Holding the Government Accountable

U.S. Troops 'Can Do,' But Their Leaders 'Won't Do'

The recent rash of accidents stem from leaders’ refusal to make tough choices
U.S. troops in Afghanistan salute the flag as automatically as they follow orders, even as their leaders cut corners that endanger them. (Photo: Senior Airman Justyn M. Freeman / US Air Force)

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis committed truth recently, always a refreshing change at the Pentagon. He publicly questioned the U.S. military’s “can-do” attitude, and wondered aloud if it has contributed to nearly a dozen accidents that have killed or injured almost 100 U.S. troops over the past two months.

“I would say, having some association with the U.S. military, we’re almost hard-wired to say ‘can-do,’” Mattis said, referring to his 41 years in a Marine uniform. “That is the way we are brought up, routinely, and in combat, that is exactly what you do even at the risk of your troops and equipment and all. But there comes a point in peacetime where you have to make certain you're not always saying `We're going to do more with less.’”

He’s pulled back a Pentagon curtain that for too long has hidden a key weakness of the U.S. military: its traditional willingness to let its fighting forces fray when money gets tight. They pretend they can do what their political masters have ordered them to do. They smartly salute and then send young men and women out to die needlessly.

Just as important as saluting is a willingness for commanders to tell their civilian overlords when they can’t handle the burden.

"We have been doing too much, for too long, with too few, and that has to change," Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said Sept. 18. "It is not fair for this nation to ask our commanders to keep saying, 'We got this,' right up to the point of failure, because we don't got this.”

In my 40 years of covering the U.S. military, can-doism is highest among mid-to-senior officers. There are echoes of the hubris many of us are witnessing nightly on PBS as we watch Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s profound 18-hour documentary on the Vietnam War. Generally, the closer you get to the grunts in the field, whether in Vietnam or Afghanistan, the more you hear confusion over the mission and how it is supposed to be accomplished.

The Army looked into can-doism in 2016, and warned that it “restricts the Army’s ability to prioritize and be explicit about risks when presenting military advice and options.” The study, done by a panel of national-security experts at the Army War College, said the service knows it can’t meet all “unknowable future threats.” But “rather than communicate the risks associated with this mismatch, Army culture makes it hard for leaders to admit that they anticipate a future mission for which the Army will not be prepared. They would consider such an admission a dereliction of duty.”

Their preferred option—not unique to the Army—is to plead for more money. “This is married with an implied, grudging acceptance that the Army will figure it out using the available resources, which ultimately results in mortgaging future readiness by postponing needed modernization programs and wasting billions of dollars on canceled acquisition programs,” the report said. Telling the truth, the authors warn, will lead to others (Marines!) getting cherished missions.

Most of the recent deadly accidents involve the Navy, whose ethos of forward presence has sailors working 100-hour weeks around the world as a “show of force” to allies and potential foes alike. It comes as President Trump suggests launching a “show of forces” down Pennsylvania Avenue next July 4th, brandishing the awesome might of the U.S. military in a public display of affection. Many in the Pentagon—most, I would bet— view the notion as more in keeping with Russian and North Korean high-steppers and a France still dreaming of Napoleon.

“It was one of the greatest parades I've ever seen,” Trump said Sept. 18 during a meeting in New York City with French President Emmanuel Macron. It was the French leader who gave Trump the idea by hosting him in Paris for the annual July 14 Bastille Day parade. “We had a lot of planes going over, and we had a lot of military might, and it was really a beautiful thing to see.” So why not in Washington?

But parades cost money, which detracts from readiness—just like the Navy and Marines’ Blue Angels, the Air Force’s Thunderbirds, and the Army’s Golden Knights do. But who cares? “You know, we're spending this year $700 billion—more than we've ever spent on the military,” Trump added. That tops the Pentagon’s legislated budget cap by $83 billion—a hefty 12%—and is $32 billion more than Trump himself sought. Apparently, despite the readiness crisis the Pentagon has been shouting about for years, there’s plenty for parades.

Parades and aerial demonstration teams, of course, aren’t the only thing that dull combat readiness. More than 100 brand new F-35 aircraft have been delivered with substandard software—the Pentagon bought those planes from Lockheed Martin before their combat-grade software was ready—and may stay that way to save money. One can argue that this pickle shows the need for more funding. Or one can argue that it highlights the need for smarter procurement that wouldn’t have bought those planes until their blueprints were finished.

Pretty much everything involving the use of the military boils down to money. The military often talks of its whack-a-mole strategy in the war on terror the U.S. has been waging since 9/11: U.S. forces eliminate bad guys from one haven only to see them pop up in another, hundreds or thousands of miles away. The same thing happens with its wallet: when money gets tight, military units based in the U.S. get squeezed to free up dollars to fuel the troops actually fighting. But that erodes the readiness and capability of those stateside troops, leading to more accidents at home.

And forward-deployed forces—like the Navy’s 7th Fleet in the western Pacific—have skimped on training in recent years, contributing to its rash of collisions. Congress and the White House have made the budget crunch worse by imposing (squishy) budget caps—and then not passing budgets on time, further complicating the military’s efforts to spend more smartly the money it does get.

Such shenanigans are no skin off the noses of the generals, admirals, lawmakers and presidents who tell the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines to do more with less. The only people who pay are those killed and injured in preventable training accidents, and the faith of the American people in the ability of their fighting men and women to get the job done.

Just as important as saluting is a willingness for commanders to tell their civilian overlords when they can’t handle the burden. There should be no shame in such an admission. The problem is that for every honest officer who takes such a stance is another one who insists the mission can be carried out. “There needs to be a conversation about what the military can stop doing, instead of only piling on ever more missions,” says Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.

It’s vital to know that the Pentagon has never been able to do all that its commanders in the field want to have done. “We don’t meet more than 50 percent of the combatant commanders’ demands as it is,” Admiral John Richardson, the chief of naval operations, told the Senate Armed Services Committee Sept. 19. In other words, those “demands” are rather elastic. It’s up to politicians to adjust the balance if readiness is flagging, and not expect young soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines to work harder to plug the gap.

Richard Spencer, the Navy’s new civilian leader, seems to get it. While he served as a Marine chopper pilot for five years in Vietnam’s wake, he spent the last 35 years in finance, far removed from the national-security arena. He took over as Navy secretary Aug. 3, following the June deaths of seven sailors aboard the USS Fitzgerald in a collision with a container ship near Japan, and two weeks before 10 sailors died after their USS John McCain collided with a merchant vessel off Singapore.

For too long the Navy has been using “false math…that we couldn’t afford,” he told reporters Sept. 20. “We have been punching way above our weight and possibly robbing Peter to pay Paul to get our missions done, and now the bills are coming home.”

Of course, one freshly-minted Navy secretary can’t unilaterally order such changes. “We’re going to have to come to…some sort of balance between supply and demand,” he said. “The COCOMs ([the combatant commanders, U.S. generals and admirals responsible for various slices of the globe] are going to have to understand it, and the Hill is going to have to understand it.”

He says he has a quick retort ready the next time he’s asked why his Navy can’t carry out a certain mission: “Because we’ll start every conversation with 17 dead sailors.”