We Can Only Afford One Helicarrier

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“The Military’s Business: Designing Military Power for the Future” by Mikkel Vedby Rasmussen

Cambridge University Press, 2015, 215 pp.

Why are Western armed forces achieving less and costing more, and what should be done about it? These are the central questions of the Head of Institute for Political Science at University of Copenhagen, Mikkel Vedby Rasmussen, in The Military’s Business; Designing Military Power for the Future from 2015. Rasmussen combines the thoughts of many innumerable strategists and philosophers of war and applies them to the past 70 years of American military strategy and defense budgets. The result is a narrative of competing and coexisting paradigms of military strategy which have become so rooted in military thinking that they are hard to transform.

The Military’s Business is both a crash course in military and business Vedby Rasmussen.jpgstrategy and an empirical analysis of historical developments. At its finest, the book manages to apply philosophical terms to mundane phenomena such as defense procurement and management and, in doing so, it makes a number of interesting reflections on how societies think about and utilize their militaries. At its worst, the book is an odd mix of thoughts and concepts from a vast number of fields, which are thrown into the pot without any clear purpose in mind, making for a confusing read.

Strategizing budgets

The book opens with a chapter on strategy and another on the United States’ defense budgets. Rasmussen’s comparison of military strategy to business strategy underscores the fundamental difference between the two competing paradigms; an army general considers how he can solve a specific problem at hand with the tools at his disposal. A CEO considers how he can best organize his company to meet the challenges and opportunities of tomorrow’s market. In the first case, the organization is taken for granted and concrete options are deduced therefrom. In the latter, it is the organization itself that is the subject of change. For the military, “the result is conceptual inertia” (p. 28), as the rigid organizational structure limits innovative strategic thinking.

Rasmussen argues that the military’s approach to budgeting is problematic for essentially two reasons. Firstly, it results in a situation wherein the means are not necessarily suited for the ends. Rasmussen demonstrates how the budgetary balance between the different elements of the United States’ conventional forces has changed very little over the past fifty years. The navy’s and the army’s relative shares of the overall defense budgets have been almost static. But the same cannot be said for the geopolitical landscape which have changed immensely from the Cold War, through the Global War on Terror up until today. This proves that what Rasmussen calls the “modern” structure of US military is irresponsive to changes in the global threat landscape. The world is constantly changing, yet America’s approach to its military remains the same.

Secondly, military platforms are becoming more and more expensive, meaning one can get fewer and fewer tanks for the buck. Furthermore, new platforms require more elaborate support structures, which means that the army is comprised of an increasing number of non-combatant personnel relative to the number of people who actually do the fighting. This leaves America with an extremely expensive yet ever smaller force to do its fighting. To exemplify this, he repeatedly quotes Norman Augustine’s prediction:

“In the year 2054, the entire defense budget will purchase just one aircraft […] this aircraft will have to be shared by the Air Force and Navy 3½ days each per week except for leaping year when it will be made available to the Marine for the extra day” (Norman R. Augustine, Augustine’s Laws, New York: Viking, 1986, p. 111).

While the aircraft will of course be immensely powerful – think S.H.I.E..L.D.-style helicarrier – it is hard to imagine how the US military has much to offer with so few technological platforms, no matter how formidable. As new technologies become ever more expensive, military strategists might be forced to make some hard choices between quantitative and qualitative improvements.

Flipping the COIN

After laying out the challenges of the modern military system, Rasmussen goes on to present a newer alternative, which emerged from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, namely counterinsurgency or COIN. This is a strategy that relies on “small units of soldiers, backed up by large intelligence operations and immense capabilities for indirect fire” (p. 77), hence putting a greater emphasis on the human resources of the army than on technological platforms (p. 89).

Soldier on Patrol in Tabin

The promise of COIN was to create a slimmer military which was more tuned for the specific threat at hand in counterinsurgency operations. Unfortunately, COIN never delivered on its promises since it just became another tool in the US army toolbox, adding new expenses without replacing any existing platforms.

Technology will save us!

Another alternative to the modern strategy consists of faith in the possibilities of converging technologies. Proponents of this thesis argue that new technologies, such as nano-, bio-, and information technology, as well as cognitive sciences (NBIC), have the potential to fundamentally change the way the military works and escape the law of diminishing returns, captured by Augustine’s prediction. This could, for example, be through further automatization of defense systems.

The challenge is here, Rasmussen argues, that focusing on converging technologies means directing money to research and away from current needs and conflicts, which is politically challenging to say the least. Past attempts to emphasize new technologies, such as the AirSea Battle concept – later renamed “the third offset” – have more or less been reduced to a long shopping list of new technological platforms to supplement the existing. As with COIN, the problem is that these new strategic priorities become supplements to the existing, modern structure. As the US military insists on maintaining its current capabilities, adding converging technologies or COIN strategies simply adds more expenses to the strained budget.

Designing the wars of the future

In his final chapter, Rasmussen presents his own recommendations for a more effective military strategy, the purpose of which are to provide the military with new options for creating value. Notable among these is an effort to make the mastering of technology a more integral part of what it means to be a solider, thereby fusing the human resources approach to the military (as professed by COIN) with that of technology convergence.

Rasmussen also argues that militaries, especially of smaller Western countries, might consider skipping a step on the technological ladder and instead focus their resources on acquiring NBIC platforms. It is explicitly noted how this is a critique of the massive F-35 Joint Strike Fighter procurements of smaller countries, who might have been better served with maintaining their older platforms and then later switching to 6th generation platforms once these are developed. Insisting on always having the newest platforms may become a disadvantage for the US and its allies, since it directly drains funds from developing newer technologies that might actually fulfill the technology divergence promise of lowering military expenses.

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An insightful mess

The Military’s Business is an insightful account of strategic thinking and of current challenges to the military of America and its allies. Rasmussen includes an impressive number of perspectives by drawing on the works of many classic and contemporary thinkers in the field. This means that different readers will enjoy different aspects of the book and that most everyone will learn something new by reading it.

Yet, this is also what makes The Military’s Business such a mess. It was only halfway through the book that I got a somewhat clear idea what Rasmussen was trying to say. On one page he presents figures of US defense budgets, next he is criticizing US military personnel for relying too heavily on PowerPoint presentations, and next he has a four-page reflection on World War Z and whether America is equipped for a zombie outbreak. Some of these perspectives might have worked well in a lecture format, but they make large parts of the book seem like Rasmussen’s random thoughts and reflections.

In many ways, The Military’s Business resembles Future War by Christopher Coker, whom Rasmussen also makes reference to, given its philosophical take on many contemporary military issues. But where Coker defines his agenda as a philosophical and literary project from the beginning, Rasmussen allegedly sets out to explore the conceptual potential of business strategies. The stated purpose is simply different between the two, and while reading The Military’s Business, you cannot help but think, “this is interesting – but what does it have to do with business strategy?”

For this reason, Mikkel Vedby Rasmussen’s book should be read for a crash course on military strategy and philosophy or for some new ways of thinking about the purpose and organization of the military. What the book really does best is give the reader a number of “huh, never thought about it that way”-experiences. Still, Rasmussen’s concluding five recommendations aside, I have a hard time seeing The Military’s Business having a major impact on public or academic discourses on military strategy. Its arguments are simply too hidden beneath obscure, albeit interesting, perspectives.

Reviewed by Nikolaj K. Andersen

Photos c/o of Marvel Cinematic Universe, http://www.army.mil and Lockheed Martin 

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