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Posted on Jan 11, 2012 in War College

Ralph Peters: Our New, Old Defense Strategy: President Obama Resurrects Early Rumsfeld-era Priorities

By Ralph Peters

Sgt. Joshua Oakley of 25th Infantry Division pulls rear security while on patrol in the village of Shengazi, Afghanistan on Jan. 3. (Army Sgt. Michael Blalack)

Neither supporters nor detractors of President Obama expected him to align his military-spending policy with the pre-9/11 priorities of former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Yet, when the president made a rare trip to the Pentagon earlier this month to announce his administration’s position on where the dollars should go, Rumsfeld’s ghost hovered over him with a grin.

All references to this alarming shift in budget priorities from overwhelmed troops to overpriced toys as a “defense strategy” are deceptive, despite generalities about focusing on East Asia. This is a budget strategy. And the strategy aims to keep taxpayer dollars flowing to defense-industry giants at the expense of those who fight.


Easily our worst secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld came to the office in early 2001 determined to slash supposedly unnecessary Soldiers and Marines from the rolls in order to re-orient spending toward a hi-tech force that would win wars neatly from the sea and sky. The real agenda ― always popular in Washington ― was simply to channel money to favored defense contractors. There was no strategic vision for the defense of our country and our interests, merely a redirection of funds to profiteers.

Everyone knows what happened next: We actually had to go to war in Afghanistan. Then we chose to go to war in Iraq. Both operations depended on “warm bodies,” either special operations forces or the significant numbers of troops required for occupation and counter-insurgency operations. Apart from UAVs (drones), the latest hi-tech weapons were irrelevant. The F-22, a multi-role fighter that costs over $300-million per airframe, was touted cynically as a tool to win the War on Terror, but has yet to fly one combat mission over contested territory.

When the chips are down, the demand for troops goes up. The Pentagon had to scramble to mobilize Reserve and National Guard units and individual replacements, deploying and re-deploying them at a pace no one had planned for. Active components scrambled to expand as combat, military police and intelligence personnel soon were exhausted. Standards slipped and oversight weakened. As a result, sociopaths were able to create havoc and headlines, from the clique of renegade guards at Abu Ghraib prison, to the grotesque PFC Bradley Manning, who abused his intelligence-analyst access to provide Wiki-leaks with the greatest compromise of classified information since Soviet agents penetrated the Manhattan Project.

Why, then, are we rushing to slash active duty and reserve-component Soldiers and Marines by up to 150,000 in the initial cuts? The answer is: Soldiers and Marines don’t fund elections or provide congressional-district voting blocks. Politicians from both parties love to visit troops (in safe locations) and pose for patriotic photographs to insert in their mailings to voters back home. On Capitol Hill, Democrats and Republicans alike miss no opportunity to wrap themselves in the flag and praise our troops. But when it comes time to vote on a budget, the defense-industry lobbyists win every single time, ballyhooing home-district jobs, contributions to political action committees (PACs) and revolving-door jobs for those who aren’t re-elected.

President (and former general) Dwight D. Eisenhower warned of the insidious effects of the “defense-industrial complex.” (Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library)A half-century ago, President (and former general) Dwight D. Eisenhower warned of the insidious effects of the “defense-industrial complex.” His draft of that speech spoke of the “defense-industrial-congressional complex,” but he deleted the word “congressional” because he didn’t want another fight with Capitol Hill so late in his last term. But Ike was right then, and he’s right with a vengeance now.

While there are many honorable defense contractors who deliver quality goods and services, the industry giants have crushed key competition for big-ticket sales, leaving us with de facto cartels. And it gets worse: What we have in the defense trade is, essentially, legalized corruption. Two decades ago, Congress permitted leading defense-industry figures to draft the contracting legislation the members went on to approve. And so we got outrageous scams, such as “cost-plus” contracts, which incentivized driving costs up to increase the amounts paid as profits, as well as recently revealed provisions that make the taxpayer liable to pay for the replacement of defective parts used on major weapons systems by the defense industry.

The ugly truth is this: When Washington insiders are scrambling for “their share” of 600-billion dollars, there is no one ― no one ― to stand up for Private Snuffy, Sergeant Rock or Captain Jinks. The average member of Congress will sacrifice an Infantry battalion to preserve a couple of do-nothing jobs back home. But when we go to war again, by George, they’ll praise the troops they send to die with weapons that don’t work as advertised. And the same politicians who voted to cut troop strength will be “shocked, shocked” by our lack of readiness to field an adequate force.

No one would argue that grunts are all we need. That said, we’ll always need grunts. We’ve been through this time and again: In the interwar period, we were told by the prophets of airpower that wars would be won from the skies ― but G.I. Joe still had to cross the Rhine. In the wake of the effect of two atomic bombs on the collapsing Japanese war effort (thank you, Marines and Soldiers), we were again told that Infantry combat was a thing of the past. So we went to Korea woefully unprepared, with clerks who hadn’t qualified with their rifles sent to the front lines to fight. Korea was an Infantryman’s war. Nonetheless, even the Eisenhower era saw the rise of concepts such as the “Pentomic Army,” a stripped down force expected to do little more than clean-up operations on a nuclear battlefield. Then we went to Vietnam. And Vietnam was an infantryman’s war. Even our minor operations across the decades ― Grenada, Lebanon, Somalia, the Balkans ― demanded boots on the ground. Yet, Secretary Rumsfeld came to office convinced that grunts were anachronisms. Then we went to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Now President Obama and his paladins tell us that we’ll never again involve ourselves in wars that resemble Afghanistan or Iraq, that the new strategic cockpit is the western Pacific, and hi-tech Navy and Air Force assets will carry the load.

No doubt. Just as we didn’t need Infantrymen on Guadalcanal, New Guinea, Iwo Jima, Tarawa, the Philippines, Okinawa, or anyplace else in the Pacific…

Of course, we need more than just grunts. With our unavoidable global responsibilities and the consequent need to be prepared for a wide range of contingencies, we need balanced forces. As a former Army enlisted man and officer, I want a mighty Air Force. I also believe that the United States must remain the paramount naval power: As Sir Walter Raleigh noted four centuries ago, he who rules the oceans rules the world. In an age of hyper-globalized trade, that’s truer than ever.

But we need to wean ourselves from the seductive illusion of bloodless techno-wars, the absurd claim that a major enemy (China, for example) could be driven to submission by a few weeks of pinprick strikes on select facilities. In World War II, we bombed every major German city flat ― and the Nazi regime didn’t quit until G.I. Joe shook hands with Ivan on a bridgehead over the Elbe. And devastating bombing campaigns against the Japanese mainland failed to reduce Tokyo’s determination to fight it out. Only the shock of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war in the Pacific ― and we refuse to use such weapons today. Do we really believe that our likeliest big-war opponents would give up after a couple of strategic gnat-bites? Airpower couldn’t even topple a thug like Saddam Hussein. And while NATO airpower helped the Libyan rebels, those insurgents still had to fight their way into Tripoli on the ground.

As I wrote back in 1994, the paradox of our technologically wondrous age is that it intensifies human discontents. Our usual-suspect opponents have fundamental obsessions with religion, ethnicity and territory that excite them to stunning violence. And human violence of this sort requires a human response ― often a well-trained Soldier or Marine.

January 1951. Men of the 19th Infantry Regiment work their way over  snowy mountains attempting to locate enemy lines and positions during the Korean War. (National Archives)Meanwhile, the big-ticket systems the air and sea services continue to buy as grunts are cut have reached a point of diminishing returns. We not only get ever less bang for the buck (or billion), but face new vulnerabilities that undercut our traditional doctrines. Consider just two examples: Our Air Force continues to pursue ever more expensive fighters, even though that means a much smaller force with reduced staying power. Instead of conducting honest war games that consider what shape those fragile aircraft ― hangar queens every one ― would be in in six months, a year or two years into a war, we pretend that any big war will be short. But there is no precedent for short big wars. A war with China might become a new Trojan War, dragging on for a decade or even longer.

Meanwhile, contractors evade their wartime responsibilities. We do not demand that every weapons contract contain mobilization provisions specifying how the contractor would continue to produce parts and additional complete systems in a long war — during which our homeland might be under assault (cyber or otherwise). Contractors can source parts from around the world, even from countries (such as Japan) that would be unable to export anything under some scenarios. As the USA entered WWII, one of our greatest advantages was that talented Army officers had spent years studying how to mobilize our industry and drawing up detailed plans to turn plowshares into swords. We have no such plans today. The assumption is that, if we go to war, business will go on as usual. We’re evading a fundamental requirement for the effective defense of our nation.

Numbers matter, too. It doesn’t mean much if one of our aircraft theoretically can shoot down twelve enemy fighters, if the enemy can put thirteen in the air against us. We have lost all focus on the need for weapons to be affordable ― or robust or even appropriate.

As for our Navy, it needs more ships, not fewer. But the age of the super-carrier is ending as far as big wars go. Back in the 1990s, I wrote that the way to sink one of our carriers is to overwhelm its defenses with swarm attacks. Several years ago, a retired Marine general did exactly that in a war game ― but his tactic was disregarded as some kind of cheat. Now the Iranians have threatened to use exactly those tactics ― swarm attacks with missiles, aircraft, boats and even suicide planes. Even if the Iranians can’t get it together (but don’t write them off), in a great-power war our Navy is apt to find itself on the wrong side in the next Battle of Midway.

Super-carriers are magnificent peacetime tools. They’re great in little wars, too. But each year they come closer to obsolescence as far as big wars go. Our carrier battle groups would not be able to get close enough to China to make a difference, let alone a decisive difference.

The ugly truth is that, short of using nuclear weapons, we could not win an all-out war with China. We might not lose. But we would not win. The best for which we could hope would be a slugfest that ended in mutual exhaustion.

Hopefully, we will not go to war with China. But we will go to war. The latest mock-up defense budget strategy from the White House not only confirms our abandonment of the requirement for our military to simultaneously fight two wars (one big, one smaller), but will leave us with armed forces unable to sustain a single “real” war. On one hand, we’ll have inadequate numbers of finicky aircraft and vulnerable surface-warfare vessels, on the other, a skeletal Army and Marine Corps. It’s the worst of both worlds.

Of course, the defense industry will blame everyone else for any problems and argue, piously, that it takes decades to develop a new weapons system and we have to stay ahead of our competitors, etc. But the bottom line (and it is about the bottom line) is that you can embed vastly more gray-area profits in one new fighter than in reconditioning a brigade’s worth of Army or Marine vehicles. The money’s in the most-expensive new systems ― and then in repairs and upgrades to the flawed baseline model the contractor delivers. A combat Infantryman’s worthless to an ambitious CEO.

Nor does the defense industry note that it takes years to develop a competent buck sergeant and decades to prepare a division commander. At present, we have the most-professional and most-experienced Army and Marine Corps we’ve ever fielded. And we’re about to cut at least 150,000 troops, active and reserve, and a minimum of fifteen maneuver brigades. We just strained madly to field enough ground-pounders to conduct a two-bit war in Afghanistan and a mid-level occupation in Iraq. Washington’s outrageous response is to cut troops to continue channeling profits to a wildly undisciplined, craven defense industry with a shocking sense of entitlement (when our military rejects a weapon system that’s failing in development, the contractor sues the military ― and usually wins).

We cannot predict the future with perfect certainty, but historical patterns since the 1940s suggest that, while we might wish to avoid “dirty little wars,” we won’t always have a choice. Statistically, most of our combat operations will continue to be conducted by boots on the ground, whether a handful of special operators or an occupation force (sorry, but we can’t always just say “No!”). We must be prepared for a big war fought by all the services as a team, but those services must stop thinking in 20th century models and pursue breakthrough strategies. Yes, our national defense must remain affordable, but that does not mean buying ever-smaller numbers of ever-more-expensive systems. Imagine the level of panic our military would face if we lost a single super-carrier. The Navy’s entire surface-warfare strategy would grind to a halt (love those submarines, though ― we could paralyze China’s shipping, which would really hurt Beijing: It’s time to think in terms of blockades again).

We have many other problems, of course, from political correctness to a stunning lack of strategic imagination, but the core remains capabilities ― and we’re now on a path that will cut troop strength without commensurate progress in technology. And all we have to say to that gunnery sergeant or Infantry captain we’re about to put out on the street is, “It isn’t personal, it’s business.”

Ralph Peters is a long-time member of the Armchair General team, a retired Army enlisted man and officer, and a strategist, journalist and prize-winning author. His new novel, CAIN AT GETTYSBURG, will be published on February 28th.


  1. 1. Small nitpick: Please dump the term “profiteers.” Profit is part of every, single successful business. If you don’t have profit, you aren’t a successful business (fancy accounting tricks aside). If you don’t have a profit, you can’t compete with other firms – you can’t innovate and you can’t keep up. A firm that cannot generate a profit ceases to exist. I guess what you mean to address is “crony-capitalism” and the notorious sweet heart deals between defense contractors with the right connections and the sleazeballs in government (including some in the military itself) who facilitate the fraud perpetrated by certain defense firms. That’s not the same as pursuing profit, though, and I think it is important to distinguish between the two, especially given the absolute vacuum of economic knowledge in many parts of the Western world, such as the United States.

    2. These cuts were voluntary. There are other cuts in our future that will not be. I have no illusions about the absolute refusal of the legislative or execute branches of the federal government to cut spending and reduce the national debt. Obama’s cuts will do nothing to improve the debt situation. But if drastic, dramatic cuts are not made in the very near future, then we will reach a point not very far off at which we will be unable to fund the maintenance of even a reduced active and reserve force, much less employ it operationally.

    3. With regard to prior problems with manpower and the need to reach deeply into the reserve component, I was told that that this resulted directly from the intentional concentration of certain occupational specialties and units in the reserve component. In order to access those capabilities en mass, one had to go to the reserves and the National Guard. This was allegedly (I’m just relating something told to me) set up this way by congress in an attempt to force any American president who committed the U.S. to a large scale conflict to seek the public support necessary to sustain a long-term call-up of reserve component forces. (Unwise, if true, but it ain’t my invention.)

    4. The mention of the fallacy of bloodless war is worthy of an article (or book) of its own. If there were anything that American politicians, the media, the public, and even some uniformed senior military need to wrap their brains around with regard to warfare and conflict it is this: There is no such thing as a “clean” or “precise” war. That war does not exist and will not exist in our lifetimes.

    • Replying to myself due to the absence of a edit button.

      In #2, above, I mean to state that drastic, dramatic cuts are needed in SOCIAL SPENDING and other domestic, unconstitutional vote-buying largesse.

      I do NOT favor any additional defense cuts.

  2. What if those big bucks which were burned fighting 2 wars were instead invested strategically, would even the 2008’s crisis have remained til the present day, not to mention military readiness in all terms not to say the american empire collapse as we know it?

  3. Private organizations and individuals invest. Governments don’t invest. Governments spend.

    As far as the total defense budget impact on national spending, defense is big, but not as big as social spending.

    You can view a breakdown of federal spending here:

    Defense makes up about 20%, or one-fifth of total spending.

    Social security is also about 20%, Medicare, as well as federal support of Medicaid and CHIP is about 21% for a total of 41%, roughly four-tenths of federal spending.

    In other words, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and CHIP total twice the amount spent on defense.

    Defense spending is a public good and it is one of the purposes for which congress is explicitly authorized to raise revenue as stated in the enumerated powers clause of the constitution. No such authorization exists for Social Security or Medicare, or for federal contributions to Medicaid or CHIP.

    Other unauthorized spending which has driven up the national debt and had other unfavorable consequences includes the 2008 TARP and follow-on “stimulus” packages, which subsidized failed businesses and rewarded firms for bad business decisions.

    If the United States had not fought in Afghanistan or Iraq, then certainly there would have been an enormous savings. One could argue about the scale of the fighting that was conducted during the past decade, bu to be honest about it, you have to acknowledge that our country was attacked by suicidal terrorists who murdered 2,977 people on the morning of 9/11/2001.

    Could we have saved money by not invading Iraq? At the time, yes, definitely. Over the decade following, if we had left Saddam in place, who knows? He had been in violation of the terms he agreed to at the end of the Gulf War for over a decade.

    Could we have saved money by scaling back the operations in Afghanistan and not pursuing a long, drawn-out counterinsurgency operation? Yes.

    Even if you did not fight either war, you would still have a hefty defense budget and you would still have social spending and other vote-buying expenditures vastly exceeding tax revenues.

    With regard to spending for the development of new, high tech weaponry, you have to at some point determine what kinds of threats you expect to face in the future. Are the things you are buying actually useful to Americans fighting a war? Many of the high tech projects in recent years have seemed to be more about buzzwords and less about effectiveness or applicability.

  4. hey loved your article, currently in the Army in Afghanistan, also did time in Iraq. As someone who has been in for a while and someone who is planning on staying in for the duration I wanted to mention a few things to think about as the “devil’s advocate”. Specifically this statement: “Active components scrambled to expand as combat, military police and intelligence personnel soon were exhausted. Standards slipped and oversight weakened.”

    This is the crux of why many real soldiers actually agree with the massive personnel cuts. A large amount of the soldiers in the Army now would not have even made it through the basic training that many of us went through, many are incredibly over weight and 9/10 PTSD cases are the dirt bag soldiers that should never have been in in the first place. As I said I like your article and agree with everything you said about the defense industry (personal experience with defective “the new best thing” equipment) but please don’t fight too hard against the cuts to soldiers. We need to get back to a well trained professional Army that can form a solid core for the next wartime Army. Otherwise we end up with enough people to fight the next war, but not the skill, stamina or experience to win it. I know to some it may look like the culling of all the experience of the USSR military pre-WW2 but really it will just be trimming away all the excess fat that has accumulated do to extremely relaxed standards.

  5. This article is spot on. It was the conservative General Eisenhower, a war hero, who as president warned of the rise of the military-industrial complex. The assinine wars of the Bush adminstration promoting the interests of lobbyists instead of America’s strategic interests has brought the country close to an economic depression.

    For what purpose did over 4,500 Americans and allies lose their lives in Iraq? That is not even counting the lives of Iraqis themselves. Until the evidence is conclusive, caution should rule rather than starting wars like WWI style. There were no weapons of mas destruction in Iraq.

  6. As a Combat Arms veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, I can say your article was direct and accurate. While the wars in both Iraq, which HAD Enriched Uranium AND chemical weapons (both WMD’s), and the war in Afghanistan were neccesary, they were fought with a piss poor strategy from the get-go.

    -The one year unit rotation policy was, while an improvement on Vietnam, a massive failure.

    -The military’s focus on EO, social engineering, diversity, and all the other psycho-babble BS is a massive drain on the COMBAT power of the military, and a huge waste of money.

    -The whole concept of “democracy building” while a great sound bite, is a doomed failure in that part of the world. Rather a culturally relevent policy of overwhelming retaliation and destruction for their actions, an occupation with men on EVERY street corner, and a speedy withdrawl with the threat of repeat action for ever offending us again, would be the way to go. It would offend western sensibilities but would be spot on in the middle east.


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