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“Modest reforms to pay and compensation will improve readiness and modernization. It will help keep our all-volunteer force sustainable and strong. Keeping faith also means investing sufficient resources so that we can uphold our sacred obligations to defend the nation and to send our sons and daughters to war with only the best training, leadership and equipment. We can’t shrink from our obligations to one another. The stakes are too high.”

Gen. Martin E. Dempsey

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Grading Against an Unknown Future

Nathaniel Sledge has a good critique of my procurement report in this month’s National Defense.  His article reflects the most frequent criticism of the report:  sure, we bought newer, better stuff, but it was the wrong stuff.  

Sledge rightfully points out I never explicitly define modernization.  In the report, I use an implicit definition of modernization as stuff newer and better than we had when the decade began.  That definition is unlikely to satisfy Sledge, however, because he wants a much narrower one: new stuff that is the right stuff for what our military will do in the future.   

He’s not alone in thinking a “right stuff” definition is the better definition of modernization.  In its most extreme form, the argument dismisses all of what we bought in the last decade and ends up making the seemingly factual statement “we did not modernize.” 

There are two responses to this statement, which seems to contradict my report on the basis of facts.  The first is to better define what the facts are. Taking Sledge’s criticism into account, it would be best if we could use somebody else’s definition of modernization.  Interestingly, there doesn’t seem to be an official definition of modernization, nor an official or doctrinal definition of its related term, “recapitalization.”  So for lack of a better option, let’s use a joint AT&L/Comptroller report’s definition of recapitalization from 2008: 

A recapitalization results in a type designation change, capability upgrades, and additional service life.

By that standard, we clearly recapitalized in the last decade.  To use just one example: the Abrams tank got a designation change, M1A1 to M1A2 SEP; clear capability upgrades with a stronger engine and new situational awareness; and additional service life.  All three components were true for almost all of the procured systems of the last decade.  My report demonstrates we used the procurement funding of the last decade to buy newer, better stuff.  Those are facts—uncontested facts. 

To his credit, Sledge doesn’t deny those facts.  He is careful to note we did buy newer, better stuff, but argues it’s the wrong stuff.  That brings us to the second response: to better frame the debate.  Sledge wants to use the term “modernization” to mean something more than just newer, better; to use it to describe “appropriateness” for what our military will do in the future.  But here we flounder on a much bigger problem.  What will our military do in the future? 

That is an unsettled question.  There are many different opinions, all based on reasonable understandings of history, technological developments, and geo-strategic trends.  Moreover, the question cannot be definitively answered.  We won’t know what our military does in the future until the future has become the past.  

Which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t debate what our military will do and therefore what to buy.  At the end of the day, we have to make decisions on imperfect information.  We have to prepare for the future before it is in the past.  In my report’s closing sentence, I explicitly acknowledged the need for debate: 

Even as the debate of what we should buy rightfully continues, we should not dismiss what we have already bought.

But we confuse the debate if we cloak our arguments about how to prepare for the future in language like “we didn’t modernize.” Such a statement sounds like a statement of fact about the past.  It is not.  It is a statement of opinion because it is based on an opinion about what the future will be like.  I tried to better inform the debate by clarifying what actual facts were created by our last decade’s procurement funding.  To do so, I avoided making judgments about whether it was the right or wrong stuff intentionally to help inform the debate not decide it (that point is in the report’s introduction). 

To call my report’s conclusion wrong misinterprets the report’s question and clouds the very debate it was meant to clarify.  I am actually sympathetic to Sledge’s assessment of the stuff we bought and why we bought it.  But his point would be better made if he contested those whose opinions of the future differ from his rather than contest the facts demonstrated by my report.