April 17, 2003

How we Win So Easily

A lot of people are trying to figure out how America wins its wars so easily. The most trivial reasons are technological, and they are also the most widely discussed. Consider this, though, does anyone doubt that the US military, fighting with the type of equipment Iraq was using, would not have beaten the Iraqi military, fighting with the kind of equipment we were using? Some people talk about logistics, which is of course vital. FedEx has done as much for US warfighting in the last two decades as has General Dynamics. Many, many people talk about the quality and dedication of our forces, and a few point out that this arises from their being all-volunteer. Many people also point out the quality and responsibility of our long-service NCOs. All of these are important, and together certainly would give us an advantage over most armies. There are more subtle reasons, though, which are more important as well.

Glenn Reynolds yesterday wrote a column discussing the warfighting advantages we get by having an open and free society. Victor Davis Hanson discusses a number of features of our military, and brushes up against what I believe to be a very important point:

More importantly still, the old idea of separate branches of the military is itself becoming obsolete. It is not just that there are Army, Marine, and Navy pilots or that Seals and Air Force controllers fight on land. Rather there is such instantaneous integration between land, air, and sea forces that it is hard to sort out who is doing what when enemy tanks explode out of nowhere, GPS-guided bombs go into the windows of Baathists, and special forces hit teams take out generals before they can order counterassaults.

It is very neglected - in fact almost unknown - but the key architects of the US war machine of today were Senators Goldwater, Nichols and Nunn, whose 1986 Goldwater Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act changed US warfighting in a few key ways.

First, it was this Act that changed the status of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from arbitrator among the services to the President's primary military advisor, with operational responsibility for all branches of service. (The service chiefs retained organizational, training and equipment responsibilities.) The Act also streamlined the chain of command, with the individual services not in the chain of command at all for operational issues. Instead, the Commanders-in-Chief (CINCs) of the various joint commands were given total operational authority over all force assets assigned to them. In other words, one officer(General Franks in CENTCOM, which is responsible for the Middle East and Africa) in any given region has control over all of the combatant forces, regardless of which service they are attached to.

This has had the effect of eliminating the distinction between the services in combat. No more do we have the kind of interservice arguments that doomed the attempted 1980 rescue mission of the hostages in Iran. Instead, forces are assigned as needed to do what they do best, in pursuit of a single overall operational plan. Decisions about funding various services, and what programs proceed and which get cut, and so forth, still involve a great deal of political infighting in the Pentagon. They do not involve political infighting in the field.

This focus on joint operations has taken a long time to mature. Initial problems began to be worked out in the late 1980s, and the invasion of Panama, while successful, demonstrated some notable issues. By the Desert Storm campaign, many of these issues had been worked through, and the result was an amazing well-coordinated campaign which overthrew the Iraqi Army with minimal coalition casualties. After Desert Storm, resistance within the military to the joint operations concepts largely disappeared, though not entirely.

Our technological advantages, troop quality advantages and so forth are critical factors that allow us to win wars. I believe, though, that the critical factor that allows us to win at low cost is the ability of our forces to work as a single entity, rather than a collection of different priorities, towards a single commander's intent. This ability comes directly from the Goldwater-Nichols Act.

Posted by Jeff at April 17, 2003 12:23 PM | Link Cosmos
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