A military family feud is spilling into the headlines just as the Biden budget wars heat up behind closed doors. While this is unfortunate, it is also expected as uniformed leaders try to shape the narrative and frame the debate for policymakers.
The more interesting discussion, however, is the one going on between the service chiefs and the combatant commanders, which for the moment, appears pretty one-sided. Generals Berger and Brown have spilled ink now in two prominent publications to make their case that a longer-view needs to be taken on readiness, regional commanders’ demands for forces, and reprioritized investments toward competition with China. The Commandant of the Marine Corps and Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force have made a compelling case that now must be addressed and answered.
Overcoming ‘The Tyranny of the Now’
At the Pentagon, the inbox always wins. In a world of unsteady peace, the military is as busy as ever—steaming, flying, and driving all over the world every day to deter would-be enemies, assure friends and partners, and be present to train, exercise and be available should something flare up in regions of interest. In the words of a former Deputy Secretary of Defense, the result is one where “the Pentagon has been unable to treat regional combatant commander requests for forces as “desirements“ rather than “requirements.” So, the default answer for requests for forces is “yes.”’
Thankfully, Congress is paying attention. A bipartisan group of lawmakers, led by Rep. Rob Wittman (R-VA), has called for Pentagon leaders to scrutinize the mission demands placed on the United States military, treating the current strain on the services with needed seriousness. The members rightly identify the causes and consequences of unrestricted requests for forces from Combatant Commanders (COCOMs) and ask a series of smart questions regarding the nature of how additional force requests are managed, evaluated, and might be revised in the future. Much of this effort deserves applause, but three key recommendations merit particular commendation.
Overdue Task Prioritization in Alignment with the Defense Strategy
Congress wants reprioritization by defense leaders. They write that each additional Request for Forces (RFF) from COCOMs outside the Global Force Management Plan (GFMAP) should be considered “based on the extent to which it represents necessary mission, activity and task prioritization in alignment with the [National Defense Strategy].” That is exactly right, and all too often, the answer disappoints.
The Pentagon has a poor record of “just saying no” to missions that do not directly align with achieving the current defense strategy's objectives. Partly, this is because leaders underexplore the tradeoffs required to execute the objectives of the strategy. Those choices should be articulated clearly, spelling out how the military is expected to engage with an international security environment defined by accelerating great power competition, particularly with a flat or declining budget topline. The secretary of defense should be leading this conversation, getting service chiefs and combatant commanders on the same page about the relative value of the U.S. military’s various wide-ranging missions around the world.
Understanding and Balancing Short v. Long-Term Risk
Aligning the expectations of the services and combatant commanders is no mean feat. As the lawmakers laid out, service chiefs and commanders negotiate a balancing act between “assessing long-term risk if the force is not sufficiently modernized, and the short-term risk face by the COCOMs if their demands go unmet.” The members also identify one of the fundamental tension points in this dynamic—the demand signal from COCOMs.
The members correctly write, "COCOMs have few incentives to be frugal in their force requests, leading to an overtaxing and overworking of the services in an attempt to fulfill COCOM demands when the SECDEF approves an expansive number of RFFs." To this end, targeting the RFF approval process is a smart and critical first step, but the work will not end here.
In early 2021, Air Force Chief of Staff General Charles “CQ” Brown and the Commandant of the Marine Corps coauthored an op-ed in the Washington Post, followed by another foot-stomp last month with War on the Rocks. The leaders explained the need to redefine readiness to also account for the enablement of the future force, manage high operations tempo, and rethink the balance of risk across stakeholders. Refreshingly and presciently, Gen. Brown, in particular, has advocated using data-driven models to inform such decisions and engaging with legislators early. This letter from members should be read as a positive sign that service chiefs are finding a receptive audience on Capitol Hill.
Burning Through the Force Serves No One Well
Lawmakers identified the core consequences of inaction on these issues: “The ‘tyranny of the now’ is wearing out man and machine at too high a rate to ensure success both now and later.” As the members detailed, years of such unmitigated force requests that lack prioritization and tradeoffs have resulted in consistently high operational tempos across the services with obvious, negative outcomes. The National Commission on Military Aviation Safety, for example, found that a “relentless” optempo is “leading to unsafe practices and (is) driving experienced aviators and maintainers out” of service. Reducing the demands on the force is one part of the fix and key to halting the current downward spiral. The next step will be for Congress to provide consistent funding to regain lost ground.
This letter has continued a conversation that will continue throughout the year as Congress drafts the defense policy bill. The Pentagon’s response to the questions should be considered mandatory reading. Depending on the answers from the Pentagon, it may just be time for Congress to legislate action to better balance the here-and-now with winning the long-term competition. A series of sprints will not be enough to prevail in this competition marathon.