Finding the virtue in austerity

Necessity is not only the Mother of Invention, but it is often the case that the creations begot by this inspiration are of the highest quality. Consider an example from the culinary world, duck confit. One of the ancient means to preserve meat, in this case the meat is encased within a barrier of fat nearly impenetrable to bacteria. It was, historically, a humble means for peasants to keep the fruits of their summer and autumn labors. Many today would consider it as belonging to the realm of “high dining,” and in fact it is a product which commands prices a 19th century farmer would find impossible. From austerity and need was created a product of disproportionate value and quality.

Your appetites whetted, I will point out that relative poverty has its application to military organizations and war. For the US, the Interwar period is a good example of such a context. Defense budgets were limited, and the forces were constricted and remained small until the last moments. Nevertheless, the people kept thinking and innovating, and for the organizations it was a time of education and experimentation. During this time the US armed forces:

– wrote strategies which spanned the imagination of possible conflict, much of which was ultimately drawn, in whole or part, into the plans for the campaigns against Germany and Japan;

– pursued professional education in every corner of the modern industrial economy as this period marked the rise of the Industrial College of the Armed Forces (lectures on the differences between packing and packaging and the relative merits of various forms of each alone suffice to indicate the seriousness of the work);

– and finally, were sufficiently flexible to allow Evans Carlson to travel as a professional observer throughout the theatres of the Sino-Japanese War, which would lead to his concept for Marine Raiders during the Pacific Campaign five years later.

These are just a few iconic examples of a period rich in innovation and learning for the US. I suspect the same could be said of the British experience in this time. More recently, since WWII one cannot deny the rise of “poverty ingenuity.” Weak actors have ritually and regularly proven their ability to successfully confront the armed forces of the rich and strong.

Despite this record, news of budget cuts are being met with unbroken choruses of gloom and doom. While I accept that there are indeed ways in which austerity can lead to a great fall, I am also certain that these are not the only paths forward from such a point, because at the very least I recall the Marine Corps of the 1990s – limited budgets, unlimited skill and preparation. This might not be a period of large standing forces, high acquisition budgets, or generous training allotments, but it need not be a moment of stagnation.

So, for this week’s Professional Discussion (#CCLKOW) I would put to you the following questions which rely upon the virtues of austerity and ingenuity to answer.

– As leaders of units, how can you make up for the resource constraints which will limit the available fuel and bullets to provide valuable experience to personnel?

– As members of your services, how can such a period serve the constituent and integrated capabilities of the services, whether strategically, doctrinally, or tactically?

– As an individual, what opportunities might this period provide that one of high op-tempo (either training or fighting) would not?

In sum, tell me how you will make lemonade of the budgetary lemons you are being served.

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One thought on “Finding the virtue in austerity

  1. Dettingen says:

    I had a long chat with a (much smarter) friend about this post. Training and educational ambition is only partly resource dependent. In times of plenty we often waste resources, so why should austerity be a universal time of darkness?
    To get good training you need clear thinking, imagination and some ambition. Think of the Reichswehr in the 30s rather than the British Army in the same period. The key is training the minds of commanders (and followers) using whatever you’ve got, table top exercises and wooden mock ups of tanks if needs be! One silver lining of austerity may be delegation of time to commanders to allow them to train their people, rather than being on highly resourced but centralised events for Iraq and Afghanistan.
    My one caveat is collective training, it needs to happen and we should sacrifice whatever it takes to retain it at unit and formation levels.

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