Winning more with less

MILITARY FORCE STRUCTURE: Top officials, systems analysts deliberate future U.S. military resource needs.

Street patrols in Afghanistan
From street patrols in Afghanistan (above) to humanitarian relief efforts in Pakistan (below), the U.S. military's mission is constantly evolving. How will these changes impact force structure?Photo courtesy of DoD

By Douglas A. Samuelson

In the midst of two wars and a number of tense situations around the world, America’s quiet, barely noticed conflict might be the most important one of all. As the combat mission in Iraq (but not the presence of U. S. combat-ready troops) ends, action in Afghanistan escalates, and the military reviews its role in the Haitian relief effort and the response to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, top officials in the U. S. Department of Defense (DoD) are heavily engaged in deciding what resources the country needs for national security and how those resources should be managed. At stake is nothing less than the type, number and intensity of missions the country will be able to undertake.

Central to this decision-making is the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), but other studies and initiatives feed into the process as well, broadening the scope beyond the usual set of DoD topics. The weak economy and the burgeoning national debt imply that, as one highly regarded analyst recently put it, “Washington has long relied on its ability to bring to bear far greater resources than any other country against any threat to the nation’s security. If current trends play out, this advantage is almost certain to diminish, perhaps dramatically, in the coming years. Long accustomed to pursuing a ‘rich man’s’ approach to strategy, the United States will find itself increasingly challenged to take a ‘smart man’s’ approach – one for which it seems ill-prepared” [Krepinevich, 2010].

OR/MS analysts might expect the field to play a substantial role in such a system review, and, indeed, it is. Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently told OR/MS Today [Horner and List, August 2010, summarizing their Podcast interview in June 2010] that his own operations research training is critical to his view of the problem and its potential solutions. Adm. Mullen specifically noted the opportunities for much greater use of optimization methods in massive humanitarian relief efforts such as those that followed the earthquake in Haiti earlier this year, and for modeling and simulation to understand the dynamics and effects of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

The DoD situation has three relatively new aspects: first, the weak economy, which makes it more important to set priorities among competing goals; second, the changing nature of military operations, which makes it necessary to consider many more numerous and complex interactions among capabilities in order to assess what the country can accomplish; and, third, the increasing number and importance of missions outside the military’s traditional combat roles.

Humanitarian relief efforts in Pakistan
Photo courtesy of DoD

Resource Constraints

Krepinevich explained in his recent report, “Even after the stimulus spending ends and the effects of the recession subside, an underlying structural deficit remains that both pre-dates the current economic crisis and, given current policies, will extend beyond it. It is this structural deficit that poses the far greater threat to long-term U.S. economic health. Currently the United States’ debt is growing much faster than its economy, and this situation is not projected to change in the foreseeable future. Given current projections, by the middle of the next decade the country’s public debt will approach its Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the point at which significant economic growth becomes difficult. Making matters worse, a growing portion of this debt is held by foreigners. At present China and Japan hold over 40 percent of the United States’ foreign-held debt. According to Office of Management and Budget (OMB) projections, by FY 2018 for the first time in modern history the United States will be spending more to cover the interest on its debt – roughly $800 billion – than for national defense. This should be a matter of grave concern, given the challenges to U.S. security that are likely to emerge over the next decade.”

Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff

Krepinevich attributed this structural deficit to the growth of social entitlement programs and the aging U. S. population, noting that “entitlement spending comprises over 56 percent of all federal government outlays,” while defense spending, even at its elevated recent levels, “represents 4.8 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), a level sustained (and often exceeded) during the 40-year Cold War with the Soviet Union.”

He also identified another issue: what capabilities the United States has acquired for its massive military spending since September 2001. He wrote, “There are other major emerging challenges [besides Iraq and Afghanistan] to U. S. security. In addition to China’s military buildup, Washington faces the increasing likelihood of a nuclear-armed Iran with its potentially destabilizing effect on the Persian Gulf, and growing instability in the wider Middle East, Latin America and on the Korean peninsula. One might think that the major increases in defense spending have left the U.S. military well-equipped to address these challenges. Sadly, this is not the case. The defense buildup has not resulted in a significant modernization of the military. Indeed, from a procurement standpoint, the U.S. military can be said to have experienced a ‘hollow buildup.’ The result is an aging inventory of equipment whose service life is being shortened further by the high tempo of ongoing military operations. Those looking for large, painless cuts in the defense budget are bound to be disappointed.”

The Changing Nature of Military Operations

In addition to the effect of resource constraints, the nature of warfare is changing, as well. The head of U.S. military intelligence in Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn, in a major report on U.S. intelligence activities and organization, noted that the Soviet Union, after 10 years of warfare that killed an estimated 1.5 million people in Afghanistan, faced a larger insurgency than when they started. “Merely killing insurgents usually serves to multiply enemies rather than subtract them,” he and his co-authors concluded [Flynn et. al., 2010; Samuelson, June 2010].

This idea reflects what Krepinevich and Col. Harry Summers wrote in the 1980s about U. S. Army doctrine in Vietnam. Applying greater conventional force in an irregular or asymmetric conflict does not necessarily generate any improvement and may make things worse. Gen. James Cartwright, Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted in response to a question following his plenary address to the Military Operations Research Society (MORS) Symposium in June that DoD has been lobbying Congress to expand the resources and capabilities of the State Department and the Agency for International Development, as reconstruction and economic assistance programs now seem at least as essential as combat operations to achieving U. S. objectives in places such as Afghanistan.

Gen. James Cartwright, Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

Also, as OR/MS Today has reported a number of times in recent years, even current combat operations are different from those of the past generation. Naval bombardment from near shore, land-based artillery and helicopters has given way to coordinated operations by multiple forces. These new forces and weapons systems offer greater precision and speed, but at higher cost and with greater dependence on communication. As RAND Corporation’s Arquilla and Ronfeldt pointed out 15 years ago, “Net-centric warfare,” a concept and a term that RAND is widely credited with having invented, is vulnerable to disruptions of communication and computation in different ways and to a greater degree than older methods.

For example, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) such as the Predator rely on satellite links for communication and coordination. Disruption of the satellite links, either by enemy action, reliability problems or budget cutbacks, would affect the performance of the UAVs much more than, say, radio failures or shortages affected tanks and artillery in World War II. Thus, both combat operations and high-level resource planning require more of a systems approach, in more detail, than was typical in the past.

Yet another aspect of the changing nature of warfare is the kinds and urgency of intelligence needed. Net-centric warfare is information-driven. Maj. Gen. Flynn, now part of the staff of the Director of National Intelligence, recommended major changes in the way intelligence analysts are trained, assigned and advanced, and Adm. Mullen, in his recent interview, strongly endorsed those recommendations. A number of authorities, notably Summers, John Nagl and John Boyd, have emphasized the importance of continually learning and adapting as circumstances change – an information-intensive and analytics-intensive approach. These changes, too, affect the resource mix the services would require.

Non-Combat Missions

U.S. military services have a long history of peacekeeping and relief efforts, but the size and frequency of such efforts seems to be increasing. From the tsunami in the South Pacific in late 2004 through Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 and now the Haitian earthquake and the Gulf oil spill, U.S. forces have responded to unusual challenges. What also seems to be increasing is the proportion of the task that falls on the military. There seems to be no clear vision of how military and civilian agencies, and the federal and state and local agencies within the United States, should work together. As OR/MS Today reported in 2007, much of the effective relief work after Hurricane Katrina was accomplished by non-government organizations after all levels of government fell short. The story of what non-government organizations did is inspiring, but it is also a warning about what could happen without better preparation and resources.

Needed: Strategic Structure

What is needed, therefore, is an overall strategic approach to provide coherence in the resource decisions. Krepinevich was blunt about the state of this part of the activity: “The administration’s ‘strategy’ can be best seen as a list of strategic objectives, or desired outcomes, rather than as a strategy. For example, the strategy notes, among other things, the importance of a strong economic foundation, gaining the support of allies and reducing the danger of nuclear proliferation, but offers no concrete suggestions on how the administration hopes to achieve these desirable objectives, or how inconsistencies between these objectives might be resolved by establishing strategic priorities. Alas, this aversion to strategy is not unique to the Obama Administration, but appears to be merely the last example of a general decline in the U.S. government’s competence in crafting strategy. There is an opportunity here, if the Obama Administration is willing to seize it. It involves exploring all available options for diverting the country from its path toward a declining military posture, and doing so within the context of an overall integrated strategy. Similar to the approach pursued by Great Britain a century ago, this would involve providing clear guidance as to how the United States might expand its circle of willing and capable allies; how it might identify, create and leverage sources of advantage; and how they would be employed to address the most pressing challenges to the nation’s security. Such a strategy would set clear priorities and make hard choices. It would identify areas where the United States would have to scale back or divest itself of commitments, and where it would accept an increase in risk in protecting vital national interests. Importantly, the details of such a strategy document would, as was true of the key Cold War strategy documents, not be made public. Major business firms and sports teams do not share with the public (and hence their rivals) how they plan to achieve success, lest the competition use that information to its advantage. This applies all the more to governments, which are charged with preserving the survival and well being of their citizens. Yet the Obama Administration has no such integrated, classified national security strategy document.”

Current combat operations differ dramatically from previous generations.
Current combat operations differ drastically from previous generations.
Photo courtesy of DoD


The top leadership of the United States is deeply engaged in an historically thorough reassessment of what the country can realistically commit to do in foreign and military affairs and what resources these commitments will require. At this time, few of those senior officials most involved in this review are willing to comment on the record about any aspect of the effort. This makes it more difficult for those outside the process to see the issues and discuss them, but it also emphasizes the great importance of the assessments taking place. While opportunities for analysts not already involved to participate directly in this effort are extremely limited, it is important for such analysts to prepare to react to the public discussion and agencies’ follow-through that will ensue. The review and implementation of the recommendations can and should be informed by additional analysis.

Douglas A. Samuelson ( is president and chief scientist of InfoLogix, Inc., a research and consulting company in Annandale, Va., and a senior operations research analyst for IBM. He is a frequent contributor to Analytics and a contributing editor of OR/MS Today.


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  15. Douglas A. Samuelson, October 2007, “Mass Egress and Post-Disaster Responses,” OR/MS Today.
  16. Douglas A. Samuelson, Summer 2009, “The Turnaround in Iraq,” Analytics.
  17. Douglas A. Samuelson, June 2010, “Changing the War with Analytics,” OR/MS Today.
  18. Harry Summers, 1982, “On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War,” Presidio Press.