The Pentagon Reformers

The Reformers went by many names, “Pentagon Reformers”, “Military Reformers”, the “Defense Reform Movement”, and probably others, although the last was the most common. Coming to prominence in the late 1970s and early 1980s, they unsuccessfully challenged the buildup of military equipment in the Reagan and later Carter administrations.

Accurate, fair accounts of the Reformers are hard to come by, as most of the work on them was either written by Reformers like Pierre Sprey, Chuck Spinney, and James Fallows themselves, or by their opponents. From the Reformer in-house publications, one only gets either triumphalist tales or pity-stories of them bravely but futilely fighting the Evil Juggernaut. The opponents were frequently shallow themselves, and one of the most comprehensive pieces, Marshall L. Michel’s thesis The Revolt of the Majors, is so incredibly  biased that even when I agreed with him, I still was skeptical. To give one example, Michel doesn’t afford the respect of calling the Reformers their preferred name, instead calling them the “Critics”.

(The first part of Revolt, describing not the Reformers, but the development of the USAF and the introduction of Red Flag, is not only better, but it inspired me to make a Command scenario, the brutally hard A Day at Red Flag).

In practical terms, the Reformers were not the most effective, to put it simply. Being fringe gadflies who criticized everything in the 1980s and being fringe gadflies who criticize everything today, all without influencing much in the way of true policy might make them an odd choice for study. Yet in studies of movements and ideals, it is important and intriguing to look at instances of failure in addition to success.

Not all the Reformer criticisms were wrong. There are indeed large expenditures in the military, and the procurement process is no one’s ideal. (Note that it must be put into perspective, though-high-tech projects struggling is one thing compared to “low-tech” projects struggling.) There is a place for a critic who can turn the culture back away from technological irrational exuberance, issues words of caution, and focuses on timeless fundamentals.

But in practice the Reformers failed at that. In my research and opinion, I’ve come up with a small list of reasons why:

1: A penchant for easy publicity over hard work.

This is by far the biggest reason for the Reformers’ failure. At least according to Michel’s account (with all the piles of salt one must take with that), James Fallows, the Atlantic editor who brought the Reformers to prominence, reads like a horrific stereotype of the post-Watergate journalist-dashing, believing firmly in using the press to further a cause with an equally firm view of the power of the media alone to change everything. (From what I’ve seen of his writings, I can say that Fallows’ pieces from that time period make him look arrogant like nobody else).

Again, by Michel’s flawed piece, Fallows was convinced that working within the system was impossible, so he aimed for an outside media campaign of “simple ideas, simply put” that would convince the media leaders, who would in turn convince Congress to impose from outside the lower-tech, less-expensive force the Reformers wanted. The problems this strategy had will be covered in a later point, but the biggest were that it alienated those “inside” from the start, that it depended on the media, and that it left no room for grey.

So instead of calmly and rationally arguing in the USNI Proceedings and similar journals about say, the virtue of smaller warships, the stereotypical Reformer would go to the mainstream press and say “Did you know that radar can be detected? And that our [ships/planes/etc.] are brimming with radars!” Of course people who actually know anything know that radar can be detected, and that dealing with it has been a problem since radar was invented.

But studying radar is hard, and delivering a narrative is easy. There’s more personal reward in staying and talking than from delving into the depths of a project, making enemies to cut a small amount from a project, and maybe taking away something that might have been useful.

Even sources sympathetic to the Reformers have pointed this out. Pro-Reform journalist Gregg Easterbrook’s review of James Burton’s The Pentagon Wars (known by many for its HBO movie adaptation) was mixed, with the greatest criticism (echoed by a decidedly not sympathetic to the Reformers blogger) being that Burton acted as if he was entitled to some sort of recognition and reward beyond the outcome of his work.

This was a reason why the Gulf War was so damaging to the Reformers. Suddenly the image, the “simple idea, simply put” was of high-tech weapons handily winning. To change course, to argue for subtlety and complexity of the situation, to say that it was not as it appeared, was jarring to a movement whose strategy was based on just the opposite.

From its creation, the Reform Movement entered a vicious cycle-make bold, unrealistic proposals that would never be adopted, accuse the opposition of being corrupt and evil, and then when the proposals predictably fail, point to that as proof that the opposition is irredeemably corrupt and evil. Compromise and limited victories were out of the question, which leads to the next point.

2: A setup where a few fringe beliefs can wreck the project.

In the world of online collaborative fiction, vastly different from military reform (I hope), I’ve seen multiple instances of projects being destroyed by individual users with insistent goals that were detrimental to good writing, in a loose “structure” that had no one to say “No, you can’t.”

As this is a post about the Reformers and not Coiler’s nightmare tales of stories that grew to the length of War and Peace without going anywhere in the plot, I won’t go into more detail on that part. But the setup of the Reformers-loose, with no incentive to self-criticize and a great one to present a unified image, allowed that to go forward. This was the case in the Reformers’ most fervent cause, aircraft, where their most important figure, Pierre Sprey, was and is a very black-and-white (even by James Burton’s standards), stubborn figure with a dated thought process.

Sprey was a civilian engineer and analyst who served in the Robert McNamara-era Defense Department (which he often minimizes, since “veteran of the Vietnam-era Pentagon” is not the biggest selling point), worked on the requirements for what would become the A-10 and F-16 (exaggerated into being outright designers of them), and was the Reform Movement’s greatest and most vocal figure from the start.

From this came several flaws: A generally dated mentality, a combination of an engineer’s view for theoretical perfection and obsession with viewing everything in terms of numbers without experience that could put the numbers into context or show the value of compromise, and a love of being a critic.

In practice, this meant the ideal American fighter was the F-86, based on its (later found to be greatly exaggerated) 10-1 kill ratio in the Korean War. Numbers! The M48 was a much better tank than the Abrams-because you could get five of the former for one of the latter. Numbers! Everything had to be single-role, because multirole compromises ruined the single-role “perfection”. Radar was this clunky thing that was only suited for guiding themselves-finicky missiles-date. Oh, and the services were all corrupt and stupid.

So, the Pierre Sprey air force was one of what amounted to austere jet-Sturmoviks based around cannon, and higher-performance F-5s with nothing better than rear-aspect AAMs. Whether in the present or in 1979 the prescription from him has always been the same. This doomed the Reformers to do nothing more than criticize, for Sprey’s views remain the stated ones, and the impracticality of those means there’s no hope of his solution being applied.

(This incidentally takes the sting off of Sprey’s criticisms of the F-22 and F-35 fighters, since he slams everything. Sprey has attacked Euro-canards, on Russia Today no less, but no one tell him that he’s attacked Flankers just as harshly at varying points. Any alternative philosophy that had radar and or/multirole capability would be automatically attacked by him).

3: No real base.

For a strategy that depended entirely on political pressure, the Reform Movement did not have much of a base of genuine support. Most of the politicians who professed to publicly support it did so for opportunistic reasons. The best it got from most were those who wanted to say they were in favor of military reform (for who wouldn’t be?) in public while privately supporting “the best” for the state/district.

The more serious ones, most notably Gary Hart, did so as a political ploy-an attempt to co-opt Reagan-era moods on national defense. The idea was to have something that could cut defense spending without appearing weak on the matter. (In Hart and other ‘New Democrats’ specific cases, inter-party struggles played a role. Politicians like Walter Mondale delivered talking-point anti-Reagan responses while supporting systems like the F-15 because of nothing but union, donor and constituent pressure).

Apart from the Reformer plans actual savings being dubious (the cost of infrastructure and personnel to crew and maintain these hordes of “low-tech” platforms was mysteriously not mention), this was not an issue that the base of either side was eager to push. To the genuine antiwar left, this was not exactly their favorite issue-few Vietnam War protesters would put “the missiles had a low hit rate” as the biggest problem with the conflict. To the genuine hawkish right, the reformers were viewed with often-well-reasoned suspicion.

Finally, this lack of a base shows with the Reformers’ suggestions for strategy, or lack thereof. More than any long detailed articles, their own bizarre tone speaks for itself-a combination of conventional anti-military-industrial complex rhetoric one would expect from the peace movement, mixed with urgent-sounding and seemingly militarist “Mr. President we must not allow a tactical fighter gap!”.

Lessons from the Reformers:

As stated previously, the Reformers were not always wrong, and for such a loose-knit group of fellows, the quality has varied tremendously. At the top of the pile are such figures as the legendary John Boyd himself (for all his “character issues” and problems with specifics, the OODA Loop remains key to understanding action in general terms), and the previously mentioned Gregg Easterbrook (who, though not without problems, was willing to go against the Reformer Narrative in some ways, such as pointing out that advanced technology often made maintenance easier rather than harder).

The dubious honor of the worst member of the Reform Movement would probably go to one Roger Thompson, a post-Soviet era entrant who focused on naval matters. Thompson’s entire strategy, as shown in his books and articles, has consisted of digging up every incident after Pearl Harbor that makes the US Navy look bad, following the philosophy of “Anyone American talking about their capabilities is an arrogant truth denier, but anyone non-American talking about their capabilities is accurate if it makes the USN look bad”. Ironically, Thompson neglects real criticisms and scandals (problems with naval aviation, including the tailor-made-for-Reformers A-12) in favor of nonexistent ones (exercises where carriers were “sunk” without knowing the context, and using that to claim that all carriers are super-vulnerable), as well as constantly praising the Canadian military as a super-force.

But the lessons of the Reformers are best for other political groups, to understand what not to do. The lessons include the importance of both having a solid political base yet also keeping the fringe in check and not letting it set policy, the need to not write any organization off, and most importantly, that showy, easy publicity is no match for hard, determined work.