A Modest Rebuttal
The Marine Corps Gazette recently published an article by an active duty Marine captain who blamed the headquarters establishment for what the he perceived as the Corps’ inability to embrace meaningful innovation in both our personnel and procurement policies.1 Though well intended, the article poorly analyzes the obstacles that often hinder our institutional progress and blithely recommends solutions that are illegal, bad policy, or both. The Marine Corps can certainly improve its methods for responding to personnel and procurement challenges, but let’s not pretend that the only thing standing between us and utopia is a group of crusty old colonels working at HQMC.
Capt Waddell’s article begins by accusing senior Marine leaders of being out of touch with reality in much the same way that a rebellious teenager convinces himself that his parents were never his age or confronted by the challenges of youth. After concluding—without explanation—that “we lost the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” the article attempts to link our purported battlefield failure to the Marine Corps’ inefficient bureaucracy. Oceans of ink have been spilled discussing the merits of these wars, but the article leaves us wondering about the metrics on which the author bases his conclusion or how his analysis is different from—or better than—that of countless others. The article then implies that efforts to develop advanced technology are futile given that, in the author’s opinion, our most sophisticated technologies have been “bested” by the poorly educated jihadi-MacGyver. In every war, each side will develop weapons and tactics to counter those used by the other. It should not be surprising that poorly educated foreign fighters can employ a rifle or cellphone-detonated IED (improvised explosive device) despite lacking the intellectual capital and material resources necessary to design or fabricate those technologies in the first place. History gives us myriad examples of non-Western cultures adopting Western technologies.2 The Native Americans used Western-made rifles against the U.S. Army and the Ottomans used Italian-designed cannons during its naval battle against the Spanish and Italian forces at the Battle at Lepanto. Are we to abandon all hope merely because the insurgents in Iraq are doing what non-Western cultures have always done?
The author has clearly not considered that much of the delay he finds so frustrating is a side effect of the Marine Corps’ efforts to retain transparency and fight corruption in its personnel and procurement practices. Without some level of control and supervision, scandals like the one involving Darleen Druyun would be the rule rather than the exception.3 Despite this oversight, the author sets to his real task: let’s stop using words like “innovation” as an encouragement toward progress or “fiscal constraint” as an explanation for failure. I will address each idea in turn.
The article argues first that Marine leadership pays lip service to the need for innovation but doesn’t truly want to embrace new ways of doing business. Even a casual review of the news headlines disproves this assertion. Almost weekly, the media reports about some new Marine Corps initiative—whether it’s the Marine Corps’ efforts to incorporate 3D printing methods into our logistical chain or field experiments and simulations in which Marines test the utility of new technologies and tactics against a sophisticated enemy force.4 We should admonish the Marine Corps to continue its efforts at innovation, but to say that our leadership does not really care about improving our tactics and equipment is plainly false.
The author declares that bold leadership alone is sufficient to implement his suggested changes, and he dismisses the limitations in the Constitution or Title 10 without discussion. You may read the full text of the Constitution or Title 10 if you like, but simply put, these laws control nearly every aspect of how our military is structured and staffed. Furthermore, the author fails to discuss the fiscal and procurement laws in Title 5, Title 31, or Title 41, let alone the associated regulations of each.5 The article references the procurement practices of some of the U.S. Army’s special operations units as though these units have ignored the Federal procurement rules for the sake of mission accomplishment. The reference is misplaced: the rules that apply to special operations forces are different than those that apply to the conventional forces. A battalion commander for 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, would quickly be relieved of command and possibly indicted if he tried to procure communications equipment the way some special operations units do.6 The Marine Corps has no authority to “boldly” ignore Federal law any more than a Marine sergeant could ignore the orders of the Secretary of the Navy.
The article’s second main argument is that the congressionally-imposed fiscal constraints are insufficient to explain our stunted progress. Without even trying to refute the recent statements by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs or Secretary James N. Mattis regarding the negative correlation between the defense budget and our military readiness, the article makes several curious comparisons to Russia. It asserts that Russia “embarrassed our national policies” in Ukraine and Syria and, strangely, attempts to correlate Russia’s political success with its military budget. It is clear that Russia’s political maneuvering in Syria undermined many of then-President Barack Obama’s policy objectives, but whatever success Russia achieved during this period was not because of its supposedly awe-inspiring military capabilities. Russia’s military has improved over the last decade, but we should remember that this is the same military whose only aircraft carrier—a Soviet-era technological embarrassment—sails with a tugboat nearby in case the carrier breaks down en route to its objective.7
The article’s reference to the RAND Corporation’s 2016 study is equally irksome. The RAND study examined what would likely happen if Russia mounted an attack against Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Because NATO does not currently have significant heavy armor or air combat assets stationed along the border between Russia and these Baltic countries, the RAND study concluded, unsurprisingly, that Russia would find initial success before eventually being repelled by the full complement of NATO’s heavy infantry, armor, and air warfare capabilities. The takeaway from the RAND study is that NATO should reconsider how it positions its forces in the region. The study does not indicate, as implied by Capt Waddell’s article, that Russia’s military spending is so efficient—and their capabilities so formidable—that no combination of NATO forces could stop them.8 As an aside, I wonder what we would discover if we peaked behind the curtain of Russia’s military procurement and compared it to ours in terms of efficiency or corruption.
After chastising the headquarters establishment for its use of the terms “innovation” and “fiscal constraint,” the article proposes its own methods for creating institutional change and saving money. It is unlikely that anyone would argue against efforts to audit and eliminate redundant offices or wasteful practices within the Marine Corps, but several of the article’s proposed reforms are such bad policy that they warrant further examination.9
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The Marine Corps loves words like “bold” or “aggressive” so intensely it’s almost comical, but the article’s recommendation that we “aggressively” utilize the Joint Capabilities Integration and Development System (JCIDS) is meaningless. First, the JCIDS procedure is joint—meaning that the Marine Corps is only one voice in a conversation involving the Army, Navy, and Air Force. Second, unlike the other Services, the Marine Corps lacks the level of research funding or expertise enjoyed by the other Services or the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Finally, how would a Marine leader aggressively review a weapons system? Does the author seriously think it would be a good idea to set arbitrary timelines within the procurement review process and hope that Marine Corps Systems Command can thoroughly evaluate a nascent weapons system before the deadline? There is no doubt that the process for thoroughly testing and selecting our equipment is a lengthy one, and for good reason, but delay is not caused by the Marine Corps’ supposed institutional apathy.
The article’s proposed reforms to the Civilian General Schedule (GS) employee system would be counterproductive. The author is justifiably wary of the number of colonels-turned-civilians throughout the Marine Corps, but requiring civilian employees to reapply for their jobs every four years undermines some of the principal reasons for having civilian GS employees in the first place: continuity and institutional knowledge. Many of the jobs held by civilian employees—and I am referring to the truly specialized positions—require decades of experience. Furthermore, there is very little chance that the Marine Corps could attract a civilian with significant management or STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) expertise for a position that we cannot guarantee he would have for more than a few years.
The author’s recommendation that the Marine Corps develop a sovereign wealth fund is by far the article’s least serious, and most dangerous, suggestion.10 Article I of the Constitution gives Congress control over the Armed Forces, in part, by ensuring that we remain financially dependent on our elected officials. If the Marine Corps is permitted to maintain and develop its own slush fund, we would have every incentive to grow the fund to a point where we would be immune from a financial recession or, potentially, congressional directives.11 If the Marine Corps was put in charge of its destiny in this manner, what would restrain it from growing its assets from a small fund to a massive one? Carrying this idea to its logical conclusion, why would a financially independent military continue to execute the orders of a toothless polity?
Even if the Marine Corps resisted all urges to overthrow its civilian leadership, what happens when the Marine Corps acquires a controlling interest in a private corporation? A sovereign wealth fund typically invests its money in stocks, bonds, real estate, and private equity. Would we conduct an amphibious raid in order to guarantee a return on our private investments? The image of heavily armed Marines with a strong profit motive is reminiscent of the British East India Company or the military-industrial complex that MajGen Smedley D. Butler warned us about so long ago. Additionally, a sovereign wealth fund would immediately redirect our manpower priorities. The Commandant would have to mint a few battalions of investment bankers, lawyers, and support staff to manage the Marine Corps’ money instead of training the additional infantry battalions he was expecting. Even if we hired civilians to manage our money, there is little chance the Marine Corps could supply the seven figure salaries or eggshell-and-Romalian business cards necessary to attract top talent from the Wall Street investment firms.
I am by no means saying that the Marine Corps’ procurement or personnel challenges are insurmountable, or that none of the blame rests with the headquarters establishment. This response is intended merely to correct the idea—all too common among junior officers or enlisted Marines—that each challenge our Corps faces would melt away if only our leaders just cared a little more. Let’s keep in mind, though, that the Marine Corps leadership can only do so much on its own. Take then-Secretary Ashton Carter’s experience as an example. Secretary Carter made clear that reforming the military’s personnel system was one of his top priorities. He had all the zeal of a young Marine infantry officer and considerably more authority, but after two years at the helm of the DOD, Congress failed to adopt the majority of his recommended reforms. Even now, many of his projects remain—at best—unfinished. The Marine Corps leadership is an easy target for both uniformed and civilian critics, but if we want radical changes in the military establishment, we must carefully articulate the challenges we face and craft intelligent and politically feasible solutions. Capt Waddell’s article fails on both accounts.
1. Capt Joshua Waddell, “Innovation: And other things that brief well,” Marine Corps Gazette, (Quantico, VA: February 2017), available at https://www.mca-marines.org.
2. Professor Hanson, in Carnage and Culture and elsewhere, explores the illustrative historical examples. He also argues powerfully that, in conflicts between Western and non-Western cultures, the non-Western cultures are successful in battle—if at all—largely due to the extent to which they adopt the weapons and tactics of their Western opponents. See Victor Davis Hanson, Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise to Western Power, (New York: Anchor Publishers, 2002).
3. Ms. Druyun was the Principal Deputy Undersecretary of the Air Force for Acquisition who, in 2004, pleaded guilty to violating 18 USC § 208(a). During her tenure, Ms. Druyun abused her position to direct billions of dollars’ worth of government contracts to Boeing before eventually being hired as one of Boeing’s many executives.
4. See Sgt Cuong Le, “Darkhorse Marines assault California during MAGTF Integrated Experiment 2016,” published on 5 August 2016, available at http://www.marines.mil.
5. For a small taste of the applicable laws, and especially for those among you who suffer from insomnia, feel free to peruse the rules in Title 5 regarding employees of nonappropriated fund (NAF) instrumentalities, the rules in Title 31 regarding how the DOD may spend its annual budget (Antideficiency Act, 31 USC §§ 1341 et seq.; Purpose Act, 31 USC §§ 1301, et seq.), and the rules in Title 41 that govern federal contracting (Office of Federal Procurement Policy Act of 1974, 41 USC §§ 1101 et seq.).
6. To those enterprising company commanders referenced in the article: If you think that no one—civilian or military—can crack commercially available encryption software, you’re kidding yourselves. An Israeli data extraction company was able to crack Syed Farooks iPhone within a few weeks of requests for assistance from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). More recently, a team of researchers identified a design flaw in commonly used microprocessors that puts millions of computers and cellphones at risk. See Andy Greenberg, “A Chip Flaw Strips Away Hacking Protections for Millions of Devices,” Wired, (Online: 14 February 2017), available at https://www.wired.com. In the tactical environment unique to a Marine special operations unit, a hostile intrusion in their private communications network would be much less damaging than a similar intrusion in the Marine Corps’ general-use computer network.
7. Ben Farmer, “Belching smoke through the Channel, Russian aircraft carrier so unreliable it sails with its own breakdown tug,” The Daily Telegraph, (London: 22 October 2016), available at http://www.telegraph.co.uk.
8. You can read the full RAND Corporation publication at http://www.rand.org.
9. The author proposed one reform—the creation of a rapid prototyping lab—that the Marine Corps has largely already instituted. In September 2016, the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory developed a Rapid Capabilities Office to experiment with emerging technologies and expedite their development and acquisition.
10. A sovereign wealth fund, whether based on the model of Norway or elsewhere, is an investment fund that is typically capitalized by the proceeds from the sale of state-owned real estate or oil and natural gas deposits.
11. For that matter, it’s likely that every Federal agency would clamor for its own sovereign wealth fund until the U.S. government becomes little more than a loosely bound group of governmental entities rather than a tripartite government.