These boots are not meant for fighting…yet?

Continuing the weekly professional discussion of military affairs upon Twitter, today’s piece dovetails off of a piece by our Defense Studies Department, “Land Power and the Islamic State Crisis.”  It is a very good summary of the issues, and leads the reader to the unexpected conclusion that the thing which had seemed to be the answer to the current conflicts may, in fact, not lead to a satisfactory conclusion. This piece, for the purposes of discussion, will argue that tactical prowess notwithstanding, at this point Western land power cannot win this war. Read Dr. Tuck’s piece and this one, then join the conversation on Twitter at #CCLKOW. 


“In the end, then, the dilemma facing policy-makers in the fight to stop Islamic State lies is the fact that land power might have the intrinsic power of decision in war; but there is nothing intrinsic to land power that guarantees a decision in our favour.”

That is the money quote from our Defense Studies colleague, Dr. Christopher Tuck. So many have been shouting for Western “boots on the ground” over the past weeks, but there is vastly less real consideration of what that would mean at any level of concern to military affairs, from tactics to policy. Despite absolute tactical proficiency to do so, to enter the conflict on the ground to fight and defeat ISIS is not currently in American interests or, more importantly, those whose lives and fates are so intimately tied to whether and where the ISIS flag continues to fly.

It must be very clear that casualties caused by Western and American armed forces, whether civilians or even the enemy, have a pernicious negative effect. In the former, it increases the moral and human distance between us and those on the ground we mean to support. While it is entirely possible to successfully prosecute a military campaign where local casualties are high and local support is maintained – the campaign in Western Europe to overthrow the German occupation in WWII, for example – this requires a significant foundation of trust and strong shared objectives. Neither currently exists in the region, although it may be possible that Iraq is beginning to manifest the necessary will and interest. Recent calls for increased American assistance from the Government (which is enjoying some greater amount of legitimacy than Maliki’s), from local civilian leaders, and from Iraqi Kurdistan suggest that such support might be growing. Cultivating this sentiment will take smart and sensible diplomacy, both from US/Western actors as well as regional partners. But that will take work, and does not change the contemporary problems.

With respect to the latter, you will likely pause to question why I believe that enemy losses to our military action are detrimental to our strategic purposes. However, as it must be clear at this point, ISIS’s strengths are not wholly or even in the majority on the battlefield. They are, in that domain, adequately sufficient, making good use of their strengths and mitigating their weaknesses. There are certain aspects of their campaigns that have been relatively sophisticated – the reconnaissance and battlefield preparation for the campaign in Anbar [1] should not be undervalued. Nevertheless, we should also note that their military success has been built more significantly upon their abilities to parlay the sentiments of local populations to their tactical and strategic benefit than upon their abilities to fight. But at the end of the day, ISIS’s strength is in its communications and propaganda. And it is in this realm that every fighter killed by Western action becomes nightmarish for us, as each becomes a martyred hero capable of encouraging the recruitment of future fighters. Simply put, the blood we spill is like fuel to the fire.

“We are your sons. We are your brothers. We came to protect your religion and your honour.” This, more than anything else, is ISIS’ selling point on the ground, why they have not yet been pushed out by the locals in whose name they are fighting and attempting to govern. That is where the fight is. And as it stands, on their own Western boots have neither the strategies nor the tactics to sell or make that promise.


So, simple questions for this week’s discussion.

1. In the short term you cannot change the context. So, what do you do? Contrary to the hype, “boots” are not the limit of Western military power – and for that matter, neither is airpower. So, what are the remaining elements of our military capabilities that could be used to strategic advantage against ISIS?

2. In the medium to longer term, the context is malleable. What military and political efforts would help to shape the context and increase the effectiveness of Western military activity, to include the option to use ground troops if that is deemed necessary and of potential utility?




[1] In “Clanging of the Swords, IV” the Raafidah hunters which targeted Iraqi military personnel were brutal, but that should not belie the sophistication of the preparation and execution of the mission to utterly dislocate the Iraqi Army forces. The video is awful, but does offer good military insights.


The Acme Co. Army?


This week’s CCLKOW piece is brought to us by another colleague in War Studies. In this one we confront the seemingly never-ending debate: Do we need a private army to do our dirty work? As domestic politics further complicate the use of own troops in defense of interests but not threat and conflicts seem to demand rapid response, the appeal of the privatization of force grows again. Although of less importance in this latest age of state war, armies for hire are not new to the battlefield. Whether this is wisdom or wishful thinking is another matter. Enjoy the post and join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW


It seems to be the debate that never dies: Last week saw the airing of yet another proposal to establish an army of private contractors, armed and ready to go into combat. One US news host thought it would be a good idea to establish such an army to fight ISIS. Now the idea of a private army is of course neither new nor practicable and has rightfully not attracted much serious discussion. However, a closer consideration of the issues attached to this proposal – such as political control, military effectiveness, and lawfulness – should revive discussion about the role of Private Military and Security Companies (PMSCs) in contemporary warfare.

First, we should remember that the idea to employ a private force in lieu of state forces has been made previously not only by those trying to sell such an army but also by leading figures in the international community. In 1997, then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan proposed to use PMSCs for peacekeeping and the running of refugee camps. This idea did not find much support, but it is worth noting that the proposal was made after the international community failed to respond adequately to the genocide in Rwanda during a period that saw much soul-searching about which reasons could provide legitimacy to an infringement of state sovereignty.

As other commentators have pointed out there are many armed contractors operating around the world at this moment [1], working not only for governments but also private clients such as oil and gas and shipping companies. Also, not all PMSC employees are armed – unarmed guarding, security risk analysis, intelligence gathering and technical support are among the functions frequently contracted out. For all these tasks it is challenging enough to maintain adequate oversight, control and coordination. So intuitively the establishment of a private army is a bad idea. Or is it?

To answer that question, it is worth revisiting some of the classic arguments for and against PMSC usage in armed conflict. The most common arguments for contracting are as follows. PMSCs are cheaper than the military. They are more flexible. They free up military capability. They have specialist knowledge. The public cares less about contractor deaths than about military deaths. Now none of these is actually proven across the board – as with most other things it depends on the specific situation. [2] For example, short-term savings might be eaten up in the long term when a contractor acquires specialist knowledge on a contract, meaning the company is in a prime position to bid on a follow-on contract and charge more than before.

Arguments against employing PMSCs are just a varied as those in favour of it. The most common ones are: It is unethical to use PMSCs. They are too expansive. They are unpredictable and have a vested interest in a conflict to continue. They are not accountable to the public in the way the military is. Oversight is insufficient. Each of those of course has a counter-argument. For example, PMSC oversight and regulation have improved significantly in the past few years, not least through the establishment of the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Providers. It is also not clear why PMSCs or their employees should be more interested in the continuation of a conflict than military personnel.

Why then does the private army idea keep coming up? Because it seems to be an easy option, a ‘quick fix’ instead of developing a strategy to counter what caused a crisis in the first place. It also might seem politically more appealing to present a one-stop solution rather than spending months or years reforming outdated protocols and structures. While I am by no means in favour of it there are a few questions I would like to put up for discussion. I would especially welcome input from those with field experience with security contractors. 

With all this in mind, the questions for this week’s discussions are:


In an age of wars of choice, do ‘private armies’ offer states a better option for armed intervention than traditional armed forces?

Can PMSCs be of use in the fight against ISIL, and in which capacities?

What are the most significant challenges to their use from a military practitioner’s perspective?

 How can PMSC-military cooperation be improved?


Join the discussion on Twitter, #CCLKOW.



1. See the Washington Post blog post by Ishaan Tharoor See also Erik Wemple’s earlier  post

2. In fact Avant and Sigelman found that the US population cares almost as much about contractor deaths as it does about military deaths, but was less informed about the former. Avant, Deborah D./ Sigelman, Lee (2010): Private Security and Democracy: Lessons from the US in Iraq. Security Studies 19(2), 230-265.


‎Is blowing up social media an act of war?

We find ourselves on the cusp of another significant military intervention in Iraq. When last we met here in 2003 it was over the question of the threat posed by the supposed arsenal of weapons of mass destruction held by Saddam Hussein. Today it is in response to the use of a social media as a weapon of mass effect. If the calculus for war was incorrect at that time, to varying degrees of negative consequence depending on the party, then we should take the time to consider whether the threat against which we propose to act is correctly framed and understood. Read, reply here and join the discussion at #CCLKOW.


At the very heart of what the military professional does is the moral authority of the sober calculus between war and peace. Taking life being the first and most basic restriction we commonly acknowledge, the justifications to do so must be serious. We should not be in the business of asking fellow citizens to do such things lightly. Hence such ideals and guides as just war. Rather, however, than consider our moral correctness in responding to the Group Formerly Known as — and Now Referred to as — [1],  I would prefer to examine the claims that THEIR actions of late demand a response which makes use of, as one pundit put it, “every force at our disposal.” Does THIS GROUP’s actions rise to the level of an act of war?

The execution of lone citizens, bereft of any consolation of camaraderie or deed in defence, in desolate surroundings, is just one type of the extreme perceived brutality THAT GROUP seeks to impose upon its enemy audience. Even as many eschew the actual images, just knowing about the event now is enough to feel the agony that situation must have evoked and inspire justified anger. And right we should feel that way, for the sake of our humanity – if you do not, I should like to weep for you and maybe also put you in a cage.

Certainly these images shock, offend, anger and infuse with righteousness. As individuals.

As individuals is not, however, the way in which the state is meant to think and behave. The state represents the whole, and for good reason. The whole has an entirely different set of needs and qualities. The whole is greater than the sum of our fears and grievance; it is also the sum (and more) of our strengths.

Let’s be clear. Lone Americans or Britons or Japanese, et al, will always be vulnerable to THEY WHO SHALL NOT BE NAMED. Their respective countries? I am going to be bold and say no. [2]

I have in the past discussed the use of traditionally non-threatening acts such as auto accidents as acts of war. As well, I have examined the role of sub rosa conflict. I am perfectly happy to grant the asymmetrical actor his due in pursuing war according to the means he finds handy and effective. [3]

However, whether such ‎acts are a reasonable threat to the target societies – and thus demand a use of force in keeping with such a challenge – has not been at the forefront of the discussion. Because the actions are so brazen and awful they have assumed a weight and authority which seems unassailable. That is a dangerous path to the use of force and the recourse to war.

Worse, while THEY pose little risk to the West, THEY (and some others) do seem to be causing a problem for the region. THEY (and other factions) are killing their own in a heart-breaking fashion, in numbers we mostly dare not consider. And it is for this that the misconstruction of their threat is really problematic. There is a role to be played in support of local action. But that sensible action will be steamrolled by rationalised vengeance without a proper accounting of the threat. If we do not correctly apprehend the issues then our policies, strategies, and tactics will be flawed and unlikely to achieve much beyond continued chaos.

I suspect this is less a piece about a specific set of questions and more taking a moment to question the consensus. However, in honour of my place, I’ll frame the essential question in these terms:


Are we over-egging the threat pudding? And in the process, might we be forgetting the roast?



1. The article linked above is an interesting analysis of the legitimacy of THAT GROUP’s political claims regarding statehood by Lieutenant Colonel Tyrell Mayfield, a U.S. Air Force Political Affairs Strategist, There is much concern about how to name THEM and why.

2. Well, qualified no – we could certainly flail ourselves into submission.

3. And let’s be clear, the strong have every reason to use low spectrum hybrid options – the asymmetry of their obvious power superiority is at times a hindrance to action. Putin could not INVADE Ukraine, the mismatch alone would be the outrage, no matter the provocation. But he can do so in the gray zone of plausible deniability. Whether HE poses a larger threat hangs on whether Ukraine is part of a revanchist march (yes) or a means to distract domestic criticism (no, but pay attention).)


No Sacred Cows


Continuing the series of posts to drive professional military and scholarly discussion, this piece challenges your thinking to exceed its normal bounds and question that which you hold to be eternally true. No problems! Comment here and join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW.


Battery Park City and the Port of Newark are separated by a mere five miles. However, between this short distance one spans more than three centuries of military history.

‎The former – now a forest of high rise residences – earned its name as the site of the battery of guns protecting the island of Manhattan from its earliest settlement through the first decades of the 19th century. In that period, coastal defense focused upon direct maritime threats to critical harbors and nodes. The latter represents a current front line defending the homelands. Today’s volume of transoceanic shipping has allowed people and weapons to become the deadly needle in a haystack of anonymous containers.

Within the centuries bracketed by these two points defense of the homeland at the coast has evolved through several other phases as well. Mapping the point of critical threat and necessary defense over time would make for an interesting exercise, but this shifting ‎locus of effort has deeper significance as a symbol of the relentless and ceaseless march of change across warfare. Yes, warfare is marked by many important constants, but its greater character is entirely mutable. What worked yesterday may seem quaint today and novel tomorrow.

So, to today’s questions, which are intended to drag you in entirely two different directions:

1. That thing which you hold to be sacrosanct in warfare – from strategy to tactics, doctrine to weapons, soup to nuts – is now irrelevant. You don’t defend the homeland with local artillery any longer, right? What might replace it? Why?

2. Alternatively‎, give a thought to those local batteries. The examples of Mumbai and Benghazi point to the rise of local, lightly armed threats to urban centres, with rivers/harbours providing infiltration points. Such developments would make battery parks relevant to the defense of the urban landscape again. What other “relics” of past warfare might be on the rise?



The Troubled Past of Foreign Relations with the Kurds

Eugenio Lilli, PhD Candidate, Defence Studies Department, King’s College London and Chair of the KCL US foreign policy research group. Twitter @EugenioLilli

A few weeks ago, fighters of the Islamic State (IS), formerly known as ISIS, seized control of significant swaths of territory in northern Iraq. Ostensibly to stop the IS offensive toward the Kurdish regional capital of Erbil and to provide indispensable humanitarian relief to thousands of displaced civilians, the international community soon mobilized.

US President Barack Obama ordered targeted airstrikes against IS forces and humanitarian air drops in northern Iraq. The US administration also began to send hundreds of military advisors and weapons to help the Kurdish peshmerga in their effort to fight the Islamists back.

French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron said their countries were also ready to supply arms and other forms of aid to Iraq’s Kurds. Similarly, in a meeting in Brussels, the foreign ministries of  EU countries agreed to arm the Kurdish forces.

There have been speculations that the current international support for Iraqi Kurds could translate in the near future into international support for a Kurdish breakaway from Iraq and the formation of an independent Kurdish homeland.

What does the 20th century history of  Kurdish relations with foreign powers tell us about such a possibility?

After the end of World War I, the victorious Allied powers met to dismember the vast territories of a defeated Ottoman Empire. The 1920 Treaty of Sèvres proposed the creation of an autonomous homeland for the Kurdish people. Noticeably, this proposed Kurdistan would not include the Kurdish communities of Iran, French-controlled Syria, and British-controlled Iraq but would grant the Kurds control of an area on what is now Turkish territory. The Allies also made quite clear that they would not provide military or financial assistance to the fledging Kurdish state. As a consequence, it did not take long before Kemal Ataturk’s Turkish nationalist forces, who strongly opposed the recognition of autonomy to ethnic or cultural minorities within Turkey, violently dashed Kurdish hopes for an autonomous homeland.

In 1946, when Soviet troops were still occupying northern Iran, the Soviet Union encouraged Iran’s Kurds to form an autonomous state entity. In doing so, Soviet leaders were reaffirming the longstanding Czarist Russia’s objective of exerting influence on Iranian territory. The resulting Kurdish Mahabad Republic was short-lived though. Under increasing US and British pressure, in fact, the Soviet Union was eventually compelled to withdraw its troops from Iran. Abandoned by their foreign patron, the Kurds were left defenseless against the subsequent offensive mounted by Iranian government forces.

During 1974-75, Iran, with US and Israeli blessing, supported a Kurdish uprising against Iraq’s central government. Iranian leaders were only too willing to seize any opportunity of weakening their rivals in Baghdad. However, in a sudden about-face, Iran concluded a treaty with Iraq, known as the Algiers Agreement, where Teheran pledged to cease assisting the Kurds’ rebellion in Iraq. The agreement resulted in the quick end of the uprising and the forced relocation of more than 250,000 Kurds from northern Iraq to other areas of the country. 

In the 1980s, the United States and the Soviet Union played Iran and Iraq against each other as part of their cold-war struggle for global dominance. Iraq’s Kurds rose up again in a renewed effort to gain independence. The Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein responded by using chemical weapons against Kurdish rebels. In one particularly infamous case, the use of poison gas by Iraqi armed forces led to the death of at least 5,000 civilians in the Kurdish city of Halabja. Confronted with such a blatant violation of international law, the international community stayed silent.

Again, during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the United States instigated Iraqi Kurds to take arms against the regime of Saddam Hussein. However, by the end of February of that year, US President George H.W. Bush abruptly halted Operation Desert Storm thus providing the opportunity to the Iraqi military to regroup and crash the Kurdish upheaval in the north. Fearing a repetition of the terrible events of the 1980s, two million Kurds escaped toward the Turkish and Iranian borders; at least 20,000 of them died in trying to do so.

Even today, while the international community has declared its willingness to provide military and humanitarian assistance to Iraq’s Kurds in their fight against the Islamic State, important international actors, including the United States, are contributing to a problem that is weakening the Kurds at their most vulnerable moment: the Kurds, in fact, are running out of money. The Iraqi central government is required to share oil revenues with the Kurdish regional government in Erbil, but Kurdish authorities have stated that authorities in Baghdad have failed to do so recently. At the same time, the US administration and others have stopped Kurds’ attempts to sell oil of their own. Tellingly, a tanker carrying about $100 million worth of Kurdish oil is currently sitting off the coast of Texas in the Gulf of Mexico unable to unload its valuable cargo. For the Kurds, reaching economic self-sufficiency would undoubtedly represent an essential step toward achieving political independence.

This all but complete historical overview clearly shows that the relations between the Kurds and foreign powers have been characterized by a pattern of cynical exploitation and cold abandonment. If I were a Kurd, I would be extremely skeptical about the possibility that the current international mobilization will translate into genuine future support for the creation of an independent Kurdish homeland.


What Can We Learn from ISIS?

In this week’s professional discussion I would like to consider the value of unlikely role models. We tend to look to those who resemble us for wisdom, both as individuals and organizations. Furthermore, we tend to want to look to those that are “better” according to seemingly objective criteria. I would submit that this perspective is too limited and for that puts at risk real opportunities to grow in wisdom and capability. Enjoy the read and please join the fray at #CCLKOW.


Last week the Marine Corps announced that it would re-brand its MARSOC units under the historic Raider moniker.

The grand history of the Marine Raiders is generally well known. Less well understood is that the Raider tradition is not a single, coherent thing. Two Raider legacies emerged from the war, as Mike Edson and Evans Carlson were given tremendous leeway in command to create their units as they saw fit. And here is where it gets very interesting, because Carlson’s Raiders were formed with a heavy dose of Chinese/PLA influence.

Evans Carlson was unique for many reasons. Most compelling for me, he was a man who took lessons and wisdom wherever they appeared regardless of source. This was nowhere more true than in his travels with the various Chinese forces confronting the Japanese in 1937. There Carlson had the opportunity to study closely the operations and values of the irregular warfare the PLA had adopted to fight the Japanese. Seeing their generally positive results – on the battlefield, within the units, and among the people in and near the Japanese occupation – impressed him. Many of the concepts he saw validated in China would be adapted and implemented within his Raider unit, to include the iconic battle cry, Gung Ho.

Consider that for a moment. The United States, which by the eve of WWII was already militarily potent, was taking lessons in warfare from what would have been considered at the time as a third rate army. Looking only at their record on Guadalcanal suggests that the PLA practices were indeed valuable to the Raiders. And yet conventional wisdom would never have identified the PLA as a role model for American military capabilities.

From the perspective of military innovation, from tactics to strategies, we find ourselves in very interesting times. In every corner of the globe there are niche military formations which, for their poverty and irregularity, for their freedom from institutional legacies and traditions, have taken what they needed from any sector to cobble together capabilities to relatively good effect. ISIS, for example, has created social media as a potent “arm” of its forces. Jihad by tweet won’t win any conflicts, but it certainly enhances ISIS’ interaction with its own audience and those it is trying to woo. That is but only one small piece of the innovation afoot in warfare. Even a military super-power could benefit from consideration of these advances, no matter that it might mean learning from an unlikely role model.

So, the questions for this week are:

In what areas do Western military capabilities lag behind contemporary weaker or lesser forces? That is, where might they benefit from an unlikely role model?

What or who is your unlikely role model of choice?


Learning to Win, Not Defeat

In the continuing series of blog posts to spur professional military discussion, I offer a thought piece arguing for a reorientation of the conceptualization of warfare in the near to mid term — or at the very least in this piece of the spectrum of conflict. For a bit of summer fun, rather than prescriptive questions, in this case you are invited to discuss and challenge my interpretations. Enjoy the read and join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW.


The new documentary “Kill Team” narrates the degeneration of one Army unit to a state in which criminal acts were validated and suggests that military training focussed upon killing is to blame. At the tactical level, I cannot agree. Sustaining any specific military training is the foundation in discipline and order. To wit, proficiency in killing does not mean that troops on the front lines are little more than automatons of death. Rather, events such as these rely far more significantly upon the command and leadership climate which shapes the attitudes and activities of the line units than upon the combat training of the soldiery. And so it is necessary to understand what influences and shapes that climate. Taking this approach, I would argue that the real source of the problem is that how warfare is conceptualized is too focussed upon the killing, upon destruction, upon defeat.

Understandably, given the overwhelming model of the 2oth Century’s two World Wars, American armed forces (and those of the West generally to varying degrees) have come to define their activities in two realms, often occurring in sequence from defeat the enemy to win the war. Further to that, the first objective was largely defined in terms of physical destruction. And so the standard template was to first fight and destroy the opposing forces, then to put society back together afterwards. Given the the mass armies of industries in those wars, that prioritization made sense because the enemy force was a real obstacle to the necessary terms of victory and peace. Along the way, however, this priority escaped the bounds of its own context and came to be viewed as an eternal truth – that victory necessarily equals defeat of the enemy force.

However, when one considers these values as the context which informs command and leadership it is questionable that they serve well the needs of contemporary warfare. Whether in the urban jungle or the boondocks, a reasonable model for the contemporary style of conflict is generally irregular and light forces using asymmetric tactics and reliant upon a general level of support from the local population. Unfortunately, in an environment where the defeat of the enemy must necessarily occur within the civilian population, the prevailing wisdom described above does not serve and may in fact harm current efforts because collateral damage becomes losses and casualties for those that cause it. The confluence of political consciousness, mass information and social media make this so. A reasonable interpretation of recent events is that this effect weighs heaviest upon the dominant or foreign actor in a conflict and is the source of strategic equivalence between weak and strong that has been on display in the recent asymmetric conflicts.

And so, the new calculus of collateral damage has allowed the insurgent/irregular forces to contend successfully against wealthier, militarily more proficient forces. (1)  This puts the armed forces on the horns of a dilemma: the focus upon defeating the enemy may be getting in the way of winning the war. In conflicts like OIF/OEF, so long as the physical destruction of the enemy remains the dominant objective of the armed forces, not only will more such sad events occur, but the translation of military activity to political benefit will continue elude the US and the West.



1. Israel you need to learn this lesson. Whatever the other issues, in the cold calculus of war, you own every Palestinian civilian you kill because you are the stronger of the two in the conflict with Hamas. If you were fighting Egypt or Iran, then this would not apply — see, it’s not about unfairly binding you, it’s about making you see the emergent strategic imperatives.





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.

One Dollar Bill

When Checks Imbalance

Today’s author, Elizabeth B. Oakes, completed her doctorate in War Studies from King’s College London in May of this year. The title of her thesis , “Too Baroque to Fix: The US Army’s Future Combat System.” Her work focuses on strategic planning and defense acquisition by way of a case study of the rise and fall of a major acquisition program. She currently lives and works in London. 

Although the specific subject of concern for today’s professional discussion (#CCLKOW) is the American defense budget, I would certainly encourage our British and other participants to point out how their processes, benefits and challenges compare and contrast with these.  JSR

Negotiating and passing the US Department of Defense budget is a complicated slog that normally lasts nine months each year. The process is shrouded in side deals and unrelated amendments. Its straightforward elements are highly contentious. The defense budget is a political beast: stakeholders fighting over resources in an attempt to retain relative power. It is also a tedious subject to discuss. Words like committee mark-up, sequester, and title usually cause eyes to glaze over. But at nearly $500 billion, the defense budget is big and important. It warrants attention.

Here are some fun and easy details to focus this discussion. At the beginning of the year, the Secretary of Defense, in consultation with the Armed Services, submitted a defense budget for Fiscal Year 2015 which totaled $495.6 billion. This budget largely reflects the beliefs of the Obama administration, which hold that the budget and size of the military should decline following the end of large overseas operations. In pursuit of this proposed budget, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel requested that each Armed Service suggest its own cost-saving measures. Among many on these lists were the retirement of the Air Force’s A-10 Warthog aircraft and the end of procuring the Army’s M1A1 Abrams tank. The Army and Marine Corps will begin their size drawdown. Each Service also nominated some lesser-used bases for BRAC decrease or closure, and Secretary Hagel’s office suggested widespread reforms to mitigate drastically rising personnel costs (such as TRICARE co-pays for retirees, reduced pay increases, and commissary closures).  All in all, the Pentagon’s proposed budget stays within bounds of the Budget Control Act of 2011 and loyal to the White House’s overall goals for the DoD.

A quick civics lesson reminds us that the Executive Branch doesn’t pass the defense budget. Congress does. Its power as purse holder is part of the American checks and balances system, which contends that inefficient negotiations yield a more balanced, measured result for the country. In this case, Congress is supposed to check the power of the Pentagon by forcing it make difficult or innovative choices based on limited resources. However you find this process, what matters more is that it isn’t happening. Congress isn’t checking or balancing the FY15 defense budget in any meaningful way. The House version of the defense bill totals $521.3 billion. It declines to retire/discontinue many procurement programs, including the A-10 and the Abrams. It refuses to allow the closing of un- or under-used bases. It delays personnel entitlement reforms, and it aims to slow the drawdown of troops. In short, it defers the hard decisions to a later date in an effort to retain production facilities and base economies in home constituencies.

Two important points surface at this point. The first is that the House version is probably more generous than the final version will be as the Senate usually negotiates a more moderate approach. Of course, this year experts are divided on how moderate the Senate intends to be. Secondly, the Armed Services not-so-secretly relish these generous budgets. No Service likes to lose personnel or equipment, especially if such losses are greater relative to the other Services. Thus, on the whole, two more upward pressures on this year’s defense budget are likely to emerge this summer.

So where is the problem? Why should the military be concerned by more generous budgets? Isn’t this all a good thing? The answer is mostly no. Flexibility and perhaps innovation are greatly stifled by budgets such as the one proposed by the House of Representatives. Readiness and modernization are most at stake. In a budget-constrained environment with so many required pet programs, bases, and personnel costs, the Services are left with few options for how to train and base their personnel and what equipment to buy. As near-, mid-, and long-term threats emerge, the Services will grow more and more constrained to face them. They will be too occupied executing the demands of the defense budget; too little will be left for new training, new solutions, and new equipment. The military has a right to question such moves. A big defense budget is a prize horse, but it must be looked in the mouth.

Some questions to consider:

How can the Services respond to a budget that contains unwanted elements such as equipment or personnel requirements?

Is it possible for the defense budget to overcome short-term political gains in favor of longer-term strategies?

What can the DoD do to protect its decision-making flexibility?

Further reading options:


What does a committed strategic relationship look like?

Last week, in preparation for the NATO summit in Wales, London played host to the British and American Combined Chiefs of Staff. That the phrase even has a shared and unique meaning, signifying only the collaboration of American and British military chiefs, is itself an historic achievement. If not unprecendented, it is certainly uncommon to find two sovereign nations who can comfortably imagine a shared vision for the operation of their armed forces. We have both come a long way since the Revolutionary War and not drifted too far from the alliance of WWII.

This is good because the special relationship does serve both the US and UK [1] and, going further, the correct approach to the future should be to consider how to expand its terms and practices. Not only is it in their common interests, but it advances wider needs as well. I will review a few key points to establish the foundation for the position and set up the discussion of the questions at the end.

Dealing first with what might seem the most alarming problem, contrary to what might be expected, the value beyond just the two parties is in fact most important with respect to the rest of Europe. While this way forward could be mistaken for an anti-European or threatening stance, in fact I see the development as a means to improve relations amongst the three parties, continental Europe, the US and the UK. Whereas the UK serves as the comfortable half step to the continent for the US, the Atlantic alliance at its back offers the UK something to balance its sense of separation from the rest of Europe. As for the continental EU, this state of things would reassure engagement of both the US and UK with the continent. It is necessary that both the US and the UK [2]remain integral parts of this political establishment. Notwithstanding its weaknesses and costs, it is a far better development for the benefit of the region than rampant state self interest.

Nor can I deny the terms and validity of the special relationship have taken something of a beating lately [3]. However, beneath the skepticism, cynicism and pessimism (and I’m not sure which of these dominates) there is a fundamental and sensible basis for close relations between the two, both in history and going forwar. It is not my intention here to offer the history of the relationship, but it is reasonable to assert its existence within the framework of the post WWII world. Indisputably something particular and unique has existed between the two countries since that war [4], even as examples where friction or suspicion or competition have arisen can be found.  The breach is not reliable to define of a thing, which is arguably the case here remembering that we are dealing with entities – states – for whom it is not at all easy or natural to work with others as allies outside of war. Unblemished and easy will never be the terms to describe such a thing.

Alternatively, some question such a future given a perception that the US and UK stand to substantially diverge in capabilities. I have heard from the British side here in London that the matter of military parity must necessarily critically undermine the relationship. They argue that the value of future British military contributions, either from a technological (are the weapons and systems adequately advanced) or quantitative (is the British force structure adequately sized) standpoint will not keep pace with American capabilities, but it will also render their contributions irrelevant. Such an accounting is far too narrow. The value that the British bring to the table is not reckoned in simple numerical or material terms – certainly its military capacity is not defined by this alone.

Looking only at the strategic component of the relationship, with respect to armed force, standing capability is not a fixed upper limit. In the event of a future war, British force structure and weaponry certainly would not be governed by the contemporary chosen budget constraints. Rather, it is far more sensible to view the services today as a cadre around which much larger forces could be built. With respect to technological development, I categorically disagree with those who argue that the UK is falling behind irretrievably in military technology or that this will somehow define future capabilities. Spending on weaponry in peacetime is a fraught proposal, and it is never certain that the expenditures in those moments will match what will be needed when war does finally return. Thus, heresy though it may be to dismiss force structure and weaponry as indicators of military capacity, my preference is for the intangibles which cannot be developed nearly as quickly or easily as personnel or weapons. The hardened core of the armed forces is difficult to create. Time can do it. In short order a shared cause will inspire its rapid development. But as the record of foreign military training amply demonstrates, those strengths are not easily acquired and instilled. The long term knowledge and experience contained within the British armed forces regarding the profession of arms, practice in warfare, and conduct of war is inestimably valuable. 

While it may be obvious what the US brings to the table in terms of capability and resources, perhaps the benefit for that side is less clear. If only as a bulwark against the wild swings of isolationism and disengagement such a relationship would serve. Alternatively, taking as the truth that there is not much tangible to be gained for the US, just like man, no state is an island. Even the rich kid with everything needs friends. 

So, rather than challenging our virtual general staff to plan for war or consider how to defeat an enemy, I would like to instead put the issue of imagining a reinterpretation of a bilateral alliance whose intent is the strategic integration of their shared military capacity. The following questions are a broad guide to the issues for discussion (#CCLKOW)


What are the strategic and tactical synergies that can be expected from such a relationship?

What are the comparative advantages each party brings to the combination? (Ricardian economics, appropriate for a discussion related to the UK.)

How might you organize tasks, roles, missions, etc. between the two countries and their respective services? (I have an idea for this, but I will save that for a comment later in the week.)

What are the costs and perils for either or both? Do these outweigh the benefits?



[1] An assessment of the scope of issues and efforts which benefit from the advanced state of relations between the two states is well beyond the capacity of this essay. However, I am not the first person to take this position, nor is it particularly extreme even as it might be contested.

[2] There is much talk in the UK about dissatisfaction with and perhaps departure from the EU. This piece does not intend to argue the case, but it is my position that the UK is better off in the EU – and that the EU cannot afford to lose the UK. At the very least, I think the current global situation would support the notion that disintegration does no-one any good.

[3] The piece linked here is a good example of journalists using historical material badly and for editorial effect. It may be good journalism but it is terribly history and ought not to be read as a serious account of the relationship between two nations. Generally, if it’s a newspaper article it is not history.

[4] Most recently I would cite Blair’s decision to support the Bush Administration’s decision for war in Iraq in 2003. This may seem an odd example, given the unfolding of events in that country (right up to ISIS’s recent offensives in Iraq). In almost every manner possible I think OIF was a terrible choice, but for the British I think something very important was maintained in its alignment with the US. I would have preferred wise counsel from our British friends, but even still this move was political and, in my view, the far better one for both sides.