Gringo Lost

Words about things and stuff

Archive for June 2010

Defense acquisition reform: small step or pointless?

with one comment

The Pentagon announced Monday a series of steps it hoped would save $100bn over 5 years. These steps are focused on creating greater “efficiencies” in the defense acquisition process. Defense acquisition chief Ashton Carter said to reporters “In the rest of the economy, we expect this — you get a better computer every year, and cheaper. But we haven’t seen productivity growth in the defense economy. More has been costing more, and we need to reverse that trend and restore affordability to our programs.”

The plan, detailed in this memo by Ashton Carter, has logical objectives. Amongst other things, it aims to “deliver the warfighter capability we need for the dollars we have” and to “get better buying power” for the defense department. Carter advocates steps to reach these objectives which also seem rational.

He splits these steps into two sections. The first section focuses on how the Pentagon can change the defense industry by giving it incentives to become more efficient. This section is called “Providing Incentives for Greater Efficiency in Industry.” It includes these steps:

  • Leveraging real competition
  • Using proper contract type for development and procurement
  • Using proper contract type for services
  • Aligning policy on profit and fee to circumstance
  • Sharing the benefits of cash flow
  • Targeting non-value-added costs
  • Involving dynamic small business in defense
  • Rewarding excellent suppliers

The second section is called “Adopting Government Practices that Encourage Efficiency.” Seemingly it includes efforts to change and reform government practices to become more efficient. It includes:

  • Adopting “should-cost” and “will-cost” management
  • Strengthening the acquisition workforce
  • Improving audits
  • Mandating affordability as a requirement
  • Stabilizing production rates
  • Eliminating redundancy within warfighting portfolios
  • Establishing senior managers for procurement of services
  • Protecting the technological base

At first glance you would think all of these actions would already be happening. Indeed, most businesses operating in competitive environments would already do these things. But the defense sector is not subject to the rules of competitive markets. As Dan Froomkin notes, “it’s a testament to how corrupt the now $400 billion a year contracting process has become that the changes outlined [above] seem in any way dramatic; they are, mostly, simply assertions of common sense.”

Ashton Carter proposes to open contract bidding to more firms and even source defense needs from smaller businesses. He advocates “fixed-price” contracting over “cost-plus” contracting, basically shifting the burden to cover cost overruns from the DoD to the defense supplier. But these initiatives are assured to meet up against congressional roadblocks and an industry well sheltered from competition, foreign or domestic.

Perhaps as an indication of how this would play out, earlier this year Northrop Grumman walked away from a $35bn contest to select a replacement for the air force’s fleet of refuelling tankers in part because the Pentagon insisted on a fixed-price development contract. That left only Boeing and the European based EADS to bid for the project, which has characteristically went political and become a source of congressional parochialism.

Next, the Defense Department pledges to refine its in-house acquisition capabilities. Meaning it wants to get better at buying things. For example, “will-cost” management is something the Pentagon doesn’t do well because it doesn’t have engineers and project managers well-trained enough to determine how much a project is actually going to cost.

Take the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). Running nearly $500 million per ship, these coastal “asymmetric” warfighting vessels (otherwise known as Lavishly Crewed Speedboat, or any of these other acronyms) originally were supposed to cost $90 million per ship. But because the Pentagon awarded the ship-building contract prematurely to General Dynamics, the hull was built before the Navy had submitted its requirements for what it wanted the ship to do. Defense Department acquisition personnel were unable to convince or realize that cost overruns would occur, which led to the 500% increase in price.

To get to my point: Acquisition reform is only the beginning. In fact, the projected $20bn a year savings is an optimistic figure subject to changing political conditions. To create substantial reductions in the defense budget will require real cuts to real programs, and the lowering of end-strength in some of the services. This in turn, will have to be predicated by a more limited mission for the Department of Defense. One that doesn’t necessarily include the projection of power to all parts of the globe and state building in war-torn countries located in the geo-strategic periphery of U.S. national interest.


America’s lame-duck war

with 2 comments

I had set out yesterday to write a post about the General McChrystal fallout but at-once decided against it. Mainly because I felt there was nothing I could say that other news agencies weren’t already saying. But also because it was a frustrating ordeal. I put a lot of faith in the U.S. government to make reasoned decisions. This may be a little naive but I like to think the country’s leadership are professional civil servants.

That’s why the Rolling Stone article and the debacle that followed was so disheartening. For one, I have already voice my opinions about President Obama’s reluctance to make hard choices about the Afghan war. Last November at the conclusion of his strategy review, President Obama opted for a middle-of-the-road approach, which was neither a small-scale counter-terrorism mission or a large-scale counter-insurgency operation. This was regarded by most as a bad approach that would only postpone the inevitable while putting U.S. service men and women at risk. I felt it was the most irresponsible decision of his presidency.

Now comes the recent McChrystal news. Sadly, this is just another in a long line of poor decisions and irresponsible behavior by the civil servants in charge of this war.

To illustrate, through this blog’s series on the 8 best generals of the industrial warfare era (see parts I, II, III, and IV), we have begun to identify some running themes which contribute to successful war effort. 1) is the knowledge of key intelligence and the ability to understand the context and circumstances in which you fight – to take the “big picture” view; 2) the ability to mobilize the nation’s resources for the war front. And 3) a strong relationship and shared vision between the political leadership and military leadership.

But none of these exist in America’s Afghan campaign.

History’s best industrial warfare generals: Bernard “Monty” Montgomery

leave a comment »

Here’s a contribution from GringoLost reader Ralph. This is Ralph’s second entry into the series on greatest industrial warfare generals, his first was on Helmuth Von Moltke.


Field Marshal Bernard “Monty” Montgomery was Britain’s Army commander during World War II.  He was the British version of Patton, an inspiration for his troops and the allies.  Beginning with El Alamein, he would push the Nazis back to the Rhine.

Montgomery makes the list of 8 best industrial warfare generals because he exemplifies the truism that success occurs not only because of the skills of the military leadership but also by the circumstances of the time and the competence of their political counterparts – and the industrial production capabilities they have at home.

There would be no Helmuth Von Moltke without Otto Von Bismarck, no Vo Nguyen Giap without Ho Chi Minh, and no Montgomery without Winston Churchill. Additionally, their victories relied on the successes of blockades and the harnessing of industrial war production. For example, Montgomery’s victorious North Africa campaign would not have happened if the allies had not deciphered Erwin “the Desert Fox” Rommel’s coded war plans and choked his supply lines. This combined with aerial bombing contributed to the allied victory.

Montgomery had a great ability to build morale when prepping his troops for combat. His compassion for them was first rate. He would explain the allies war aims in a way that gave the common soldier an understanding of why he fights. He would listen to their complaints. *He even set up a  brothel for them in Tripoli. Tactically, Montgomery would develop master plans which utilized force flexibility to counter unexpected enemy movement.

Critics said he was too cautious against enemy forces, but his contributions outweigh these criticisms. His command and control of the British military and his skill on the general staff contributed to turning the Nazi’s back in North Africa and taking Northern Germany. He was also an effective organizer working collaboratively with other allied commanders.

Here are some righteous quotes and circumstances which reflect Montgomery’s personality and astute leadership style.

  • Speaking to officers while in command of the 8th Army in North Africa, Montgomery said “I have cancelled the plan for withdrawal. If we are attacked, then there will be no retreat. If we cannot stay here alive, then we will stay here dead.”
  • After repelling an attack from Erwin Rommel at Alam el Halfa, Montgomery attacked the Germans at El Alamein on October 23rd 1942 while still waiting for resupply. This victory turned the war in the Allies favor. “Before Alamein we never had a victory,” said Winston Churchill, “after Alamein we never had a defeat.”
  • Relying on the might of the Allied industrial base behind him, Montgomery led forces to push the Desert Fox out of Africa, invade Sicily, get a “toehold” on the boot of Italy, and, post-Normandy, force the Nazis to surrender Northern Germany to him personally on May 4th 1945.

Despite some post-WWII political disagreements with other allied commanders and some questionable actions later in life, Montgomery command style fit well with the Allied war plans. He was able to utilize the resources he had, including the fighting man, with great skill to drive a large portion of one of the greatest armies the world has seen to surrender. While some may contend that once the US entered the War a Nazi defeat was inevitable, it would be hard to envision this victory without that ole’ chap Monty.

Written by gringolost

June 21, 2010 at 2:14 pm

Two posts on an overloaded national security strategy and China’s angering behavior

leave a comment »

In back-to-back posts, Professor Dan Drezner talks about strategy. In the first case, Drezner talks about President Obama’s National Security Strategy, which last month was released and meant to detail everything that the president thought was a national security risk and, consequently, the actions his administration could take to reduce those risks.

Drezner’s assessment of the document is that it is “mostly harmless,” if maybe a bit contradictory on nuclear policy with a stated aim at retrenchment (which requires a strong deterrent) and nuclear disarmament (which nuclear weapons provide the best/cheapest deterrent). Drezner also points out the deficiencies in President Obama’s plan to get America’s fiscal house in order, saying that it is short on actions that could improve American economic strength.

These criticisms aside, the National Security Strategy has some other major flaws. Principally, it includes too much. There are sections covering the economy, environment, “international science partnerships”, and promoting democracy abroad. These things are well and good, but their placement on a national security document waters down its purpose: to identify security threats and formulate plans to address those threats.

In his second post, Drezner writes about how China’s behavior over the past nine months – angering officials at international conferences and not placating to the interests of others – is stupidly endangering their own strategic interests. In a way, I agree with Professor Drezner in that strategic communications are important and China needs to do them better. But, in the end, does how you talk to another country matter if you hold the hard sources of power?

Drezner states:

China’s strategy here is of a piece with their behavior over the past nine months or so, which, intentionally or not, could be characterized as “Pissing Off as Many Countries As Possible.”


This is a long and distinguished list of countries to alienate [Drezner identified numerous].  It certainly signals a shift, intended or not, from the “peaceful rising” approach of the past decade or so.  It also appears to be bad strategy — simultaneously angering the countries that could form a balancing coalition is not an exercise in smart power.  And as I’ve said before, China has badly overestimated how it can translate its financial capabilities into foreign policy leverage.

Here I disagree. Only on the grounds that China’s actions simply exist in the realm of international opinion. What they are doing does not alter global hard power dynamics. The soft power aspect is important but not as much as Drezner implies.

China is making poor strategic communications. Arguably this is a bad move but large powers often say things that anger other countries. While maybe an idealist would want a friendlier dialog, a realist would know that it doesn’t matter so much.

Smoke and minerals: Afghanistan’s “new” riches don’t matter

with 3 comments

You would think $1 trillion worth of minerals would not go unnoticed for so long. But apparently, the Pentagon believes it just “discovered” a vast wealth of minerals in Afghanistan which could be the treasure chest needed to fund the Afghan treasury (something the U.S. currently does). Sounding more like a marketing agency, the Pentagon revealed in an internal memo that the minerals offered so much potential that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of Lithium.”

Altogether this hoopla is reminiscent to Paul Wolfowitz’s proclamations at the beginning of the Iraq War that oil revenues would cover the costs of occupation and fund the transitional government.  But really, everybody knows that it would take years, if not decades, to develop Afghanistan’s mines. And even by then, the likely beneficiaries of those mines will be Afghan power-brokers (not the people) and unscrupulous investors (such as in the Chinese-Aynak copper deal).

For further reading: This subject was broached in “Who competes over failed states?

Written by gringolost

June 15, 2010 at 11:03 am

Moltke’s influence on industrial war

leave a comment »

Here’s a contribution from a reader. This is part III of the 8 part series on industrial warfare generals.

When discussing industrial military leaders, it is almost impossible to leave out Helmuth von Moltke (the Elder). This Prussian and Chief of the German General Staff took many of the practices of Napoleon and the theories of Clausewitz to utilize and institutionalize mobilization and, with the help of Albrecht von Roon and Otto von Bismarck, to unify Germany and change the face of Europe forever. His theory of warfare, clearly stated in the quote below and written in 1880, foreshadows what war would look like for the next 65 years and beyond (in the form of inter-state industrial warfare):

The greatest good deed in war is the speedy ending of the war, and every means to that end, so long as it is not reprehensible, must remain open. In no way can I declare myself in agreement with the Declaration of St. Petersburg that the sole justifiable measure in war is “the weakening of the enemy’s military power.” No, all the sources of support for the hostile government must be considered, its finances, railroads, foodstuffs, even its prestige.

Moltke built on the tactics of Napoleon in that he would mobilize his troops in smaller units (rather than one large force mobilizing to meet another large farce) so that his commanders could both conceal troop movements and react to a ever-changing battlefield. This gave his commanders the ability to coordinate in order to strike at weak points in an enemy’s position and divert an attack around enemy fortifications. Moltke’s ideas would inspire the Schlieffen Plan, Nazi Blitzkrieg, and the mobile warfare tactics of most nation-states thereafter.

The theories of strategy and tactics laid out here would influence a new paradigm of war fighting shown in, among others, the unification wars of Germany, the Franco-Prussian War, two World Wars. His theory of striking at a nation’s industrial base was most exemplified when two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. Moltke was no less than the driving influence of how war was fought, what objectives were expected from it, and how the industrial base of states developed around it throughout the entire period of time that we are discussing here; Industrial militaries are still built on these principles and still try to fight wars using the methods he taught us. Whether good or bad, Moltke’s influence is undeniable.

Written by gringolost

June 12, 2010 at 10:23 pm

Vietnam’s great war hero: General Vo Nguyen Giap

with one comment

This is Part II of an 8 part series on great generals during the industrial warfare era. Part I covers Omar Bradley.

General Vo Nguyen Giap was forced into exile in 1939, fleeing to southern China where he met and learned guerrilla warfare from Mao Tse-Tung. Giap would later tailor Mao’s maxims on war to fit the conflicts and terrain of Vietnam. There he would defeat two of the world’s great powers: Overwhelming the French at Dien Bien Phu, pushing them to retreat past the 17th parallel (dividing Vietnam into Northern and Southern halves). Then after nearly a decade of conflict with American forces, Giap would break American containment and lead the reunification of North and South Vietnam under communist rule in 1975.

Giap is well-regarded for countering superior technology and firepower from the French and American side with his effective combination of conventional and guerrilla tactics.  His doctrine for the use of force fell into three stages: 1) guerrilla insurgency and unconventional assaults during the initial stage of contention; 2) mix of guerrilla and mobile-conventional warfare during equilibrium stage/protracted war; and 3) increase mobile warfare with conventional forces in order to exploit the loss of the will to fight by opposing forces. Using these three principles, Giap orchestrated the French defeat by isolating then overpowering French forces. Against the U.S., he effectively supplied and augmented the Vietminh insurgency while holding key positional ground in the northern border regions of South Vietnam.

But lastly the reason Giap makes our list of top 8 industrial war era generals is because he understood, perhaps more than anybody, the connections between political goals and military strategy. Giap practiced grand strategic political warfare. On war, Giap has written “not only did we fight in the military field but in the political, economic and cultural fields.” In this regard, he timed the siege of Dien Bien Phu to coincide with rising French disillusionment in Indochina and their growing willingness to have conciliatory talks with Ho Chi Minh. And he countered America’s strategy of attrition with an ability to harness local disenfranchisement and prolong the battle beyond the American public’s will to fight.