that this was a conflict of tribes within the tribe. One side was fighter pilots devoted to keeping the skies safe for other airplanes. They were opposed by more marginal fighter pilots devoted to using firepower to support troops on the ground. Since the air superiority tribe was more powerful, it could move forward with plans to divest the A-10 and brand the close air support tribe as traitors.

The tribal interpretation doesn’t hold up, however, when we look at both older and newer controversies within the smaller air superiority community itself.

In 2010, the Air Force’s investigation into a crash that killed a respected F-22 Raptor pilot, Capt. Jeff Haney, lasted six months and was held from public release for another five months. The report’s findings failed to convince a small but growing number of pilots who had concerns about the jet’s safety, which they aired on 60 Minutes on the advice of Congressman Adam Kinzinger, himself an Air Force pilot. Only months of additional investigation—which notably involved many F-22 pilots and maintainers in a comprehensive, collaborative search for a root cause—was able to restore confidence in the aircraft.

More recently, the Air Force flagged its intent to supplement an investment in new F-35s with the purchase of less advanced F-15Xs. Once again, the backlash has emerged from within the tribe, notably from the Heritage Foundation’s J.V. Venable, a former F-16 pilot, and from retired Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula, a former F-15 pilot.

Beyond BMA: Communicate, decide, communicate

There’s a long tradition of dissent within the U.S. military, but the nature and frequency of the kind of intraservice insurgencies seen in the Air Force—and the wider breakdown in political dialogue on military matters elsewhere—suggest that something has changed.

The military services Builder examined at the end of the Cold War were different from today’s branches in three important ways. First, almost all U.S. military personnel are volunteers with no recollection of a draft. Second, most of them have been at war for the entire length of their service. Third, they have access to social media networks that provide information and personal connections extending well beyond traditional unit or community boundaries. They know how war works, they will find out what you don’t tell them, they will address real or perceived injustices at the speed of tweets, and if necessary they will vote with their feet.

Today’s troops have real experiences and real power that merit real respect. That respect is not demonstrated by making a major decision in an echo chamber then garnishing it with a public assertion that it was made on behalf of the troops. Instead, leaders earn respect by involving troops in major decisions. This level of involvement transcends thorough staff work, because staff officers mostly serve to inform and advance the professional judgments of generals. Now and in the future, generals need to think more deeply and more transparently about how they advance a position that best approximates the collective judgment of the men and women they command, with significant deviations explained. In other words, generals will need to treat decision-making as a political process even before it reaches civilian leaders.

BMA has enshrined a two-step flow of information: decide, then communicate. Military leaders decide what their BMA will be and communicate that to civilian leaders and their military personnel. Civilians make their decision and communicate that back to the military and to the public.

As the world moves us beyond BMA, legitimate decisions on important and complex issues can only emerge from a process that involves a three-step flow: communicate, decide, communicate. We will need to replace or supplement internal bureaucracy with the messy external engagements that characterize political life: listening tours, debates, surveys, public investigations, and much more.

Above all, military leaders must be willing to see that the best military advice is not the unsullied ideas in their heads. The best military advice is the idea that’s been thrown into the world and kicked around by challenges and compromises until it is no longer recognizable but still stands. The best military advice—the really best military advice—belongs to us all.

Col. Tadd Sholtis (USAF) is the author of "Military Strategy as Public Discourse: America’s War in Afghanistan" (2014) and the editor of the Words at War blog.  

The opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

This article appeared originally at Words at War.

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