Thoughts on the military, 23 April 2009


I encounted a NY Times op-ed piece [1] while checking up on Jerry Pournelle’s blog last night, and felt like I should comment on some of the issues mentioned in the piece. In particular, the issues that I find concerning are the following: 1) calling for the dissolution of the Air Force, 2) ending the volunteer military, and 3) replacing the volunteer military with a professional force, while also calling for a “national service” program. First and foremost, I must point out, in the interest of full disclosure, that I do not have any military training whatsoever, so my opinions arise from an outsider’s perspective and analysis.

The author correctly points out that the Air Force has had relatively little involvement in the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq; naval and army airpower have covered most of the aerial power needs. Part of this, of course, is because the Air Force has fairly substantial logistical needs, not to mention requiring finished airstrips (i.e. paved airstrips) for most of their aircraft; very few modern military aircraft can operate from rough airstrips, so far as I know. [2] While not particularly useful for our current military commitments, historically speaking, the Air Force’s primary mission often involved strategic bombing, such as that which the Army Air Force (AAF, the precursor to the modern Air Force) carried out in World War II; during the Cold War, the mission was very similar, only this time, the Air Force’s bombers were primarily tasked with nuclear deterrence, while its fighter forces were tasked with defending the nation and our bases on foreign soil from nuclear-armed Soviet strategic bombers. While the Air Force has not needed to carry out similar such bombing missions as those it undertook in WWII for our modern commitments, this should not necessarily be taken as evidence that the Air Force is obsolete, nor that this type of mission is obsolete, either. Note, for example, that the Air Force did fly long-range bombing missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, using the same long-range strategic bombers that were originally intended to carry nuclear weapons into the heart of the Soviet Union. Granted, indiscriminate or “carpet” bombing is not generally used these days, but with their massive capacities and the development of precision munitions, heavy bombers still have the capability to deliver devastating (and precise) force to a battlefield. Additionally, with their high-altitude operational ranges, they are relatively immune to the types of anti-aircraft armaments to which terrorist / insurgent forces have access. [3] And though we are loathe to employ the kinds of tactics that we used in WWII, one cannot argue that the need for such tactics will never again arise.

Perhaps more important, however, is the need for our military to maintain its technological advantage. Granted, we are currently engaging forces that are far below our level of technology, but this should not be taken as evidence that all future conflicts will be of the same nature. Nations such as China and the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States, otherwise known as the former Soviet Union) continue to develop their military equipment, and given the latter’s previous patterns of behavior, it is very likely that the fruits of their development programs will eventually find buyers around the world. Escalation is a common issue in any kind of warfare, and it is not outside the realm of possibility that insurgent forces may one day begin using more sophisticated equipment, if it becomes available to them. Additionally, we should not rule out the possibility that nations like the CIS or China could become aggressors in the future, either. Obviously, we hope that this will not happen, but there are no guarantees. It would be prudent for us to maintain our technological advantage, if for no other reason than that it would be better to be prepared for the worst even if the worst never occurs, rather than to be faced with such a war while being woefully unprepared. Note that this also applies to the other branches, as well; I am sure that there are critics out there who argue that we do not need the new generations of ships, tanks, and other equipment currently under development.

Regarding a professional military, I suspect that the author is not familiar with the Founding Fathers’ aversion to standing armies; it is not without reason that the latter were apprehensive regarding such armies. I have referred to the following quote from James Madison, but it bears repeating in this context:

The veteren legions of Rome…rendered her mistress of the world. Not less true is it, that the liberties of Rome proved the final victim to her military triumphs, and that the liberties of Europe, as far as they ever existed, have with few exceptions been the price of her military establishments. A standing force therefore is a dangerous, at the same time that it may be a necessary provision…On any scale, it is an object of laudable circumspection and precaution. A wise nation will combine all these considerations; and whilst it does not rashly preclude itself from any resource which may become essential to its safety, will exert all its prudence in diminishing both the necessity and danger of resorting to one which may be inauspicious to its liberties. [4]

As the second half of the above quotation indicates, the Founding Fathers were not completely opposed to standing armies, though they were very cautious regarding them. They did not necessarily question the need for such armies, but they were also rightly fearful of the potential dangers of such forces, as the following quotes indicate:

Safety from external danger is the most powerful director of national conduct. Even the ardent love of liberty will, after a time, give way to its dictates. The violent destruction of life and property incident to war – the continual effort and alarm attendent on a state of continual danger, will compel nations the most attached to liberty, to resort for repose and security, to institutions, which have a tendency to destroy their civil and political rights. To be more safe, they, at length, become willing to run the risk of being less free. [5]

And, the following:

How could a readiness for war in time of peace be safely prohibited, unless we could prohibit in like matter the preparations and establishments of every hostile nation? The means of security can only be regulated by the means and the danger of attack. They will in fact be ever determined by these rules, and by no others…if one nation maintains constantly a disciplined army ready for the service of ambition or revenge, it obliges the most pacific nations, who may be within reach of its enterprizes, [sic] to take corresponding precautions. [6]

And further,

They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety. [7]

Regardless of its character, a professional military force carries with it, as indicated above, the potential to “destroy [our] civil and political rights.” Ideally, our volunteer military forces partially circumvent such dangers by calling upon those who see the defense of their nation as a duty to perform, rather than a job. This latter attitude is, IMHO, a substantial problem within political circles these days, and I do not believe that it would be a good idea to inject such attitudes into institutions that are specifically intended to carry out violent activities. Those who perform a professional job generally do so with the expectation that the need for that profession will exist for an extended period of time; sometimes, such individuals are also not above creating the need for their chosen profession. Duty, OTOH, is somewhat more altruistic in nature, and those who perform it do so only so long as the need exists (ideally, of course). To some extent, of course, the dangers of maintaining a standing army can be mitigated if all citizens are trained in the use of weapons and deadly force, which leads to the next issue.

Universal conscription is a practice that is maintained by several nations around the world, most notably in Israel. So far as I am aware, the terms of service are relatively short, somewhere on the order of a few years, after which, the conscripts return to society and go about their daily lives. This is not surprising, of course, given the number of wars the Israelis have fought over the tumultuous course of their 60 year modern history. I suspect that this is not quite what the author had in mind, however, when he references the notion of a national service initiative. Such national service programs are not necessarily without their uses, of course; Robert Heinlein, for example, describes a society wherein citizenship (and the right to vote) is contingent upon completing a term of national service, in his novel, Starship Troopers. While the book itself describes matters from the point of view of a member of the military, Heinlein points out that the primary requirement of the national service program is that it emphasizes the need for the individual to make some kind of meaningful sacrifice for the good of society as a whole, regardless of what type of endeavor in which they are engaged. Universal conscription, OTOH, is entirely devoted to military service; this, again, is not necessarily an evil, as some critics may believe. Until now, our nation has been fortunate that our standing armies have not deprived our citizens of their liberties and political power; this is not common throughout history, where nations that maintained standing armies are concerned. Even in our modern era, see, for example, how many nations around the world operate under de facto military dictatorships, and how often a duly-elected government is overthrown by “reformers” backed by military power. As noted above, standing armies are dangerous; universal conscription, OTOH would provide each individual citizen with the means to resist a military coup, in that they would have at least some knowledge of how to fight against a usurping army, if necessary. Currently, few of our citizens could do so, if the need arose. Of course, much will depend on the kinds of basic training provided for the conscript forces, but if the training regimen that my brother endured when he volunteered for the Marine reserves is any indication, such training should be adequete both for use in case of external threat, and in case of a military coup.

In short, I do not disagree that some changes should probably be made to the structure of the military, but ultimately, the aforementioned issues are mostly secondary ones. Of primary importance is what role we want our military forces to perform in our new and modern world; as Clausewitz points out, war is merely an extension of politics, carried out by other means that are unique to warfare itself. Thus far, we seem to have been caught between the desire to maintain some kind of readiness, should nations such as China or the CIS (among others) become belligerent and force us into the kind of conflict that was envisioned during the Cold War, and the fact that the conflicts we have fought in the 60 years since WWII have mostly been of a far smaller scope, and involved much different forces and tactics than the grand scale of WWII. Ultimately, we need to determine, as a nation, what political goals we have regarding the rest of the world, and reshape our military forces accordingly; if we do not, we run the risk of constantly finding ourselves with the wrong set of tools to perform the actions we intend. I am not yet sure if anyone in the current administration or in Congress has made such a determination yet, but it behooves us to do so as quickly as possible, lest we become further entangled in situations for which our military forces were not designed. To maintain an ill-defined purpose for our military forces risks not only the continued loss of our precious blood and treasure, but also the possibility of bringing down upon us the fury of the legions. [8] Neither possibility should ever be acceptable for our Republic.


[1]: See here for the article, 20 April 2009.

[2]: This includes most of the combat aircraft, and almost all of their larger logistical aircraft. Note that the new F-35 (previously known as the JSF, or Joint Strike Fighter) can operate from rough airstrips in its VTOL configuration, though not all production F-35s will have this capability. Traditional fighter aircraft, such as the new F-22, need paved airstrips, and it goes without saying that the heavy bombers, such as the B-52s, need these, as well.

[3]: Most MANPADS (Man-Portable Air Defense Systems), such as the Stinger missile, are relatively short-ranged systems. See here for information about the Stinger itself (Wikipedia article); the maximum effective range of the missile is just under 16,000 ft; the service ceiling of the B-52, OTOH, is 50,000 ft.

[4]: James Madison, The Federalist, Number 41, Paragraph 12.

[5]: Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist, Number 8, Paragraph 4.

[6]: James Madison, The Federalist, Number 41, Paragraph 12.

[7]: Benjamin Franklin, from notes published in Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Benjamin Franklin; see here for the relevent section, from Google Book Search.

[8]: See here for the source of this phrase, from Jerry Pournelle’s blog, 21 May 2006.


One Response to “Thoughts on the military, 23 April 2009”

  1. MI Says:

    WRT the Air Force – IIRC, Pournelle often calls for its abolition, on the grounds that strategic bombing (upon which the USAF tends to focus) is far less effective than close air support & battlefield interdiction (which tend to be USAF career-enders).

    The more interesting question is whether the USAF’s current procurement plan is optimal for fighting even “big wars” in the future. (And that doesn’t consider the possibility that sufficiently-advanced SAMs – MANPADS included – might render airpower obsolete.)

    I tend to favor universal manhood conscription, but not only (or even mainly) ‘cuz it – effectively – trains the citizenry in organized armed resistance. Indeed, while the possibility of such resistance is indeed a check upon governmental tyranny (military or otherwise), one shouldn’t overestimate the efficacy of such a check. I suspect that a sufficiently ruthless government could suppress even a strong insurgency.

    Rather, my reason for supporting conscription (coupled w/ reserves, ala Israel) is that it broadens the military’s manpower base to include the bulk of the populace, and thereby increases the identification of the latter w/ the military (and vice-versa). Not only does this increase the proportion of the population w/ first-hand knowledge of the military, but it also increases the # of those w/ a direct interest in matters (e.g., foreign affairs) that may necessitate the use of military force. No longer would the blood cost of war be limited to a small proportion of the populace.

    Likewise increased is the co-incidence between the interests of the military & the citizenry, via increased overlap between the two. Such a coincidence of interests reduces the chances of an extralegal coup (even w/ a standing army) – why bother w/ a coup when you can just vote the bums out?

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