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Tom Ricks On Reforming Defense Spending

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Foreign Policy’s Tom Ricks joined me to talk defense spending on today’s show:




HH: So pleased to welcome back Thomas E. Ricks. He’s covered the United States Military for 20 years for the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, the author of five books. In fact, I was recommending the other day Making The Corps to someone who had never heard of it, Tom Ricks. I couldn’t believe it. He is now blogging over at Foreign Policy, at Best Defense, and he is one of the go-to guys on the American military. He is a Yalie. We forgive him for that. In three of the years that he was there, my Harvard people beat him like a drum, so I’m happy about that, too. Tom Ricks, welcome to the Hugh Hewitt Show, great to have you back.

TR: Thank you, and I know you didn’t go to Yale, but I can talk slowly.

HH: Okay, so you began a conversation yesterday which is way above my pay grade. In the course of my following the Defense number, that’s all I’m trying to do, is figure out how much money they’re going to give to Defense, you began a conversation with a bunch of smart people. And Roger Zakheim was on earlier today, and I’m going to keep bringing on these people. You’re having a conversation no one else is having about fundamental transformation of the American military, where I’m just trying to figure out what the number is. But what’s the point you’re making, Tom, that the page has to be turned before the Defense budget is figured out?

TR: That right now, what we’re doing is funding a 19th and 20th Century military. And it’s going to get more and more expensive and less and less successful. What we need to do is look at Defense very differently. And this is not a thought that originates with me. I was very influence in this by a book that General Stanley McChrystal has written that’ll come out in a couple of months, and I think you should have him on when it comes out. The point is basically, we are going to have to cut the Defense budget. It’s too big and too expensive, and really not successful enough. An effective military is not a freestanding thing. A military is only effective as it’s able to change and deal with its environment. And what we saw in the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan was a very big, expensive machine that had circles run around it by al Qaeda and other people for several years. Again, that’s General McChrystal talking, not me. So we’re going to have to cut Defense. It’s too expensive for what we’re getting. The question is how we do it. D you want to cut Defense, Hugh, stupid? Or do you want to cut it smart?

HH: Well see, now this brings me, I will of course read the McChrystal book, because he is one of the half dozen of the smartest innovators in the American military in the last 20 years, and so despite the circumstances of his departure, that’s a must-read for me, and I hope he’ll come on the show and do it. But let me ask you about some specific things.

TR: Well, I asked you a question.

HH: Yeah.

TR: You want to cut Defense stupid? Or do you want to cut it smart?

HH: I’m not sure I want to cut it, yet, but if I have to cut it, I want to cut it very smart.

TR: Okay.

HH: And that brings me to this question.

TR: Stupid is the way that we’re going right now.

HH: Yes.

TR: …which is cuts across the board, everybody takes equal cuts, and you basically start with a big machine that gets slower and smaller and rustier every year.

HH: And what’s amazing to me, Tom, see if you agree with me, everybody agrees that’s the stupid way to cut Defense, and yet that’s the way we’re cutting Defense.

TR: Yes. Cutting across the margins, across the board, leaving it the same, and it just gets a little bit older and funker every year.

HH: And that’s why Congress has got me wildly critical of the process that they are going through in the budget process right now, because they’re not dealing with the real issue. The Quadrennial Defense Commission, I though, did a pretty good job of reimagining where the military has to go. They paid a lot of attention to cyber, which you’ve been paying attention to, and they also came out and said the one thing which I have been pressing some of the Republican presidential candidates on, the Ohio Class submarine is one of our key deals. And it’s going to age out by 2029. Maybe they’ll get a few extra years. And there’s not a hull in the water, there isn’t a design anywhere, and it will eat the entire shipbuilding budget, Tom Ricks.

TR: Well, no, the entire shipbuilding budget is also being eaten by $12 billion dollar carriers, aircraft carriers, and that’s before the cost of operating them or putting the planes on them, which is many billions more. And in the 21st Century, a carrier probably is a giant kick me sign driving around the Pacific.

HH: Well see, now that is a proposition to which I’m open. I don’t know. I’m like the last guy anyone in the world would ask whether or not a carrier is defensible. But I know a lot of people who believe in carriers. So who has that conversation, Tom Ricks, about whether or not we can go to eight carriers, or stay at 11? Who do you trust to have that conversation?

TR: Well, a good guy was our Navy captain, Jerry Hendrix, and there’s a reason he retired as a captain. He wrote a very good article about the indefensibility of the carrier in the 21st Century, saying basically carriers were great, they have been great, but arguing for the carrier today is a lot like arguing for the battleship in 1938. Yeah, they throw a lot of firepower. They also were pretty irrelevant to the conduct of World War II. They were not, nobody thought about carriers and aircraft. Well, right now, we’re looking, I mean, battleships and aircraft.

HH: You were saying battleships were irrelevant to World War II, not carriers. Carriers were everything to World War II, yeah.

TR: Yeah, what I was saying was battleships turned out to be irrelevant.

HH: Right.

TR: The Royal Navy was the best navy in the world. It had the ability to throw more firepower than any other navy in the world, and it was almost irrelevant to World War II. I worry that our military today is very much like the Royal Navy of 1938, kind of hubristic, thinking it’s the best in the world, not realizing that best is a relative term. Best is how successful are you in shaping your environment. Now look…

HH: Now is there consensus on some things, for example, on nuclear submarines and attack submarines and F-22’s and F-35’s? Does consensus exist within the community you cover better than most as to some weapon systems that are absolutely essential in the next 50 years?

TR: Yeah, everybody agrees that you need some boots on the ground in infantry, that you need some ships. But beyond that, there really is a lot of disagreement. This is why I like General McChrystal’s thinking. In his whole book, he doesn’t discuss weapons systems once. His whole book is how you structure the military, how you organize it. And I think he’s totally right there. A 19th Century innovation, the hierarchical military, the Napoleonic military, defeated the other militaries of its time. It was a new, successful organization that harnessed the Industrial Revolution. A 21st Century military is going to look very different from that. It’s probably going to be distributed network. You still have people in charge giving orders, but they’re not sitting at the top of a ladder getting information and issuing orders. They’re sitting in the middle of a network, seeing what’s going on, pushing out information, getting decisions from subordinates made before they even are aware of the situation, and basically grooving on the vibe.

HH: Now that’s interesting, because…

TR: It’s a very different way to run a military.

HH: Steven Pressfield is a pretty good novelist, wrote a book about that kind of military. It was also outsourced to a Mattis-like character operating independent of nation-state reactions, which sounds a lot like ISIS now, correct? So in McChrystal’s book, which you’ve obviously read in manuscript form, how in the world does he account for rapidly arriving threats that no one has anticipated before in parts of the world that we’re no longer willing to go?

TR: Well, his basic answer is you can’t beat one of those newer threats, which is going to be a network. You can’t beat that with a hierarchy. It’s too slow. There’s too much friction in the system. What you need is to have your own networked organization that can adapt daily. Something that’s successful today is not going to work tomorrow. You have to change every day. And McChrystal argues, and I think this is totally correct, that you need a different sort of organization, a small, adaptive, networked organization. But what I don’t see is anybody offering that up to Congress from the military, and Congress isn’t asking for it.

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HH: Tom, you wrote something a few days back about the fact that cyber warfare is warfare, and therefore it needs to be authorized specifically and prospectively. This is actually, and I hadn’t thought about this, and I teach Con Law. When we did Stuxnet, we engaged in an act of war, if it was us and it wasn’t the Israelis. When we’re doing all these different things, we’re engaging in hostilities. And you’ve put the question out there, and I’m wondering what the people in the Pentagon thought about it, about how the Congress oversees this kind of use of force.

TR: Congress doesn’t, but it’s even a Constitution question inside the executive branch. The President, remember, has retained authority over nuclear strikes. That’s why he has always somebody carrying that little football, they call it, that has the codes. And this was a discussion early in the Cold War. Should commanders in the field have the right to use nuclear weapons delegated to them? And people argued for this. MacArthur just wanted to throw about 36 nukes into China, kind of groove on that vibe and see what happened. The same way, we’ve had, and it’s been a very quiet argument, and not many people have reported on it, between the Pentagon and the Obama White House, can the military have the right to conduct a cyberstrike without getting White House approval?

HH: And do they even define what a cyberstrike is? For example, would planting a surveillance worm be a cyberstrike? One of the great sidebars in the Hillary Clinton server discussion is whether or not someone mirrored her server, some foreign, hostile intelligence service and never told her, which would be a hostile act. But would we consider that a hostile act? And who’s authorizing that?

TR: Well, one thing is surveillance, and another thing is actually destruction. The thing about Stuxnet, which we did with the Israelis, was we actually caused physical destruction through intervening.

HH: Yup.

TR: If somebody did that to Los Alamos Nuclear Lab, yeah, we would consider that an act of war.

HH: And so the question…

TR: But look, I wouldn’t beat up Hillary on this. I’m happy to beat up Hillary, but I wouldn’t beat her up on this. Probably every single official at the top of the U.S. government has had their private emails read. I know that I’ve been told that my emails have been read by a foreign government.

HH: How interesting. And just a question…

TR: Look, and probably yours, too. I mean, you’re a…

HH: No, I’m boring.

TR: But before I lose you, Hugh, though, I need to persuade you that there is a position that you want to think about, which is that of the fiscally-responsible hawk. If you cut the Defense budget, not only do you save money, you spur the military into the direction that it needs to go towards actually changing before we have a military catastrophe.

HH: Oh, I actually think the Republican who becomes the fiscally-responsible hawk, and also cuts out bureaucratic overload at the Pentagon, civilian bureaucratic overload, streamlines, gets rid of some of the admiral class and the general class, perhaps, lots of good stuff can come out of that. James Fallows used to write a lot about this, but may have lost some credibility with the center-right. You might occupy that space now where you’ve got credibility on both.

TR: No, I’m moving left and left over the issue of inequality and racism.

HH: Yeah, but that’s domestic stuff.

TR: I’m practically a sociality by now.

HH: On military stuff, yeah, you are, but that doesn’t matter on, you see, it all comes back to Defense stuff. And I think if someone, if they get a consensus group together, there’s really an opportunity for people to persuade a critical mass on that consensus line item stuff. I think the Ohio Class submarine is one of them. I think the F-35 is one of them. But you know, I’ll keep reading Best Defense every day. Tom Ricks, it is always a genuine pleasure. Follow him on Twitter, @TomRicks1. That’s where you can find him with all the links, and he talks with all of his other Defense people. And please put in an early request for me to Stanley McChrystal, because I definitely want to talk to McChrystal about this.

End of interview.


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