Breaking Down Another Bold Message From Another Retired General

Gen. Larry Spencer in a photo from 2013. (Photo: Air Force).
Gen. Larry Spencer in a photo from 2013. (Photo: Air Force).

The newfound boldness of newly retired generals is among the more dependable of signposts on our national road to toast. But hey, we’re here, so why not pause and contemplate what it all means.

Recently retired Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Larry Spencer wrote a thoughtful and forcefully rendered Op-Ed for Air Force Times earlier this week. It’s good to have a newly umuzzled voice speaking on important issues. He gives us some things to understand, some things to question, and some things to resist. He also gives us things to support and others to critique or look suspiciously upon.

It’s useful to break his work down in a little more detail, because we can learn a lot — not just about the current locus of American defense spending, but about the general state of American civil-military relations at the level where bridging between uniformed and civilian leaders is supposed to occur. Spencer’s message is the latest evidence of that bridge’s disrepair.

The Air Force is facing a pair of budgetary disasters, either of which could have long-term consequences for our nation. Debating which is worse, sequestration or a long-term continuing resolution, is essentially a discussion about semantics. Let’s end that discussion and cut to the chase — they are both bad for the country.

It’s about damn time someone said it plainly. Asking the military services to choose between sequestration and the absence of a long-term budget is like asking a duck to choose between roast and l’orange. There are no good options here, and the inanely partisan rattle-tossing about which manner of cooking the duck is least bad misses the entire point. Either way, the duck is getting cooked.

The question is: What are we doing about it?

Well, the reason it’s so bad is because “we” can’t do anything about it. For a solution to occur, Congress and the executive branch (which, until a short time ago, included Gen. Larry Spencer) must negotiate a solution. Such negotiations are preemptively nullified by partisanship. One of the only proven methods of burning through such partisanship is the raising of credible, valid, and persistent complaints about compromised national defense. Who better to do that than military generals?

I guess what I’m saying is that this Op-Ed would have been far more valuable from Gen. Spencer before he retired. This doesn’t suggest he didn’t make a good faith effort to apply pressure within his means while on active duty. It does suggest that our senior military officers have been too deferential to their executive bosses for too long, accepting missions they were unresourced to perform. They did this sometimes out of unswerving loyalty, other times because they’ve been ingrained with the idea that saluting and finding a way to do the impossible is part of the job. Other times, they’ve trusted that new tasks would be temporary, or that the risks of over-saturation could be masked by transferring workload onto the backs of a seemingly superhuman rank and file. “More with less,” anyone?

At any rate, the absence of protest resignations throughout the most controversial and self-destructive era of national defense practice since the Civil War is noteworthy. Post-retirement Op-Eds like Spencer’s fit into this pattern of pre-retirement deference and sudden post-retirement outrage. End of digression.

A return to sequestration would be devastating. I dealt with sequestration during my tenure as Air Force vice chief of staff, and I can tell you firsthand it was dreadful. During sequestration, the Air Force stood down 31 active aircraft squadrons. It imposed furloughs. It cut maintenance at many facilities. It delayed major depot maintenance, all of which seriously impacted our readiness. As appalling as these actions were, we had no other choice. By comparison, our own budget policies took down more aircraft than Japan at Pearl Harbor!

Again, if that last statement is really how Air Force leaders saw the impact of sequestration, it speaks deafening volumes that not a single one is impaled on his sword, his last career breath having been drawn to safeguard the exposed heart of national defense from budget vultures.

We are now operating under a continuing resolution and there is talk it may ultimately continue for a whole year. This is also bad news for our nation. This will result in $35 billion less from the defense budget. The services basically have three accounts: personnel, procurement and readiness. In the short term, the only account with the flexibility to absorb that size reduction is readiness. That’s the money used to fly airplanes, sail ships, maintain military installations, and ensure our troops have the training and equipment to go to war. Readiness enables our nation to deter and respond to crisis.

This is as clear and lucid a description of the current problem as you’re bound to get, and it has the added virtue of acknowledging that the personnel account is not a slush fund from which to laterally sustain other priorities when the going gets tough. But another way to read Spencer here is that he’s lamenting the structure of the budget process, which Congress has turned in a complicated and constrained set of spending instructions rather than a simple purse from which to fund defense activities. Of course, there are reasons why Congress took this path, and those reasons have to do with historical abuses of spending discretion by the services. Look no further than the Air Force’s recent effort to back-door retire the A-10 using stretched budget latitude. It is a micro-example of a macro-phenomenon.

Incrementally and over several generations, legislators, executive appointees, flag officers, and self-interested defense contractors have bent the defense budget into a cocked hat. Spencer is describing that hat and exhorting the current gaggle to straighten things out. This is like asking a current roster of clowns to shut down the circus. But you can’t blame Spencer for asking.

That doesn’t even consider the impact on programs that will also have to be cut, canceled or delayed. Which programs do we cut? We fly tankers more than 50 years old; how much longer can we delay replacing them? Our fighters are on average 25 years old and are reaching the end of their life cycles. We took possession of our newest B-52 bomber in 1963.

See, here’s the thing. No one cares how old stuff is. They care about how capable it is. The use of the B-52 as evidence of an elderly fleet also serves as evidence that an elderly fleet can still kick the ass of any whippersnapper who fails to vacate its lawn. We’ve made a celebrated science out of making old aircraft young again, and even found ourselves occasionally exhuming airframes we’d eulogized simply because they were “old.” The P-51 was revived as the F-51 for the Korean War, for example. 

The Air Force and its proxies need to stop making this argument, because it has zero traction with anyone not in possession of a Lockheed or Boeing business card, and those people don’t need any convincing. Talking about why the age of airframes matters would be a step better, but only if the content includes detail about why newer is necessarily better. Hint: it’s not always the case.

Can we really risk shortchanging our nation’s defense while both Russia and China are expanding their militaries and flexing their muscle?

This is where the argument comes close to derailing altogether. There are two leaps taken here, and each is worth flagging because they get made all the time and too many people accept them without quarrel.

First of all, it’s not that we’re “short-changing” our nation’s defense. We’re investing immeasurable masses of money into defense, even under sequester or a continuing resolution. The problem is a mismatch between the level of spending and our appetite for defense activity. That appetite hasn’t been sufficiently dulled over the years because generals haven’t advertised the risks and costs of creating a scale of activity only sustainable through exorbitant spending at levels likely to outstrip political will.

As a result, we haven’t stopped doing anything. The Air Force is particularly guilty of this. It continues to stand up new organizations and procure new weapons without questioning old missions, ceasing vestigial activities, or laying to rest obsolete equipment and infrastructure. In fairness, it is often forestalled from doing so by Congress. But again, it’s been a long time since we saw a general carried out of a legislative chamber on a stretcher, having gone down swinging. The Air Force’s lone attempt at saving force structure in this season of madness has been its push to divest the A-10, something that saves very little to accomplish even less.

Second, when it comes to defense spending, what Russia and China are doing is not directly probative. What matters is our strategy, which defines our strategic ends. The reason this point is important is because the world will never fail to supply us with something or someone who seems to present a threat, especially given our collective cultural affinity for irrational fear. Not everything generically threatening in the world is a predicate for billions of dollars of defense spending.

It’s this brand of defense histrionics that has fed budgetary bootstrapping pushing us beyond our means for too long, and it’s time to knock it off. The Cold War ended a quarter century ago. We’re not under territorial threat from a major power and our strategy doesn’t include conquest of a major power. Building enough capacity to totally dominate any possible adversary anywhere in the world is not economically feasible. That perspective needs to find its way into these spending discussions.

A continuing resolution freezes the Defense Department’s modernization programs into the previous year’s production levels and pauses new ones. This is especially true for our Air Force. Without budget certainty, key Air Force programs, such as the Long Range Strike Bomber Program, the F-35A program and the selection of a new pilot trainer aircraft will be delayed. Our nation cannot afford this.

Yes, this is a wasteful and frustrating approach. Then again, maybe part of the point here is that we’re supposed to be down-scaling spending on new programs and redefining the very structure of our enterprise. Easier said than done, but never done if not said.

Unless Congress quickly passes a 2016 budget including adequate defense appropriations, our military will find it harder to live up to its responsibilities under the Constitution.

At the risk of sounding pedantic, it’s not Constitutional duties that are weighing the military down. Such duties are individual, not collective. They are also absolute, and not subject to variance based on the amount of money provided. What I think General Spencer means is that the duty of service leaders to carry out the orders of the President might be compromised unless proper resources are provided to carry them out.

This is too soft a formulation. Someone needs to remind the Secretary of Defense and the President, in unequivocal terms, that when it comes to the conduct of military activity in our system, money and authority are indistinguishable. When you don’t give a general money, you’re not giving her authority, and she is therefore unauthorized to carry out that which falls below line where funding runs out.

This, of course, requires that a clear statement of priorities be jointly understood by everyone empowered to exercise authority. This, again, is easier said than done, but is not often enough said at the proper volume that we might expect it be done. 

I joined the military because I wanted to serve my country. I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself. I wanted to be on a winning team that when called upon could dominate the opposition. I am worried now. I am worried we could enter a conflict and not dominate. If my worries are valid, we would pay a horrific cost — in treasure and in lives lost. And then, the American people would rightfully ask, how in God’s name could we have let that happen?

We didn’t passively let it happen. We’ve built the tools of our own demise in this regard, each of us participating in the perpetuation of a system that has become too vertical, too loyal, and too politically captured to produce a viable defense supporting a lucidly deliberated strategy.

We’ve built ourselves into a set of modern administrative power structures such that whoever is in charge is presumed correct. This places a countervailing presumption of incorrectness upon anyone challenging authority. In such a structure, moral courage becomes both the rarest and the most important of all individual qualities.

Today, it is as rare as ever, and as critical. Until our military leaders locate and tap into their reserves of this commodity — which they all possessed at some point in order to reach their current perches — we will continue the despairing documentation of our national failure, leaving its remediation to our less fortunate and ultimately dishonored progeny.

Do our generals understand this? Are they willing to act on it? Or are they just putting off the pesky business of moral courage until after retirement?

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