George Will is rightfully dismayed and revolted by American casualties in Afghanistan. Thus he begins his most recent column, “Time to Get Out of Afghanistan,” by lamenting the death of two young Marines. One of the young Marines stepped on a landmine and lost both his legs; the other took a bullet to the head.
I think withdrawing from Afghanistan would be a serious mistake, because it would all but guarantee the collapse of the Afghan government while ensuring the continued and indefinite presence of al-Qaeda in neighboring Pakistan. However, I certainly share Will’s revulsion at horrific, life-scarring casualties and the needless loss of American life.
Unfortunately, Will and his critics never ask the question that, to me at least, seems obvious: What can we do to better protect our ground forces — our boots on the ground — to ensure that their casualties are kept to a bare minimum?
The kneejerk Washington answer is always to cut and run and to find excuses for failure; but the right and appropriate answer, it seems to me, is to find a way to win. Casualties may be inevitable, but they also can be significantly reduced, both in number and in scope.
And in fact, because of our investment in high-tech gear and equipment — as well as the military’s adoption of better tactics, techniques and procedures — U.S. military casualties have been significantly reduced. Indeed, when considered in light of the pace and intensity of military operations, fewer Americans are killed and injured today than at any time in U.S. military history.
Moreover, casualties aren’t necessarily integral to victory, even in ground-intensive operations. As the late great General George S. Patton explained, “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”
With that in mind — with winning in mind – several ideas are worth championing:
First, spend more on defense. When Democrat John F. Kennedy was president, the United States spent nine percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on defense. Today, by contrast, the United States spends just four percent of its GDP on defense. And, if the Obama administration has its way, that figure will decline soon to just three percent of GDP — an historic low at a time of war. When that happens, soldiers and Marines will suffer; they will be forced to do more with less.
At different times, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, and the National Security Adviser, General James L. Jones, have called on policymakers to maintain defense spending at no less than four percent of the GDP. Otherwise, they say, we likely will shortchange our nation’s security.
If we are serious about protecting our soldiers and Marines in harm’s way, then we must ensure that defense spending is not crowded out by other competing demands on the federal budget. This means ensuring that the defense budget is protected from politicians more interested in the next election than in the next war.
Too many American servicemen, after all, have died in past wars because the politicians in Washington have failed to adequately fund our nation’s defense. Recall, for instance, the lack of body armor and uparmored humvees at the beginning of the Iraq War.
That must never happen again. As General Jones said in 2003 when he was Commandant of the Marine Corps, “Four cents on the dollar for the national security and the global relationships that this country has seems a modest price to pay for the freedoms [that] we enjoy.”
Second, spend more on weapon systems and weapons procurement. Obama administration supporters like to point out that defense spending will increase by four percent this year. This may be true; however, it is also misleading. That’s because an increasing share of the defense budget is being consumed by personnel and benefit costs.
Military healthcare costs, for instance, have increased by 144% since the year 2000, according to defense analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute.
Thus, weapon systems are being cut to accommodate an artificially constrained and underfunded defense budget. Among the casualties: the Transformational Satellite program and eight new Army combat vehicle types, all of which are integral to modernizing U.S. military capabilities for 21st-Century irregular warfare.
Meanwhile, the threats that confront our soldiers and Marines are intensifying, what with the proliferation and ubiquity of technology. America’s military-technological edge, especially for our ground forces, is being eroded and undermined. That edge must be restored and significantly strengthened. Weapon systems cuts enacted by the Obama administration must be reversed.
For example, instead of cutting Army procurement accounts by some 14%, or $3.5 billion, which is what the Obama administration has done, Army procurement accounts should be replenished with significant funding increases.
Third, spend more on infantry forces and on ground combat units. In theory, this is what Defense Secretary Gates is trying to do: better equip our soldiers and Marines to win the wars we are in. But in reality, as I’ve just noted, Army procurement accounts are being cut, and as a result, Army modernization initiatives are in jeopardy.
Indeed, the Defense Department is telling the Army that it must choose between more troops on the one hand and more modern gear and equipment on the other hand.
This Hobson’s choice should not be forced upon the Army, which is bearing the brunt of the burden in this long war. The Army, and the nation, need more troops and more modern gear and equipment. Modern-day conflicts “demand a ground presence,” explains the Commander of the Joint Forces Command, Marine Corps General James N. Mattis.
Yet, Washington defense analysts haven’t been arguing about how to modernize our ground forces. Instead, they’ve been arguing about whether to build more F-22 fighter jets! But the F-22 has not been used in either Iraq or Afghanistan and is of dubious value in irregular warfare. Yet, irregular warfare is dominating, and undoubtedly will continue to dominate, the early 21st Century.
Then, too, there has been a longstanding gross inequity in the defense budget, which has been badly biased against the ground forces.
For example, according to the former commandant of the Army War College, Major General Robert Scales, since the early 1990s, some 70% of the American defense investment, or more than $1.3 trillion, has been earmarked for missiles and fixed-wing aircraft. Yet, as General Mattis observes, 89% of U.S. military casualties since 1945 have been suffered by infantry units.
There has been, quite clearly, a longstanding and historic mismatch between U.S. military requirements and U.S. military budget appropriations. It’s long past time to remedy this mismatch, and to direct a greater share of the American defense investment to where it is most needed and will do the most good, and that is with our infantry forces and our ground combat units.
Fourth, spend more on conventional infantry forces and not just Special Forces. Policymakers and the media love U.S. Special Forces because, they think, U.S. Special Forces can achieve military success on the cheap, with few casualties, and without a lot of attendant adverse publicity and political headaches. Thus George Will’s facile idea to withdraw conventional U.S. combat forces from Afghanistan and employ instead “small, potent Special Forces units.”
Special Forces are superb, but they are not a military panacea nor a catch-all military solution. They occupy a specialized niche, and thus are appropriate for only a limited set of military missions and objectives.
The idea that we can achieve all U.S. military aims and objectives with Special Forces and not conventional forces is simply ludicrous; it ain’t gonna happen. For many missions and objectives — and certainly for counterinsurgency missions — you really do need boots on the ground. You need a visible and armed presence of trained and ready (conventional) combat forces.
Again, as General Mattis observes, “The idea that we are going to be able to fight future wars without having soldiers on the ground, or [by] just having a few Special Forces — I think that’s a pipedream.”
Spending on U.S. Special Forces has skyrocketed in recent years, and that is all for the good. Special Forces, after all, are bearing a disproportionate share of the burden in the war on terror. Indeed, these guys are constantly deploying.
But policymakers and the media must realize that for many military objectives, conventional ground forces — infantry units, boots on the ground — are required as well. And our conventional ground forces must be equipped with the very best gear and equipment. This to stay ahead of an adaptive and resourceful enemy who is not standing still, either militarily or technologically.
Fifth, spend more on research and development, science and technology. From the Revolutionary War to the Iraq War, American technological superiority has always been an integral part of U.S. military success; it has saved countless American lives.
But America’s military-technological superiority cannot and must not be taken for granted. It was achieved through a concerted, long-term investment in basic science and technology, research and development. Yet, the Obama administration is cutting funding for these crucial long-term investments.
One thing is certain: One way or the other, we will pay. We will either pay now in dollars invested, or we will pay later in lives lost. Most Americans would rather pay in dollars than in lives. Me too.
That’s why, I think, if George Will had taken the time to study these issues, he would have written a different column. Instead of writing “Time to Get Out of Afghanistan,” he would have written “Time to Invest in America’s Ground Forces.”