I’ve been harping on the decline of the defense intellectual base for about as long as I can remember. Basically, when the Cold War ended, academic programs around the country shed their security studies components, and those that remained focused increasingly on “emerging” security issues such as ethnic conflict, environmental disputes, and human security. After 9/11, this was bolstered with various efforts at adding intelligence studies and terrorism studies. What virtually no one has taught in 20 years, though, in conventional force planning. Georgetown had a course on it while I was Executive Director, but I think it has gone away even there. There may be a handful of similar courses elsewhere, basically an intro to operations research for security policy folks, but it is really rare.
The result is that, as far as I can tell, doing solid, empirically grounded defense analysis is a dying art. Now, there are a lot of negative consequences to that. It leaves all that expertise within the Pentagon, where that analysis is often not disinterested, but rather twisted in the service of parochial interests, and prevents the development of well-reasoned ideas from outside. I’ve written about this in the past, when I talked about two force reports issued by CNAS and Heritage last year, but it comes up again in the new CNAS report, Sustainable Preeminence that came out last month, and that is, a follow-on to last year’s CNAS report, and that includes a full set of force structure recommendations.
There is a lot in this report. Too much to address in a blog post, and frankly not worth my time to fully critique. But the problem is, there is no sound methodology behind any of the recommendations. It is pure BOGSAT (Bunch Of Guys Sitting Around a Table), through and through. Indeed, they admit as much in their methods section, where they describe the process of writing it:
This report draws on a year’s worth of research. We reviewed relevant literature, met with senior government officials, interviewed experienced specialists, hosted a series of working groups and conducted fact-finding trips. We also drew on insights from experts across the political spectrum and around the world, including representatives from government, industry, academia and civil society. Our goal was to be informed by representative views from the diverse groups that will be affected by changes to U.S. defense strategy and spending.
In short, “we talked to a lot of people.” Talking is good. I like talking to people… well, no, actually I generally don’t, but that is because I’m a misanthrope. But okay, I get the value of talking to smart people and picking their brains. But interviews are not a sound methodology for force structure recommendations. Force structure recommendation are a quantitative and qualitative output, and they require a process to assess qualitative and quantitative trade-offs. They require disciplined analysis.
But despite that methodological note, I was still optimistic when I read their principles for defense planning, including specifically, “Principle #3: Match Requirements to Likely Threats.” I thought, cool, they are actually going to talk about specific contingencies, outline adversary force structures, and at least provide some back of the envelop calculations of requirements. But, of course, they don’t. Threats in the report are stated at such a level of generality that they are useless.
Let me give a specific example. The authors recommend a pretty big change for the Army:
The Army also should re-examine its present force generation model, known as ARFORGEN. It was designed largely to sustain prolonged major overseas conflicts with long rotational unit deployments. Whereas it was reasonably effective at rotating units into Iraq and Afghanistan, it largely lacks a robust surge capability. It would not be sufficient for rapidly emerging and demanding contingencies such as a sudden North Korean assault on the South. Under ARFORGEN, at any given time, approximately one-third of Army units are ready to deploy, one-third are in pre-deployment training and the remaining one-third are not ready to deploy. In an emergency, at best two-thirds of the Army’s planned 37 active-duty brigade combat teams could respond, while the remaining units would not be ready for months.137 A new readiness model may be needed that maintains more units at higher readiness, and that can surge the vast majority of the active force into combat if required. Active forces that cannot deploy on a relatively rapid timeline should be reconstituted into reserve component units to save costs.
Okay, so what this essentially says is that we need to have the capacity to immediately surge more than 25 BCTs into Korea in the case of a North Korean invasion. Tell me why. What possible analytical methodology justifies this sort of ground force? The South Korean military is vastly superior in quality to the North’s. What is assumed to happen in the initial days to make this sort of surge either necessary or possible? But they say that being able to send 25 BCT immediately (which we can’t do anyway) is not enough. We need to be able to send the “vast majority.” Um, where do they deploy? How would you even get them into the fight?
Now, maybe our CNAS friends, in their numerous conversations, got some high level briefings suggesting that a conflict now would look like what happened in 1950, and that this sort of deployment might become necessary, but you know, clue us in if that is the case.
But, okay, we need to reorganize the Army surge upwards of 30 BCT immediately. I find that a peculiar requirement, but okay. So I then avidly looked for a clear explanation of how we were planning to get those 30 BCT into theater and keep them supplied there. Surely, this will require a significant investment in additional fast sealift. And indeed, we get this one mention of sealift:
The Army and DOD also invested in fast sealift ships along with afloat and ashore prepositioning to ensure that the Army’s heavy armored formations could be rapidly brought to bear at key points around the globe.142 Much of this farsighted investment has atrophied during the last decade. It is time to rebuild these important capabilities.
Well, yeah, if you plan to be able to surge the vast majority of the force in just a few months — the report is vague on how fast this sort of surge needs to occur — you’ll need those capabilities. And lots of them. Indeed, I’d hazard to say that this would require a pretty significant investment, one that will be hard to make given existing short-falls in ship-building accounts. But then, we don’t hear about sealift again. There is some talk in the report about airlift, though mostly in the form of turning over Marine Corps airlift to the Air Force, but no detailed recommendations about sealift, nor any apparent considering of how this sealift requirement might affect other accounts.
The report does other weird things. It recommends the Marine Corps essentially shed its heavy assets and focus on amphibious operations and littoral missions, but the report also notes the challenge of anti-access and area-denial capabilities. So, how do these come together? These two sentences are separated by less than a page in the report:
The Marine Corps may not be able to operate in A2/AD environments without putting ships and landing craft at unacceptable risk, which challenges its ability to conduct perhaps its most iconic mission: amphibious assault across hostile shores.
It also should reduce its end strength as budgets tighten and operations in Afghanistan slow down, while becoming more focused on amphibious warfare, power projection and littoral missions.
The report is just full of recommendations that either make no sense, conflict with one another, or are virtually impossible to implement. It is a grab bag of disconnected ideas, lacking any sort of analytical rigor, and unsupported by any sound methodology to address the conflicts and tradeoff in the the report. Just assertion after assertion with no supporting systematic data or argumentation.
But this isn’t being written by a bunch of amateurs. The lead author, David Barno is a retired Army three star. The second author Nora Bensahel is a respected political scientist with a background at RAND. They should know better. But even if they don’t, what about the CNAS leadership? What about the external reviewers?
CNAS is just a symptom, in the final analysis. The conflation of defense analysis with program analysis has become so pervasive that even people who ought to know better don’t seem to realize what is required to do things like make credible force structure recommendations.
I’m getting to the point where I’m even longing to see someone pull out the 3:1 rule for ground combat, as simplistic as it may be.
It isn’t that the report is all bad on substance. There are certainly defensible arguments. But none are defended with any sort of analytical rigor. BOGSAT is not a methodology.