CTRL + ALT + DELETE
Resetting America's Military
BY SHAWN BRIMLEY AND PAUL SCHARRE
TODAY'S U.S. MILITARY IS THE PRODUCT OF HISTORY -- NOT OF THE MISSIONS AND THREATS IT NOW FACES. AMERICAN FORCES ARE HAMPERED BY OVERLAPPING ROLES AND MISSIONS, ARCANE ORGANIZATIONAL STRUCTURES, COLD WAR PLATFORMS AND PROGRAMS, AND RECRUITING PRACTICES DETACHED FROM MODERN NEEDS. IF IT WERE STARTING FRESH, THIS IS NOT THE MILITARY THE UNITED STATES WOULD BUILD.
What if we could start from scratch? What might the U.S. military look like if we hit Ctrl+Alt+Delete and reset the force? Would we establish a separate Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps? Would we give them the overlapping capabilities -- planes and helicopters, commandos and cyberspace units -- that they have today? Would we give regional commanders the power of veritable viceroys?
As budgets tighten, other powers rise, and technologies proliferate, it is time to stop and ask: Is there a better way? What follows is a thought experiment about what the U.S. military might look like if we started today with a blank slate.
In our vision, the military would be organized around its three overarching missions: defend the homeland, defeat adversaries, and maintain a stabilizing presence abroad -- themes that run through defense strategy documents over the last quarter-century, regardless of presidential administration. In a revolutionary break from current practice, these new commands would be responsible not only for executing these core missions, but also for developing the capabilities to achieve them. We would invest more in robotics systems of all kinds, protect existing special operations and cyberspace capabilities, and reduce less relevant capabilities like short-range aircraft and tanks.
The military's personnel system would also be reformed to meet modern needs. New recruitment tools would allow the hiring of midcareer professionals who have skills in key areas, like cybersecurity and economic development. Personnel contracts would be revamped to eliminate the element of conscription that remains in todays "all-volunteer force": Young people volunteer to join the military, but once they do, they can't leave -- and they can even be kept in past the end of their contracts under the "stop-loss" policy. We would institute a true volunteer force, whereby those in uniform would owe a certain amount of time to the military based on training received. If they chose to leave early -- which they would be free to do -- they would have to reimburse the government for the cost of the training they had acquired at taxpayer expense.
Career trajectories would be modified to emphasize flexibility. Service members would compete for jobs within an internal market, giving both commanders and individuals more control over assignments. And the military's anachronistic class division into officers and enlisted personnel, more suitable for 18th-century Britain than 21st-century America, would be redefined. No corporation that placed 22-year-old college graduates directly into middle management could survive, and we would institute a more sensible leadership model based on experience and ability.
Of course, there is no magic button to erase the laws, culture, and history that have shaped the military into what it is today. But with wars ending, resources declining, and new threats emerging, now is the time to consider reform. These ideas are only an exercise, but policies, bureaucracies, and laws can change. The military underwent major reforms after World War II with the creation of the Department of Defense, after the Vietnam War with the establishment of the all-volunteer force, and in the 1980s under the Goldwater-Nichols reforms. The question is not whether the U.S. military should change for the future, but how it should change and whether it can do so in time -- before the next war.