Enough parallels have been drawn between the American force’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the similarly messy departure from the Vietnam conflict. Admittedly, the visuals of helicopters on rooftops evacuating critical personnel are striking, but another post-conflict risk faces the American military as the geographic confines of Afghanistan are no longer an annual, rotational destination for service members.
Not enough consideration is being given to the similarities between today’s Department of Defense and the United States military in the years between World War II and the Korean War. Following that global conflict, an incredible exodus of service members led to a stark deterioration of competent, professional war fighters after a rigorous and bloody five years abroad.
I would suggest that policy makers read David Halberstam’s outstanding book, “The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War.” The work expertly outlines in dramatic detail the level of deterioration and negligent policies that led to poorly prepared U.S. and Republic of Korea forces being almost disastrously overwhelmed and under equipped to face a fanatic People’s Army led by Korean dictator Kim Il-Sung.
The next few years of American military retention and strategy will either repeat or prevent the same possibility in terms of competence in the next conflict, if it ever arrives. Unlike the late 1940’s, when the atomic weapon served as a significant trump card in the American inventory, todays strategic competition paradigm puts our adversaries and rivals on footing much closer to the United States and its allies, and the manner in which we retain the best of our forces could be the decisive factor in whether or not we lose our defense supremacy.
The challenge over the next few years will lie in force demands, which the forever war in Afghanistan always provided, albeit with significant effects to the force in terms of culture erosion and the unseen costs of war, such as Eddie Gallagher’s conduct while serving as a Navy SEAL in the latter years of the war on terror.
Now that the DoD must face readiness without a built in appropriation (the Overseas Contingency Operations account) slush fund, the enterprise is already preparing itself for a significant budget contraction in the next few years. Ostensibly, manning and force retention is invariably the first victim of force sequestration, even though manning and personnel costs are a distant second place to operational costs, which are certain to reduce by virtue of Afghanistan’s terminus.
With sequestration comes the seemingly inevitable tendency to replace human competency with advanced technology. Recently, the capital played host to the annual Association of the U.S. Army (AUSA) Conference and Exposition, with a great many defense contractors touting new technologies that aim to offset the limitations of operating environments, in particular, China’s Anti-Access/Area Denial system in the Pacific region. These new programmatic offerings include long-range precision fires and automated support systems — logistics robots, drone swarms and AI-enabled command and control networks.
While these systems offer some viable investment vectors and strategic value, they continue to trend toward a common misconception that has plagued militaries in times of peace for ages: New technological marvels becoming the end-all of defense posturing when force retention will have a much greater impact on the readiness of the enterprise, should a new conflict suddenly arise.
Of course, technology is critical to ensuring that the United States and partners maintain an advantage in the capabilities gap with rivals and adversaries. But to forgo retention of technical, combat and expeditionary experienced program experts — people — moving forward portends a force full of hardware with limited ability to employ it. The DoD has enough issues outside of its national security charges that serve as incentive for a mass exodus — sexual assault, the suicide crisis, family support in the form of decrepit base housing and mental health — to name a few. Not coincidentally, these issues are key factors that contribute to troop separation under ‘normal’ conditions.
The DoD is staring down the daunting challenge of readiness against the rising titans of global competitors, while combat is moving to fringier, less-well defined paradigms. As a result, the allure of national service, which counter-terrorism once buoyed for recruitment chops, will be a difficult pitch to a generation of Americans who have grown up in the shadow of their fathers war.
There will most certainly be places where mission demands do not meet the personnel numbers available. This is simply the nature of the war-peace cycle. DoD needs to address its internal issues.
If it folds to the temptation of the defense contracting industry to swap competent operators for technical wonders, if the problem of toxic leadership and careerism isn’t addressed, and if society continues to worship blemishes on the military iconography, the human component of the defense enterprise will be woefully unprepared for future crisis.
Ethan Brown is an 11-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force as a Special Operations Joint Terminal Attack controller. He is currently the senior fellow for Defense Studies at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, a contributor to the Diplomatic Courier, and has written for the Modern War Institute (West Point) and RealClearDefense. He can be found on Twitter @LibertyStoic.