Wednesday, November 11, 2015

What I wish was debated about the military

It's difficult at times to listen to some of the candidates talk during debates about the military, mainly because the focus is always on how much more each of them wants to spend. A billion, a trillion, it's a numbers game that people can argue back and forth.

I am happy that military issues and foreign policy problems (Russia in Ukraine, China in South China Sea, etc.) are being discussed. I also know that each candidate is being fed what to say from someone that is doing the research for them. Although Mrs. Fiorina's "rebuild the 6th Fleet" comments are somewhat comical (her writer needs a short lesson in COCOMs vs. force providers), I and most Americans get her point. But I see a few things that are sadly missing from the discussion that I would be absolutely impressed to see brought up:

1. Acquisition reform. It is expensive to stay ahead of competing nations. Doing research and then turning that into actionable equipment and processes that benefit our war fighters is never going to be cheap. However, we are increasingly stupid about how we buy basic equipment, and it all goes into how DoD acquisitions work.

Part of it is Congress. Why is the F-35 so expensive and yet we won't end it? Maybe because it has an impact in 10 countries and 46 states?

Part of it is the DoD. We keep trying to get these mega-contracts that nobody understands, only to have some critical piece break at the last second. We're surprised when we put Naval Officers in charge of large contracts without providing them lots of training that they fall short of good results. Wired makes fun of our desire to build Death Stars and not R2D2, but they have a valid point.

I would like to see discussed:
- Make each service create a valid career track for acquisition officers. Until we get professionals in acquisition, we'll continue to put guys and gals that drive ships for a living in charge of complicated program offices, with predictable results.
- Reform the DoD's acquisition rules with the goal of eliminating most of them. Hold them up to the light of day and expose them for what they are: a lot of opportunity for graft. Defense industries should make money, but there is no reason they can't make money and also give us good equipment that comes in on budget.
- Focus on running smaller contracts on new equipment before going into full production. The Chinese do this with ship building, focusing on building a few types of ships in limited production runs until they find one they want, then making a ton of them (think Jiangkai Frigates).
- Get back into the export business. It's incredibly hard for US manufacturers to export to other countries. We need to streamline the rules, which will help keep high end US manufacturing jobs in the United States.

2. High-low mix. Look at this picture:

Some people might say "Merica!" And yeah, it's nice to be the big guy. But look at cost:
- Skiff: probably a few thousand at most.
- US DDG: 1.8 billion dollars.

Sustainable? Not at all. What if that was an LCS? A bit better, but around ~400 million. The reality is we don't need AEGIS and lots of advanced technology to deal with maritime piracy. We need smaller, cheaper vessels that can be more numerous, something like South Korea's Gumdoksuri-class patrol vessel (pictured at the beginning of this article), which has plenty of armament but comes in at a cool 37 million dollars. So you can get 10 patrol vessels for the price of one LCS. Modify it so it can refuel at sea and now you can easily fight maritime piracy on the cheap.

What I would like to see discussed:
- Building a low-technology side of the Navy (and DoD in general).
- Using that low-technology to fight low-end threats, saving our higher end Navy for fighting peer adversaries like Russia and China.

3. South America. It's a running joke in the DoD that SOUTHCOM is the bottom of the barrel for COCOMs. Why is that? It's physically some of the closest countries to us, and we have a long history saying that they are in our sphere of influence. And yet we treat them like red headed step children, and assignment to SOUTHCOM commands doesn't tend to do well for your career.

Given how much we spend on countries in the Middle East that honestly don't like us, why not invest in our closer neighbors? It would be significantly less expensive and help us keep out Russian and Chinese influence. On top of that, it would be a great use for our low-end Navy, helping us stay engaged without a high price tag.

What I would like to see discussed:
- How we plan to engage with South American countries, and not just on immigration.

4. Staff cuts instead of discretionary spending. We have a massive staff infection in the DoD. Granted, we are a global power and when we deploy ships around the world there is a massive tail that supports that ship. But a lot of it is waste. We spend millions on computer technology yet we still don't have enough laptops on submarines (why we don't use classified tablets yet is beyond me). We generate lots of paperwork on a staff that sits on a shelf with no intention of ever using it. It's awful.

And yet when we do cut stuff, the first thing to go is things like travel and OPTAR. That makes no sense. So now we have staff officers who can't travel, who (in too many cases) sit around generating more paperwork. I'm lucky to be located near the afloat Navy so I can push my Sailors to stay connected with the fleet. At Georgia that wasn't the case, and every time we took a travel budget hit my Sailor's readiness went down.

What I would like to see discussed:
- Cutting tasks we levy on staffs. The Navy is cutting GMT, which is a good start, but doesn't go far enough. Do a zero-base review of what we expect of a staff and try to cut at least ten percent. Cutting tasks gets you refocused on warfighting.
- Cut staff manning. The Navy has made efforts to cut flag officers, but look at your control grade billets too. Cut the manning from a staff and either put it back into operations or kill it altogether. The nice secondary effect is that it forces us to use people can't be O-4 staff fodder in the Pentagon if there aren't many O-4s to task.
- Use money from staff cuts to train the people you have. A well trained operator can easily replace 3 untrained people, but we have cut down training and travel so much we don't get well trained operators anymore. We now send junior personnel out and say on the job training is the answer, which drains war fighting resources from already overbooked fleet assets.

It's not sexy to talk about these things, but if we want the best Navy possible, we should be discussing these issues.