Monday, December 5, 2016

Tyranny of Low Expectations, Trump Edition

General Mattis, if nominated (not official yet) to be Secretary of Defense, needs to get a waiver as existing law says that military officers need to be retired seven years before filling this role.  Some Democrats are not inclined to pass such a waiver.  I have argued that filling this role with a recently retired general is a bad idea as one key job of the Secretary of the Defense is to be THE civilian in between the operational commanders and the President of the United States.  His (or her) job is to manage American civilian-military relations. 

So, I have argued against this, focusing on how such exceptions (the only waiver before now was for George C. Marshall) are problematic in a time where we have an incoming administration determined to undermine pretty much all norms and institutions that are at all inconvenient.

The main pushback I have gotten: Mattis is the best of Trump's picks.  Yeah, and?  This is a key problem--that Trump is making so many awful decisions that we then think that the least awful could be ok or even good.  That our expectations are pushed so low that we don't mind problematic exceptions to good rules.  A guess this is what folks worry about when they say "this is not normal" and "prevent normalization."

So, I will try to remain resolved to not lower my standards and my expectations.  I will call out when the Trump Administration makes bad decisions and awful appointments, even when these are somewhat less bad than other ones.  Perhaps the appointment of Michael Flynn as National Security Adviser, one of the first big decisions, was meant to set the bar so very low.  But I refuse to use that standard.  Will you?

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Good Times for Civ-Mil Scholars, Bad Times for Democracy and Governance

I just wrote about the problems facing the US as President-Elect Trump may choose too many retired generals for his cabinet.  In Canada, the problems is a bit different: active generals are being put in awkward positions by the politicians.

How so?  The story of the week in Canadian civ-mil, regarding the fighter plane procurement problems, appears to be part of a larger trend: the Liberals getting advice they don't like and soldiering on (sorry) anyways (see electoral reform effort or not).

The Liberal government has stated that it needs to buy 18 Super Hornets to fill a capability gap--that Canada doesn't have the planes it needs to defend North American airspace (the NORAD requirement) and to meet its NATO commitments at the same time.  There are lots of problems with this:
  • There is no formal NATO requirement BUT to be fair to the Liberals, there has been a regular demand by NATO for planes to patrol over Iceland and over the Baltics plus regular multilateral efforts elsewhere (Kosovo, Libya, Iraq).
  • Interim purchases are interim: Canada will have to sell, scrap, give away or somehow transfer the 18 Super Hornets once Canada gets the big batch of new planes (whether they are Super Hornets, F-35s, Rafaeles, or whatever).
  • The math.  Canada needs 36 planes for NORAD, 6 for NATO-ish=42.  But you need to have twice as many or so in order to field the 42 at any time time=84.  But planes, alas, crash and have other problems, so you probably need another 6-12.  So, 90+ planes in the next batch of purchases.  Given the budgetary envelope for the next plane was enough for 65 F-35s, the math suggests that the Liberals would need to buy a plane that is 2/3s the price of the 65 as 65/90 is 2/3s-ish.  But the Super Hornet is not that cheap.  Plus the Liberals had promised to take the money saved on the planes to fund the ship-building.  Ooops.  
But the problem du jour is making generals dance.  RCAF Commander Hood has been caught between what he has said before and what he is saying now.  Before, he had said that we had no capability gap and that 65 planes would ultimately be sufficient.  Now, he says that there has been a policy change, so a gap exists.  Is he lying?  No.  The Liberals decided (for whatever reason, its decision-making has not been transparent) that Canada needs to be able to do both jobs at once (a stance that makes sense but is not applied to anywhere else in the CAF or else we would have more than four subs, for instance).  And it is the right of the government of the day to change policy like this, as it is a political, not military decision, about how much risk to accept.  Is it likely that Canada would need to have its entire NORAD commitment in the air at the same time as it is engaged in an NATO-ish operation?  No, but it could happen.  The US used to plan for fighting two major wars and a minor one, and then the world changed and so the US changed how much war it planned to fight at one time (ironically, it then began to fight many wars at once, but not any wars with near-peers).

The general is in an awkward spot when he appears before Parliament as he is answerable to Parliament but accountable to the Prime Minister and Minister of Defence.  I used to think this was a distinction without a difference, but it is all the difference in the world.  As the generals must answer questions that parliamentarians ask of them unless it is advice to cabinet or it is classified.  Which often means that they cannot really answer all that much and certainly heaps of interesting questions can't be answered.  Because of how civil-military relations works in Canada, where the military has only one boss (the PM via the GG), the officers cannot pubicly disagree with government policy.  Cannot!

In the US, where the military has two bosses--the President (and SecDef!) and Congress--the officers have to tell the Senators and Representatives not just the facts but also what they think, even if it conflicts with the policy of the day.  General Shinseki famously got put into a tough spot when asked about the footprint needed in Iraq to stabilize the place after the invasion. He gave a number that was far higher than what SecDef Rumsfeld was planning, but Shinseki had to answer the question as he was accountable to Congress.

But Canada is not the US, so politicians can try to make the military look like the bad guys in the decision-process, but, in this case, whatever is going on this fall with fighter plane procurement, it is a mess the Liberals made.  Sure, the larger procurement problem is shared--the military may have come up with requirements that gamed the initial results to get to the F-35, the Conservatives deferred and delayed so that the decision would take place after the 2015 election, and the Liberals have their turn now to mess things up.  But the effort lately to shift the blame to the military is a mistake, one that a government focused on transparency and deliverology should not be making.

The General Problem

With the likely (Trump as uncertainty engine raises doubts about his own statements) appointment of General (ret.) Mattis as Secretary of Defense and perhaps several other retired generals in his administration, people are wondering if this is a good idea or not.  Count me in on the NOT! side of the argument. 

Sure, retired generals know about management and leadership since the military spends far more time thinking about how to manage their people than they do thinking about firing a gun, dropping a bomb or launching a torpedo.  And, yes, getting to the top of a very competitive in-or-out promotion process means that these folks have been vetted and vetted again (just ignore the Tommy Franks problem* for moment).  So, let's concede for a moment that Mattis is a really sharp guy, who has probably deserved the cult of personality that has grown up around him.

While some dismiss the importance of civilian control of the military, I find it to be a central ingredient, a necessary condition of this thing we call democracy.  Contra to Rosa Brooks, civilian control of the military is both means and end.  It is not just about concentrations of power, but of subservience of the folks with the guns to the people elected to run the country.  This is not about the founders of the US or about what makes the US special, but what is essential for modern democracy. 

Brooks argues that the US military has its own internal checks against seizing power or being disobedient.  She combines this with an assertion that Trump's presidency presents all kinds of threats that make civilian control of the military far from being a priority.  And there is the rub: Trump's inherent flaws, including his appeals to white supremacy, his inability to concentrate for the length of an intel briefing, and, most importantly, his lack of respect for and adherence to the various norms that make the institutions operate, make civilian control of the military more, not less, important.

Coups happen for a variety of reasons, but most often, those engaged in a coup claim that the government is corrupt and/or incompetent.  Here is where I could insert a picture of Trump.  Trump called Taiwan's President perhaps to facilitate his own business interests, which is an abuse of power that could be called a coup excuse (my thinking of coup politics is heavily shaped by Junta, the game).  This is not a one-off thing given that Trump brought up his business interests in Argentina during his phone call with that leader as well. 

Simply put, when many of the norms and institutions are under attack, we need to be more, not less, careful about the role of the military in our society.  It is, of course, not so much about coups (the first generation of civil-military relations thinking--Huntington, Finer, Luttwak, Janowitz), but about controlling the military so it does what the civilians want (second generation--Feaver**, Avant) and about getting the military to work well with civilian agencies in "whole of government efforts (the third generation).  Getting any complex agency to follow orders is hard (Trump is going to make principal-agency so trendy), but especially one that largely lives apart from society, that tends to attract leadership from only a small portion of the country, that socializes so very powerfully, and is also one of the few institutions that is highly esteemed these days. 

There was a good reason why the legislators thought a ten year (revised downwards to seven)  wait was required for retired military officers to serve as Secretary of Defense.  Time away from the military to broaden one's imagination, be exposed to civilian norms of decision-making and leadership and on and on.  The limit of officers serving immediately after retirement is not an accident but a good policy that should not be tossed away simply because Trump admires generals (sort of). 

In a time where authoritarian politics (threats towards journalists and protesters, etc) are increasing popular, we should put the US military, active and retired, further away from the controls of the US government, not closer.

*  One way to move up is to kiss up, kick down.  Not a great way to lead.  Plus there is the Peter principle--being promoted beyond one's abilities.  So, the existence of a four star general like Tommy Franks, who was engaged in a serious competition for the dumbest @#$*& in DC with Doug Feith, undercuts just a bit the argument that promotion to the top means that these folks are well vetted.

** See Feaver's review piece of the latest civ-mil work.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Interim is Binding!

One of the biggest sources of confusion about the Liberal decision to buy 18 Super Hornets is that it is an interim buy.  What does that mean?

It means that the planes are only being bought to cover a specific period of time--whenever they arrive to whenever the next batch of planes is ready to go.  And then the government of Canada is obligated to, yes, get rid of the planes.  In 2030 or 2032 or whenever the planes that win the next competition (in five years*, maybe) are deployed, the Super Hornets must be sold, given away, or perhaps even destroyed.  I was told by someone in government who reached out to me to explain the decision that the idea would be to fly the heck out of these 18 planes, using them up, but the reality is that is unlikely to happen.  Instead, what is likely to happen is that Canada is going to spend a lot on 18 planes that it will then have to find a buyer for after flying them for 12-15 years. 

It means that the planes are only being bought to cover a specific period of time--whenever they arrive to whenever the next batch of planes is ready to go.  And then the government of Canada is obligated to, yes, get rid of the planes.  In 2030 or 2032 or whenever the planes that win the next competition (in five years*, maybe) are deployed, the Super Hornets must be sold, given away, or perhaps even destroyed.  I was told by someone in government that the idea would be to fly the heck out of these 18 planes, using them up, but the reality is that is unlikely to happen.  Instead, what is likely to happen is that Canada is going to spend a lot on 18 planes that it will then have to find a buyer for after flying them for 12-15 years.

The aspect getting far more play is this capability gap that justifies the purchase of the Super Hornets--that Canada can't do what it wants to do with the 77 it has or smaller number as planes crash (which, unfortunately, happened this week) or become too stressed to fly anymore.  The gap has been "created" by a change in policy--that the Liberals want the RCAF to have enough planes to protect Canada to the highest level of activity (its complete commitment to NORAD) and to meet its NATO commitment.  The government of 2014 released a document, the Mixed Fleet report (as part of the Seven Point Plan which has since disappeared from the web mutil my reposting today), which suggests that the magic number is .... 42.  Nope, 84.  Nope, 90 something.  The idea is that if a NORAD crisis and a NATO crisis happened at the same time, Canada would need 36 planes in the air in Canada and 6 over wherever NATO needs them.  But to generate 42 planes, one needs twice that due to servicing/maintenance/etc.  But 84 is not enough since planes, again alas, crash.  So, the 77+18 makes sense IF the government wants to have the ability to fight at home and abroad at the same time.

Is this a reasonable standard?  Sure, although if it was applied the Navy, well, oh my (oh, this decision to buy temp Super Hornets and then a full buy of the next generation of planes means that the Liberal promise to save money on planes to use to pay for the ships has now been overcome by events).

Is it a political decision?  Hells yes--just as war is politics by other means, defence planning is, duh, political.  Any allocation of public money is political as are any decisions about how best to defend a country.  But to call it that is silly since the decision to have only enough planes to do one at a time was also a political decision.  The magic 65 number for the Conservative F-35 plan was certainly derived by looking at the budget and divided by cost to get 65 and not an assessment to get the right number of planes for what Canada needs.  The more problematic aspect of this decision is that it happens during the Defence Review, which is supposed to set the course for Canada's procurement down the road.  Perhaps the draft within the government was a sufficient basis to make this decision.  Perhaps not.  I have no idea.

*  Five years?  I questioned that in an earlier post.  I said a competition could be done in a year.  Perhaps not, as my various sources suggest it would take more than a year.  But five?  That is still a heap of time, more than is probably necessary.

Thus far, the only defenders of this stance are those in government. The experts outside of government range from being puzzled to being baffled to being confused to being angry.  All I know is that the interim nature of the decision is not getting enough play.