Mr. Y. is no Mr. X.

I've been meaning to say something about this for a while now, but happen to be a little late to the show.  A couple of weeks ago two Marine Corps officers, whom I presume are members of the joint staff, released an article under the pseudonym "Mr. Y.," harkening back to George Kennan's "X" article in Foreign Affairs.  In a nutshell, their article attempts to provide a broad conceptual framework through which America's role in global affairs can be viewed through the next century.  John Norris at FP has some comments on the piece for those who are interested.  I have a few thoughts of my own…


First, I will say that I'm pretty sure that I'm a bit more pessimistic than Norris is regarding the content of this paper.  To be clear, it's not because I'm not sympathetic to its core message—it's because I'm not really sure what this document offers beyond its core message, which is really just the regurgitation of old ideas.  The authors primarily try to point out that America must view its own existence within the context of an increasingly globalized and interconnected world.  After you give that a minute to soak in, I think you'll realize that this is really nothing "revelatory."

One might also be inclined to argue that this piece is unique given that it was written by two miltiary officers, and that it seemingly calls for the military to decrease its own spending.  While I'll have more to say on the whole of the article later, I wanted to focus on this point.  It's nothing new for members of the military to be calling for decreased levels of military spending, but I think the key here is that Captain Porter and Colonel Mykleby are Marines, and seem to represent what I'm coming to view as a position that is pecular to members of the Marine Corps.  This might be so for a variety of reasons, but chief among them is the idea that the Marine Corps doesn't really stand to lose as much as other service branches from dramatic cuts in military spending.  The Army has had problems in recent years justifying its continued emphasis on heavy armored units, which are difficult to mobilize in response to emergencies.  Similarly, the Air Force has gotten some flak over big-ticket items like the F-22 Raptor–programs that cost billions but have yet to see much in the way of actual combat use. 

The Marines, on the other hand, have historically tended to emphasize smaller infantry units that are far more mobile and can mobilize respond more quickly than the Army's heavy infantry units.  John Nagl's Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife has some discussion of the tensions between the Marine Corps and the Army during Vietnam related to these issues.  His account of the Army's approach to warfighting in Vietnam suggests that Army leaders actively pursued strategies and tactics that were suboptimal because the Army's top brass were concerned with the Marine Corps taking the operational lead in Vietnam.  The Marines, who had a preexisting manual for fighting small-scale wars and insurgencies, proposed embracing tactics that made less room for the Army's emphasis on massive firepower.  I'm more inclined to put some stock in his criticisms of the Army given that he himself was an Army officer.

George Wilson's This War Really Matters has some brief interviews with senior military leaders, and as you might expect, each service chief really tries to make the case for their own branch's pet programs.  In one interview, Marine Corps Commandant Charles Krulak publicly calls for the Army and the Air Force to cut spending by scaling back on some of their large and expensive programs.  Krulak is no different than the other service chiefs, but the Marine Corps' own unique history makes more room for their leaders to call for decreases in aggregate spending levels.  Krulak tends to defend the Navy's large carrier-based fleets, however, as they essentially act as mobile forward operating bases and can deliver troops and artillery support to hot spots in relatively short order.  Maintaining the Navy's basic structure is not necessarily at odds with calling for lower military spending, though, since cutting the big Army and Air Force programs would free up a considerable amount of money.  Krulak's justification for picking on these programs in particular is based on his argument that the wars of the future would be "three-block" wars, fought primarily in urban and populated environments.  In such spaces, tanks and bombers are not quite as effective as when battles are being fought away from cities.

In terms of the bureaucratic politics underlying this document's release, I'm partially inclined to agree with Norris who states that this probably would not have seen the light of day without approval from higher-ups.  But this too is probably not a difficult feat to achieve, given that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is a Naval officer, and the Vice-Chairman is a Marine–Both branches that would arguably be well positioned to benefit from restructuring/cutting American military spending.  The fact that Ann-Marie Slaughter, former director of State's Policy Planning Staff, wrote the preface for this report, suggests that the message of this paper has broader administration support as well. 

Addendum:  Two things:  One correction to the piece above–Captain Porter is actually in the Navy. That said, I think the basic thrust is the same.  Basically, the Navy and Marine Corps still stand to benefit going forward as compared to the other branches.  

Second, Fareed Zakaria discussed the Y article on his show this week.  For those interested, you can check it out here

Michael Flynn

About Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Political Science at the University of Alabama and will be joining the Department of Political Science at Kansas State University in the fall of 2014 as an assistant professor. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2013. His research focuses on the political and economic determinants of foreign economic and security policy.

8 thoughts on “Mr. Y. is no Mr. X.

  1. Very good points. I confess, I had thought it interesting when I first read about it, but you make a good argument that calls for lower spending coming from Marines mean something different than similar calls would if they came from Army or Air Force generals.

  2. Hey Phil, I hope things are calming down for you in the post-conference season.
    I suspect there are cases where Army and Air Force leadership has called for lower levels of spending, but I think it’s more difficult for them to take such a position given that they are such obvious targets for big cuts. I suspect that the next few years will see a couple of things happen: 1) The Navy and Marine Corps will probably be the big winners moving forward, and 2) The Army will need to have a come to Jesus moment regarding its overall structure and budget size.
    This is a more narrow question than the one you posed a few weeks ago, but I wonder how the structure of America’s military leadership affects decisions related to mobilization. It seems like each branch must have a very different vision of what’s needed to complete a mission that’s presented to them.
    Alternatively, a broader question might be the bargaining process between civilian and military leaders over each player’s desired level of preparedness and mobilization. I suspect there are some interesting debates taking place back stage over the conflict in Libya, as a lot of folks have cautioned against mission creep/incrementalism in the US’ military involvement.

  3. Yeah, things are getting back to normal.
    I think you’re right that the Navy and Marines will be the winners going forward, while the Army has tough adjustments ahead of it.
    I’d love to be privy to those discussions, yeah. My sense is that the military voices are losing out to civilian leadership, but it’s hard to gauge.

  4. First you are mistaken, it is a Navy officer and a Marine. Capt Porter is a O6 Navy officer. Also, the culture of the Navy is such that it prides itself on big ticket items like aircraft carriers and thus would not be excited about budget cuts. So your argument focused on the USMC is a bit off. Additionally, there are in fact Army and Air Force active duty officers who are supportive of budget cuts – one is typing right now.
    The benefit of the Y article is that although it may not be new for active duty officers to call for reductions in the budget, this article goes beyond the use of constrained resources and focuses on the fact that we, as a nation, depend too much on the Defense “D” and not enough on the Diplomacy and Development “Ds.”
    Considering the looming budget battles, I think it is healthy for the nation to hear a current perspective from within the Pentagon that stresses making use of all elements of national power as we move forward in a growingly complex global environment.

  5. Thanks for the feedback, J–I did notice my error upon reading the article again. Still, I think the basic conclusions hold. Although the Navy has traditionally emphasized the sorts of big-ticket items that you mention, I think many of these items can be seen as complementing the Marine Corps’ smaller structure. Not that the Navy would be immune from cuts, but I think it’s easier to justify maintaining a larger naval force and placing more of the onus on the Army and Air Force to justify the continued existence of many of their more expensive projects (assuming the idea is to develop America’s military force structure into something smaller and more agile).
    While other authors have made note of the fact that we have emphasized the military over diplomacy and development, I do agree with you that one of the more unique aspects of this paper is the fact that this exposes people to the views of active duty officers. I think this certainly increases the credibility of the argument, and makes it far less assailable than were the same piece to have been written by a civilian policymaker.
    I’d be really interested in hearing your thoughts on how active duty personnel view such cuts beyond the abstract–that is, what is the perception within the Army/Air Force regarding the specific programs and/or branches that should have to endure budget cutbacks? And do you think the general view of budget cuts being desirable is supported widely within each branch, or are some branches more likely to support than others? Basically, if you have some thoughts on the military politics of these matters I’d be really excited to hear them. This is an area of international relations that most scholars really pay very little attention to, which is unfortunate.
    Thanks!

  6. I should clarify that last statement by saying that what work is out there falls largely in the realm of bureaucratic politics, but that there is not as much in the way of quantitative work.

  7. Michael, I applaud you for your balanced and insightful discussion of the topic.
    I am an Army officer and can only offer my own perceptions and opinions – certainly they do not represent any meaningful sampling of the force at large. It seems that many officers accept the fact that the budget has to be reduced. I am a mid-career officer and many of my peers agree that economic power is as important if not more important than military might. Thus we must be cognizant of the role the defense budget has on the country’s fiscal condition. Of course we all want to ensure we are maintaining technological superiority to any possible peer competitors, but the current reality is that in the area of combat systems, we rule. I think we will begin to see a larger investment in meeting informational and cyber challenges, which should cost less, and are also less “sexy.” No tradition exists for a commander to tout his masterful defeat of a cyber enemy in an info-space war. But this paradigm shift must occur if we hope to defend our nation. What this lack of tradition means is that the top brass, who are of another generation, may or may not fully appreciate this need for change. I know some do. However, it is not easy to change 30-40 years of “conventional” wisdom in a couple of years. This being the case, and since it is unlikely that a generation of Generals are going to be removed and replaced with a younger breed, we are likely to see continued parochial fights waged in the form of whose system will get cut. This of course is where your argument has great merit – the Navy will remain important both for energy and trade routes as well as concern over area denial capabilities of China and Iran. But the Air Force can argue they are a critical component of this challenge as well.
    However, it seems to me that history has shown that the budget is usually split evenly 3 ways – Army, Air Force and Navy. I do not foresee this changing any time soon. The parochial nature of each service and the way in which the service chiefs, not the combatant commanders or the Joint Staff, establish the budget requests, dictates that we are likely to continue to see expenditures for those big boy toys that each department loves. For this to change, the nation needs to not only reform the way that the defense budget is developed, but to combine the 150 and 050 budgets into a single National Security Budget that is based on meeting specific objectives. If money was allocated along functions or missions, rather than departments or services we would likely see a significant reduction in the massive sums that are doled out to defense contractors every year.
    I hope that made sense.
    Thanks for your interest in the topic. As a citizen I am concerned that fear and patriotic rhetoric clouds the decision process required to make the necessary cuts to defense spending.

  8. J, I think your remarks regarding the budgetary process are particularly interesting. I don’t think that’s something most people immediately go to when considering how to solve the problems we currently face. The go-to solutions typically seem to be simply cutting spending, ending the wars, etc. I’m curious to see how things would change if the budgetary process were shifted to emphasize actors like the combatant commanders. It seems as though the more unified nature of their command responsibilities would generate different incentives when it comes to setting up budgetary priorities.
    I also think your comments on the traditions of promotion and which service backgrounds are associated with rising through the ranks if really interesting too. I’m curious to see how the evolution of cyber-warfare will impact the organizational structures of our national security bureaucracies. In a way, it’s curious to think of the military coming to dominate that process, but the future of warfare will likely necessitate that traditional combat operations and cyber-operations be closely integrated. But frankly I’m surprised that we haven’t seen the creation of yet another alphabet soup agency whose sole responsibility is handling cyber-terrorism, cyber-crime, etc. This is one area that seems to be highly decentralized in the United States. If such an agency were to be established, I’m wondering how that would affect the incentives faced by the next generation of military leaders to place greater emphasis on cyber-security–my guess is that it would dissuade any meaningful transition, or at least slow the process considerably.
    Thanks for the feedback–I really enjoy getting to discuss these kinds of things with service members. And I think you’re absolutely correct regarding the patriotic rhetoric clouding the decision making process. It’s easy to feel patriotic by calling for more money to go to the military, but the realities of force structure and spending priorities are far more complicated.

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