Spending More, Getting Less
I remember 28th Infantry Division commanders and staffs using the phrase “fight smart and win” to describe what the United States military would have to do to defeat the Soviets. At a disadvantage in manpower and matched in weaponry, smart was essential.
In the end we were, because other than occasional encounters in the sky and along borders, U.S. and Soviet forces never engaged in battle. We just stared at each other until rot in the Soviet system brought their economy down and their military with it. This is fighting smart at its finest.
Russian troops in Ukraine made me think of these things and that we are not so smart anymore. The United States was rich forever, or so we thought, and with the Cold War over we figured we would buy every bell and whistle military genius could imagine, rain it on our professional military, let trickle-down equip the National Guard, and sit back and watch tyrants fall into line. Reality, fiscal or otherwise, didn’t matter because we were the most powerful nation the world had ever known, and that was that.
But then we met improvised explosive devices and poorly armed locals unimpressed with super weapons and super powers. They took us back to the basics of grinding it out in the dirt, and we had forgotten how rough that can be. If anyone near the top of our defense establishment should know this it is Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. After all, when he was a soldier in Vietnam, he was part of an Army that existed for no other purpose.
Part of the Air Force existed for the same. In 2014, it is hard to imagine that U.S. ground forces in Vietnam could call on Air Force prop-driven aircraft that had no other purpose than to be there for them. The same went for Army attack helicopters—Hueys and Cobras. Technology on these aircraft was basic and affordable, as it is on their 2014 equivalents. However, when you are rich, affordable doesn’t matter.
But rich is relative, and affordable defense solutions are more important now than ever. This is why it is so concerning to hear of Pentagon plans to “save” by retiring paid-for and proven A-10 attack aircraft, an active-component/reserve-component helicopter shuffle that will gut Army aviation readiness with years and millions needed for recovery, and an incomprehensible move to cut less costly Army National Guard forces in favor of far more costly active forces.
President George Washington hailed the National Guard, then state militias, as the “army of the constitution,” and militarily and fiscally we can strengthen the Constitution by expanding these citizen forces, not reducing. And trashing A-10s for fuel and money-guzzling F-35s has me wondering if anyone in Air Force senior leadership recalls former Adm. Mike Mullen’s admonition that “debt” is the greatest threat facing the nation. Thankfully, out here in the hinterlands, wiser heads are speaking up.
This is the core of a letter from the National Governors Association to President Barack Obama in February. Signed by more than 50 governors, the letter asks that the Pentagon’s plan for Army Guard helicopters and Army Guard force structure be reconsidered and that he work with them “to fashion solutions that provide a scalable, cost-effective force that best serves the interests of our nation.”
It is also the core of a bill introduced by Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., with Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., a Guardsman, as an original cosponsor. H.R. 3930, the National Commission on Structure of the Army Act of 2014, seeks to delay planned Pentagon actions until a balanced commission can study the issues and make recommendations on manning and equipping the total Army.
And then there is Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., calling Air Force plans for the A-10 a “serious mistake.” Active on defense issues and married to an A-10 pilot, Ayotte knows what this aircraft means to our ground troops. She must also know the F-35 is no substitute, a conclusion reached in a report by National Security Network analyst Nickolai Sukarev. In his summary, Sukharev observes that the action only makes sense if “strategic planners want to spend more to get less.”
Spending more and getting less, regardless of its many Pentagon manifestations, cannot be an intentional outcome. However, as every National Guard senior leader knows, spending more for the same often is. I’ve mentioned a few examples. Form the Wilson commission and we’ll know many more.
Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Walter L. Stewart is a former commander of the 28th Infantry Division, Pennsylvania Army National Guard, and was the first commander of the 28th Aviation Brigade, 28th Infantry Division. He writes from Bernville, Pa.