Hyper-partisan rhetoric doesn’t change the truth of today’s defense quandary

In a recent op-ed Center for a New American Security‘s (CNAS) senior fellow and technology director Paul Scharre accused Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark Esper of propounding a “convenient lie.”  Retired Army lieutenant general Thomas Spoehr ‘s commentary on the op-ed mirrored my own shocked reaction when he said “[e]ven by the standards of today’s hyper-partisan rhetoric, it is a serious charge to claim Defense Secretary Mark Esper is lying.”

With Paul Scharre in 2019

As Lawfire® readers know, I’m typically a real fan of Scharre’s work as I’ve long-recommended his excellent book on artificial intelligence.  But Paul made a mistake in his attack on Secretary Esper, not just substantively, but also in the ugly way he choose to express his allegations.  It’s hard to believe it’s the usually affable Paul Scharre I know.

Paul no doubt has strong partisan views.  He served for years (2008-2013) as an Obama administration politico in the Department of Defense then headed by Dr. Robert Gates.  Yet his ad hominem attack on the integrity of an honorable American like Esper does not advance the kind of civil and bipartisan dialogue we need today (and CNAS heretofore was known for), particularly with respect to national security.

The alleged “lie”

Scharre claims Esper told a “lie” when he said in a speech:

“For nearly two decades the United States concentrated on violent extremist organizations in low intensity conflicts that left us less focused and prepared for a high-end fight against near peer adversaries.”

Ironically, Esper’s remark is not all that much different from a remark Democratic congressional representative Adam Schiff (D-CA) made recently:

After 9/11, the United States and its intelligence agencies rapidly reoriented toward a counterterrorism mission to protect the homeland. Although those moves were both necessary and largely successful, our abilities and resources devoted to other priority missions—such as China—waned.

Was Schiff lying?  Not in my book.

The Gates era

Scharre asserts  “Esper’s claim that the two decades of countering violent extremism left the U.S. under-prepared for a near-peer fight doesn’t hold water.”  Nevertheless, Scharre concedes that in 2008 his former boss, then Secretary of Defense Gates “criticized [the Pentagon’s] “tendency towards ‘Next-War-itis,’ to focus on the future big wars against nation-state adversaries like Russia and China at the expense of the ongoing wars.”

“Criticized” is a grotesque understatement of what was actually happening.  From my perspective as someone who served in the Pentagon at that time, Gates’ repeatedly expressed real hostility towards anything and, really, anyone who had the temerity to suggest that prudent defense policy demands forward thinking about the sort of high-tech/high-intensity threats America faces today and will face in the future.

Importantly, Gates did not merely “criticize” as Paul suggests; he made his policy clear during Scharre’s Pentagon days when he said:

“[A]ny major weapons program, in order to remain viable, will have to show some utility and relevance to the kind of irregular campaigns that” he said “are most likely to engage America’s military in the coming decades.”

And Gates acted on that threat.  With respect to the Air Force alone, he:

…killed the F-22 fighter, Next Generation Bomber, and Airborne Laser; delayed USAF’s new aerial tanker; and stymied an increase in USAF manning, all of which he boasts of in [his book “Duty”] as “notches on my budget gun.”

Yet Gates himself essentially admitted what Scharre now seems to think is a “lie” when Gates conceded in 2009:

“It is true that we would be hard pressed to launch a major conventional ground operation elsewhere in the world at this time,” he added.  “But where would we sensibly do that?”

As is now painfully obvious, Gates totally miscalculated the nation’s future security needs.  Given his five-year term as defense secretary, Gates was around long enough to tear the heart out of exactly the type of programs we urgently need today to meet the existential challenges posed by nuclear powers like China, Russia, and North Korea—not to mention a nuclear wannabee such as Iran.

Scharre and the F-35

Scharre, a former infantryman, reserves special venom for the F-35, which he seems to think is a worthless “short range” fighter.  Actually, it is air-refuelable and its short take off/vertical landing variant makes it operational from a variety of small, forward-deployed ships and front-line locations in combat zones.  In any event, as Popular Mechanics explained last July, the “F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is scheduled to receive a long list of upgrades that will ideally keep it the dominant multi-role fighter for years to come.”  Popular Mechanics adds:

The F-35, already in service with nine countries, is scheduled to receive the new Block 4 series of enhancements in the near future. Block 4 aircraft will boast faster computers, more missiles, panoramic cockpit display, longer ranges, and AI-flown wingmen. The result is a strikingly different aircraft than the one originally designed in the early 2000s.

None of that open-source information is in Scharre’s tirade.  Moreover, the F-35 was never meant to be the U.S.’s primary air superiority platform.  That job was supposed to go to the F-22, allowing the F-35 to concentrate on orchestrating and executing the ground attack mission.  The two weapons systems were intended to operate in complementary fashion, if not in tandem.

Gate’s cancellation of the F-22 in favor of spending on “weapons program[s]” that “show some utility and relevance to the kind of irregular campaigns” was an amazingly short-sighted  decision.  As retired Air Force fighter pilot Lt General Dave Deptula and airpower expert Doug Birkey explained this past May, “the F-22 [is] the nation’s keystone air superiority capability,” and as such it “has—at a minimum—an order of magnitude greater effect than any other fighter in the world.”  Deptula and Birkey call for upgrading and optimizing the small fleet of F-22s that still exists despite Gates.

The defense budget

Scharre also seems to misconstrue how the Pentagon budget works.  He claims for example, that between 2001 and 2008 “the Air Force grew 22 percent.”  What he doesn’t tell you is that in 2004 then-Pentagon comptroller, Dov S. Zakheim admitted, as columnist Adam Hebert explained, that:

“The Air Force … has a lot of pass-throughs,” said Zakheim. “A lot of intelligence money and space-related money goes into those accounts and literally passes through.” In other words, Zakheim was saying, the money is never touched by Air Force hands.

Have things changed?  Not really.  Last February, retired Air Force Colonel Keith Zuegel pointed out:

For decades, a so-called non-blue share has been stashed inside the Air Force budget. Known as the “pass-through,” these funds are neither controlled nor used by the Air Force. At $39.2 billion in 2020 — 20 percent of the department budget — the pass-through accounts for 6 percent of the entire defense budget, more than twice as much as the Space Force. Without it, the Air Force Department’s share falls to only 23 percent of defense spending — well below the other services. (Emphasis added.)

General Spoehr counters Scharre’s budget allegations this way:

The U.S. military inarguably received additional billions during those years, but those resources were directly focused on the fights overseas. Additionally, and possibly more importantly, the military’s intellectual focus, training, and organizations were diverted to succeeding in the pressing counterinsurgency fights of the day. After nearly a generation of dominating focus on counterinsurgency operations, that the U.S. military should find itself underprepared in 2020 for great power competition should be no surprise to anyone and is intuitively true for those who lived it. (Emphasis added.)

Trying to counter Gates’ disastrous strategy

During the period Scharre and Gates were in the Pentagon the defense establishment was romancing all things counterinsurgency, and bulldozing contrary views.  Gen Spoehr points out that Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Mosely “were fired, in part, for the offense of continuing to advocate for the F-22 in the face of Gates’ ill-considered curtailment decision.”

Still, there were attempts to oppose Gates’ disastrous strategy.  Allow me to share my own first-hand experience in that ultimately fruitless effort.

In 2008 while on active duty, I wrote an op-ed in the New York Times (“We Still Need the Big Guns”). I argued that excessive focus on the then in-vogue counterinsurgency operations “ignores other potential threats.”  Specifically, in that (now 12-year-year-old) essay I asked:

Should we simply wish away China’s increasing muscle, or a resurgent Russia’s plans for a fifth-generation fighter that would surpass our top of the line jet, the F-22 stealth fighter?  Moreover, does anyone really believe that creating corps of civil affairs officers will deter North Korea or Iran?

Later that year the Los Angeles Times ran a front page story (“A Pentagon battle over ‘the next war’”) that observed that I wasn’t “a fighter pilot, wing commander or war planner” but nevertheless was “waging what many officers consider a crucial battle: ensuring that the U.S. military is ready for a major war.”  (Emphasis added.)  The Times also said:

Dunlap, like many officers across the military, believes the armed forces must prepare for a large-scale war against technologically sophisticated, well-equipped adversaries, rather than long-term ground conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan. (Emphasis added.)

First, however, they face an adversary much closer to home — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.  For more than 30 years, the Pentagon establishment considered it an essential duty to prepare for a war of national survival. But under Gates, that focus has fallen from favor.

Although the Times featured me, I was hardly the only person raising the alarm.  It explained:

Dunlap, a military lawyer, has emerged as the most outspoken advocate for what many once considered the military’s core mission: preparing to fight and defeat countries determined to destroy the U.S. or its interests.

He is not alone. In military journals, midlevel officers’ conferences and gatherings around the Pentagon, a growing number have expressed concern that the Defense Department’s planning and resources are being trained disproportionately on small guerrilla wars. (Emphasis added.)

The Times article notwithstanding, the truth was that no serving officer – and especially a military lawyer sporting just two stars in a sprawling Pentagon establishment where there are scores of higher-ranking military and civilian officials – can be much more than a speed bump for as savvy and as powerful bureaucratic warrior as Secretary Gates.

By early 2010, I was gone from the Air Force—Gates stayed until 2011 and Scharre didn’t leave until 2013.  The damage Esper is now frantically trying to remedy had already occurred.


I should tell you I have a long connection with Paul’s organization, CNAS.  For many years I was on its Board of Advisors, but that ended when CNAS demanded a sizeable donation to remain on it.  (I am now supposedly part of something called the “CNAS Council” but it seems to be mostly moribund.)

Although a registered independent, I not infrequently differed with positions CNAS took.  However, I was always proud of the thoughtful and—importantly—civil way CNAS leadership and staff (to include Paul) articulated their views and expressed their disagreements. That’s why Paul’s essay is so disappointing.

To me, it is seriously inaccurate to say that Secretary Esper’s view that “low intensity conflicts that left us less focused and prepared for a high-end fight against near peer adversaries” doesn’t “hold water” as Paul contends.  Those of us who were in the Pentagon know what happened.  Still, disagreement is one thing, but for him to say Esper’s opinion is an actual “lie” is a seriously escalatory accusation which Paul does not justify in his commentary.

Where then are we? 

We all need to stop looking at the past and take actions that strengthen our national security now and for the future.

America needs to be prepared to defend our way of life using a multitude of resources and preparing for threats from a myriad of directions.  Of course, we need to avoid the temptation to throw all of our resources indiscriminately in one direction or thoughtlessly towards the latest brainchild.

At the same time, however, we do need to prioritize funding for projects that can keep us strong against ever-developing existential threats.  While no one is dismissing the need to be able to fight insurgencies that hinder the U.S. or its interests, the weight of the effort now needs to be on, as the Times put it, “preparing to fight and defeat countries determined to destroy the U.S. or its interests.”  (Emphasis added.)

How to best spend defense dollars in service of that priority is certainly a worthy debate.  Indeed, Paul’s views concerning integrating artificial intelligence and unmanned systems could make a valuable contribution. In fact, Esper has long been pushing  such technologies arguing just last week that “[t]oday, emerging technologies are expanding the geometry of the battlefield and transforming how we think about, prepare and plan for war.”

Regardless, calling a person like Secretary Esper in essence a liar is the kind of thing that not only taints Paul and his arguments, but is also something not reflective of the value that Scharre truly can offer in the future in the government’s defense enterprise.

Still, remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!









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