The politically delayed confirmation of Chuck Hagel to become the Secretary of Defense could well be a pivot point, and an essential one, for the future of the Department. It is time for this most important arm of the government to become more aligned with 21st Century realities.
Much of the thinking in the United States, and particularly in Washington D.C., is what I call legacy thinking. We have powered into the 21st Century thinking thoughts from the 20th Century. Certainly if one is over 40 much of what he thinks was shaped in the last century. If you first developed a thought about “what is true, or right” in 1980 or 1990, it may no longer be so “right” in 2013. Holding onto legacy thoughts from decades past means that you’re standing in a house that was built in the past, while looking out through the window at the present, with little, if any view of the future.
A Brief History
When the Department of Defense was created in the late 1940s, the fundamental mission was to have a stronger national state military than any other country, particularly the Soviet Union. This was right after the country had won WWII, largely due to a massive and rapid scale-up of our industrial base. We had just moved from defeating fascism to facing the Soviet Union. It was in this context that the Department of Defense was created and given its mission.
The scale up was so rapid, large and successful that even President Eisenhower, the greatest American general of the last 100 years and the only one to become a President in that time, had concerns. One of Eisenhower’s most famous quotes was what he said in his farewell address to the nation on January 17, 1961, three days before the inauguration of President Kennedy:
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.
We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together.”
As a General, the death of soldiers under his command weighed heavily on Eisenhower. As President, he quickly ended a war he inherited and resisted entering into a war in Vietnam. The same war that Hagel enlisted to fight.
America won the Cold War, yet the fundamental mission of the Defense Department remained the same: to be able to club any other nation state into military submission. The obvious problem with that is that there is no nation state wanting to engage with the United States in a military war. Yet the legacy thinking of the Defense Department and the military industrial complex Eisenhower warned us about still drives the thinking and spending that Hagel and Obama want to alter.
A Lot Has Changed
The current enemies of the US are cyber attacks – from China, other nations and rogue hacker groups – as well as global terrorist groups. There is no nation state that wants to engage the US in a traditional or nuclear war. The future of dealing with cyber warfare, terrorist groups and even rogue countries will be largely technological. The concept of placing of hundreds of thousands of American service men and women in harm’s way in some other country will be viewed as archaic by 2020 and perhaps barbaric by 2030.
Drones, global positioning satellites, ever more connectivity and ever smaller and powerful technologies will be the future of warfare. It is truly odd to have such resistance to drones where the collateral damage is relatively small compared to the catastrophic collateral damage from nuclear weapons that the country largely embraced during the Cold War. Can anyone please tell me when there was a war that had no civilian collateral damage? War is war.
The United States spends more on its military every year that the next 13 countries combined. We currently have enough kill power to annihilate the human race several times over. So when President Obama and now Secretary of Defense Hagel talk about lowering the number of nuclear warheads, there will still be enough to annihilate humanity multiple times.
Finally, in the fiscally restrained near term future of the US, it will untenable to spend 25% of the budget for the military. Much of this goes to personnel, military bases in place since WWII and overly expensive weapons systems that are for the old model of nation state warfare. Expenditures based upon no longer valid Cold War legacy thinking.
What Comes Next?
When you look at the Senators who voted against Hagel, you see people who are trapped in 20th Century legacy thinking and who represent the military industrial complex one of our greatest generals warned us about. What are these guys so insecure about? Nothing? Then look at who contributes to their campaigns.
Hagel and his boss potentially represent a completely new way of looking at how the Defense Department should be re-cast to face the dangers of this new century. That makes the legacy thinkers who have had no real budget restraints for decades nervous. It should. Time to face the future of our nation’s threats and time to spend money in ways that will meet them and defeat them.