Wanted: leadership. Lessons for national security.

How is it that the United States can spend almost as much as the entire remainder of the world in defense spending and still military leaders still complain that they are not spending enough? Simple answer, because we have the wrong strategic approach to defending the country. In response to the challenges of command and control we’ve chosen control over command.

This chart from The Economist shows how US defense spending eclipses the next 14 countries combined — and 6 of those are in NATO.

US military spending eclipses the next 14 countries combined.

 

In a nutshell, we’ve chose technical solutions — a ubiquitous never-can-fail communications net — over leadership. We can take lessons from the successful response of the Dutch to the introduction of gunpowder in Europe 500 years ago. Here’s how the story goes:
1. Forces distribute themselves into smaller groups over wider areas in response to the increasing lethality of firepower. Victory will accrue to the societies and forces that can disperse their own forces, both tactically and strategically, while coordinating their effects.
2. As forces become more widely distributed, the challenges of command and control increase. Their are two basic formats for the response: emphasis on command or emphasis on control. In the US, we have chosen to emphasize the control side and build increasingly complex and vital communications networks. During most of the time, like peacetime, these networks are so capable they enable centralized decision-making relying on the forces for execution, allowing over-control, and lack of planning on the part of the disbursed forces.With such an architecture, and a network that is by necessity “continuously available,” execution and responsiveness to higher authority are valued. These are the traits described in almost every fitness report and biography – as we extol deployments made, weapons fired, and hours flown. However, this architecture traps us into the following…

3. The enemy, seeing the critical reliance upon these networks, invests money and energy in attacking them.
4. We, seeing the enemy plan to attack the network, defend it.

The cost of defense, however, is significantly higher than the cost to attack.
5. The enemy, encouraged by the high return on investment, continues.
6. Finally, despite vast investments on our best efforts, the network will at some point fail.A better approach would be to acknowledge that the network will likely fail, but develop doctrine, thinking, and commanders with the personal attributes to succeed in that environment.

The benefit of this approach is that it builds upon a historically powerful characteristic of American armed forces. Who else would be better in such an environment?
I suggest the traits necessary here would likely value agility over responsiveness and decision-making over execution, and initiative over compliance. This approach would ensure success and much more effectively use our defense dollars.

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