Services Can't Be Selfish if Military Is to Succeed, Says Air Force Planner
The success of a globally deployed U.S. military will hinge on "humble" cooperation among services as they divide scant resources, a senior Air Force official said March 15.
Maj. Gen. Steven L. Kwast, director of the Air Force’s quadrennial defense review, is tasked with carving out a role for the service within the context of the Defense Department’s long-term strategic goals. With far less funding to spread around than during the last QDR process, and uncertain budgets for the foreseeable future, Kwast said each service must come to the table willing to negotiate for a shrinking pool of funding.
“Since World War II, we have been very successful as a nation at designing a military that is relatively tribal,” he told Washington, D.C., reporters. “If we continue clinging to our tribalism in a way that does not provide solutions to the nation … we will be insufficient for the task that will appear in our future that we can’t predict. The problem is when that bumps into the process, it’s easy for everyone to scatter back to their own corner and you end up with the same end result. My proposition here is that if we keep doing that, we’re going to fail the nation.”
Mandated by law, next year’s QDR is the first in 11 years that must include planning for a future without war. It is also the first in that period that will be drafted without a seemingly endless pot of money to fund its objectives. In fact, this and the next QDR fall squarely into a timeframe when Pentagon officials can count on shrinking budgets.
Such uncertain times — in the United States and abroad — call for the kind of farsighted strategic thinking the QDR is designed to enshrine, Kwast said.
"Whenever we have uncertainty in budget; whenever we have uncertainty in the strategic environment, there is nothing more important than stepping back and thinking strategically," Kwast said. "What is that we're trying to do here, and how can we ensure that we are formed for the purpose that we are created for?"
Skeptics point out that past QDRs have resulted in few innovative programs or strategy changes. Kwast acknowledged that the 2014 plan could again fail to impress those who aspire to revolutionary alterations of national security policy.
Strategic plans like the QDR move national security policy forward at a snail’s pace but in a larger, overarching direction, Kwast said. He and fellow officers must balance the need for innovation with the “requirement that we cannot fail” to protect the nation.
“There are no transformational changes if you’re looking for them. But there are steps taken in a titanic direction,” he said of the process. “There is a method to the madness that is slow and methodical that does not let go of the branch you’re holding onto before you have grabbed onto a branch that you know will support you.”
One concrete outcome of the 2014 QDR will be specifics as to programs in support of ethereal plans that have been floated by the various services such as air-sea battle and anti-access, area-denial and cyberoperations, Kwast said.
The most important strategic guidance that will come out of the 2014 review is the notion that heretofore, integration of systems and operations among and across the entire military must be a priority. From submarines to aircraft to Marines ashore, everything must be able to share information and situational awareness. That means technologies that can connect and systems that perform multiple roles within a joint force, he said. So far, specifics as to how that lofty goal will be achieved have been elusive.
“This QDR will put more programmatic steps into this journey as we are adjusting our structure in the military to be sufficient for a strategic environment that is much more complicated and requires this kind of cross domain integration,” he said.
But the joint force could be more ethereal than realistic, given the amount of treasure the Pentagon has sunk into two wars over the past 11 years. Combat has resulted in a weary force with outdated and worn out equipment, much of which is expensive and in need of replacement. This at a time when the Defense Department can look forward to a steady decline in funding.
“We have been delaying the care and feeding of so much of the military infrastructure that so many things need to be recapitalized and they’re all coming due at the same time,” he said. “We cannot just [chase capabilities]. In the past we have had the luxury of an economic base so strong and so capable that we could afford to have the kind of approach where we just built capability and it was sufficient. No longer true, the books don’t balance.”
Here again, “jointness” and systems integration can result in valuable efficiencies. That must be the goal to which every service strives, or risk total failure of the nation’s strategic objectives, he said.
Kwast repeatedly returned to integration and cooperation among services as the linchpin of the nation’s global national security strategy. A fully networked force that includes all sectors of all services would be a “game changer” if it becomes a capability that the U.S. military unilaterally achieves.
Therefore tribalism — the notion that officers should advocate exclusively for the hegemony of their service — must fade away, Kwast said. Service leaders need to recognize their branch’s specialties and preserve their identities, but humble themselves before the larger good of the nation, he said.
“There is still a core principle that you need land-minded people running the land component and air-minded people running the air component because that unique approach to the world, that paradigm brings you great power and ingenuity,” he said. “You don’t lose the services identities, but you start coming at the question together instead of separately. Now, that goes against human nature and it goes against the way we have been structured in the department.”
The same mindset has permeated in industry over the past decade with companies producing proprietary technologies that do not talk to each other, Kwast said. That has resulted in a joint force that is held together with “duct tape and baling wire, he said. While the Pentagon funding faucet flowed, that was not a problem — there was always more money for new technologies or expensive retrofits.
“The strategic environment for the past 60 years has allowed a stovepipe methodology to work,” Kwast said. “That has worked for us. The strategic environment has changed significantly enough that we have to change this model.”
Photo Credit: Air Force