Radical Reformer

Real Defense changes could mean contracting out military units, warfare expert says.

There are those who hope the Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review, due in February, will help galvanize the military's transformation efforts, but one prominent military reformer suggests it will be too little too late. His proposal: Blow up the Defense Department. Metaphorically, that is.

Retired Air Force Reserve Col. Chet Richards doesn't want anyone to think he's advocating the Pentagon's physical destruction. But, he says, it might be time to recast the Defense Department into something radically different and smaller.

Richards is the editor of the independent Web site Defense and the National Interest at www.d-n-i.net, a well-read and respected online forum on military reform. "I don't think many people high up in DoD are going to like [my] suggestion at all, but there's just no way to transform it into something we need that will do the job we need for now and the future," he says.

He broaches his provocative ideas in "Neither Shall the Sword: Conflict in the Years Ahead," the latest in an ongoing series of monographs published by the Center for Defense Information's Straus Military Reform Project. He was a close collaborator of the legendary Pentagon maverick Air Force Col. John Boyd from the mid-1970s until Boyd's death in 1997. In his 2001 book, A Swift, Elusive Sword (Center for Defense Information, 2003), Richards argued that it was high time for the U.S. military to embrace "manuever" or "third-generation" warfare, which emphasizes smaller, more agile forces and cheaper equipment. He contended that the approach would require the military to adapt to new times and threats by completely shedding conventional doctrines, force structures, equipment and procedures.

While the initial phases of U.S. incursions into Afghanistan and Iraq have validated his views on third-generation warfare, Richards isn't pleased that the Pentagon is still dragging its feet on tactical, strategic and grand strategic thinking that would move the military beyond maneuver warfare into the era of fourth-generation warfare: asymmetric and unconventional conflict that isn't exclusively military in nature. Doctrine and people, not huge weapons systems, are the driving forces of this new kind of warfare, he says. Richards sees dangerous inefficiency and marginalization in spending hundreds of billions of dollars to equip and maintain forces for older types of war he views as unlikely to be fought again.

He isn't alone in his skepticism about Defense transformation, or in recommending the Pentagon pull the plug on a plethora of costly-but-unproven weapons systems (including missile defense and other high-tech systems). In December 2004, the Government Accountability Office issued a scathing assessment of the Pentagon's efforts (GAO-05-70), citing Defense leaders' "lack of transparency and appropriate accountability across all of DoD's major business areas [that] results in billions of dollars in annual wasted resources in a time of increasing fiscal constraint."

Richards notes that "any transformation runs into the problem that the people responsible for leading it are the very ones who have been rewarded and promoted by the existing system. Extrapolate from the experience of large commercial organizations since the end of World War II. Most of them will go out of business before they make the changes necessary to survive," he writes. "All of our military departments were established to conduct war against organizations similar to themselves; conflict that did not fit this pattern was called 'special,' and until recently relegated to the backwaters of the Defense establishment.

"The [Pentagon] system of spending massive resources to deter the Soviets year after year proved to be remarkably stable," he continues, "so much so that DoD has continued to develop the same weapons and at roughly the same average level of spending. . . . The world has changed to such a degree that the old models don't work, or at least don't work nearly well enough to justify their enormous cost."

Few have gone as far as Richards in their proposals for change. In developing options for grand strategy, he parses the recent work of leading military reformers and thinkers, including Thomas X. Hammes, Martin van Creveld, William Lind and Thomas P.M. Barnett. Ultimately, Richards concludes, it's a choice between very new and substantially different versions of the Cold War staples of "containment" and "rollback." Whichever variations are adopted will require different models for reconfiguring American forces. In one proposal, Richards boldly calls for large portions of missions now performed by the uniformed military to be outsourced to private companies. Such firms-including MPRI, Blackwater and DynCorp, for example-have taken on many military duties in Iraq.

He recommends that fourth-generation warfare elements of the military-Special Forces, for example-stay within the Defense Department. But third-generation units that are likely to be less necessary, he writes, should be outsourced to private military companies under a rigorous licensing and oversight system. Those companies, he says, would be "creating and maintaining a capability for short-duration, episodic deployment into developing countries. In other words, get in quickly, get the job done, turn the place over [to official elements] and then get out." And as the private military sector thrives, Richards theorizes, "the abundance of competition should help avoid the huge cost overruns that plague major hardware procurement programs." Under this scheme, Defense would buy and provide contractors with any necessary large weapons systems.

Richards' fellow reformers don't consider the outsourcing of combat functions to private companies to be quite the magic bullet that he does. "He has to convince me about this every time it comes up," says Straus Project head Winslow Wheeler. And Richards concedes there's no shortage of potential problems and details to be worked out under his privatization scenario. But, he reminds, this suggestion applies only to one proposed military construct. The primary task of actually acknowledging shortcomings in how we conceive of warfare-and retooling forces accordingly-remains the most important one.

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