Whose ‘Sacred Cows’ are these?

An article in the January 2012 issue of Proceedings by Senior Chief Jim Murphy, USN (ret.), proposes an interesting approach to meeting budgetary cuts that will inevitably need to be made among the American sea services. It is available free to non-subscribers here.

Murphy suggests a true top-to-bottom ‘zero-based’ review to redesign the functions of the USN and USMC from scratch. Such a review should be conducted by a team of ‘deckplate’ sailors and Marines, Murphy argues, as “many ideas for making systems more efficient or identifying pure waste can come from junior personnel.” The underpinning point of Murphy’s article – and one he stresses repeatedly – is that, to be a true zero-based review, no ‘sacred cows’ of individual warfare communities can be immune to the budgetary axe.

The proposed review process would proceed as follows:

1.      An overall capability-based review, examining broadly the types of capabilities possessed or under development by “competitors and likely aggressors,” and, in that light, a determination of capabilities and capacities demanded of the navy and marines.

2.      A review of personnel and equipment necessary to match the required capabilities/capacities.

3.      A review of support and logistical functions required to “man, train, and equip combat forces.”

4.      Lastly, a review of how existing equipment, platforms, personnel, etc. fit based on the above determinations. At this stage, some new capabilities and capacities will inevitably need to be generated, while others can be reduced or eliminated.

The review process Murphy proposes generally makes a lot of sense, but I’m sceptical just what sort of savings can be found through this process. Nothing about the process intrinsically promises fiscal savings; the review might ultimately conclude that expanded capabilities and capacities above and beyond what already exists are necessary. Or, if the review determines that extensive ‘renovations’ are needed to the sea service ‘house’. I imagine we would not be any further ahead cost-wise if we burned it down and built it anew. Ultimately, the answers entirely depend on the results of the review and how well existing capabilities and capacities can fit into a hypothetical new concept for the American sea services.

Unfortunately, Murphy’s proposal is self-defeating as, in the course of his argument, he establishes a few ‘sacred cows’ himself. Murphy places combat functions front and centre and relegates “[a]ny function that does not deliver munitions, assist in delivering munitions, or support the man, train, and equip responsibilities for those missions” [sic] to the lowest priority. In effect, combat capability becomes a ‘sacred cow’ in this context.

I would by no means whatsoever suggest that combat capability should be thrown under the bus in favour of support functions. But, as identified by Ken Booth in his 1977 book Navies and Foreign Policy, a navy’s use of the sea is a trinity of three functions:­ military, diplomatic, and constabulary. Hasty proposals for dramatic cuts to the support ‘tail’ in favour of the combat ‘tooth’ offer very narrow interpretation of the flexibility and options provided by sea power. Any true zero-based review must remain mindful of these other attributes of sea services, potentially seek a balance between them, and not eschew them without careful evaluation.

Meanwhile, it does seem that USN and USMC leadership is having open, candid, and informed conversations about the ‘tooth’ vs. ‘tail’ balance in American sea services. [This video of a panel from late January at WEST 2012 – “Warfighters vs. Support: Do We Have the Equation Right?” – is quite long, but worth viewing.] Are similar conversations happening between these panellists’ Canadian counterparts?