The weak performance of the Russian and Ukrainian militaries in the Russo-Ukrainian war underscores that military effectiveness is dependent upon many factors such as leadership, logistics, maintenance, and training which, in turn, depend upon possessing a professional military that can accurately assess its own weaknesses and flaws. To do so requires honesty by the military organization in its evaluation of itself and in what is reported to political leadership. The U.S. military is in danger of going down the same path and equally disastrous results.
In his study of civil-military relations, political scientist Samuel Huntington advanced the idea of objective civilian control—the military are professionals who obey civilian leadership. In turn, civilians recognize the appropriateness of not politicizing the military domain. Civilian control is assured if the officer corps is permitted to develop into a highly professional institution. With objective control, officers are given the necessary autonomy for operations for which they have expertise. Its opposite is a politicized military, what Huntington called subjective civilian control, as in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) where the Chinese Community Party (CCP) directly controls the military.
The history of the U.S. military in the Cold War is a testament to the concept of objective civilian control. For example, in the 1950s Admiral Hyman Rickover was entrusted with building and leading the U.S. Navy’s nuclear submarine forces without fear of being micromanaged by civilian leadership in Washington. Objective civilian control requires trust from the civilian leadership, and this trust is built by knowledge that the military commanders and forces have stark honesty within their profession.
Being honest regarding the failings of a military is difficult to achieve in the best of circumstances. It was during the Cold War, where professionalism was tested by General MacArthur’s disobedience to President Truman’s orders, and by the tremendous strains of the Vietnam War, including the horrors of My Lai and major problems with discipline and race relations in the last years of that conflict. But it is a testament to the military’s professionalism that it corrected its faults and recovered exceptionally. The U.S. Army generals of the 1970s, including William DePuy and Donn Starry, were able to reverse the rot that Vietnam caused and weather the difficulties of transitioning to the All-Volunteer Force.
Despite the tests of those prior military professionals, the present challenge for the U.S. military is that the country is enduring an ideological upheaval between traditional political liberalism and progressivism. As the historical cases of the French revolution and upheaval in the Red Army after Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution demonstrate, ideological fervor can often be the opponent of truth and objective civilian control precisely because the progressives want to politicize the military in order to re-make it accord with their ideology.
In these conditions, the U.S. must look to its past to understand what might be lost. A significant outcome of military professionalism during the Cold War was the positive environment for innovation made possible by institutions—the services, civilian and military leadership, industry, and defense intellectuals—willing to critique people, needs, objectives, and performance. All of which helped to sustain U.S. military effectiveness.
One of the hallmarks of the professionalization of the U.S. military is that it has objectively evaluated itself and thus improved its combat effectiveness, lethality, and ability to innovate. If it can continue to do so it will provide the U.S. with a major advantage over China in the present Cold War. A professional military is a strategic asymmetric advantage for the U.S. in its struggle against the PRC’s unrestricted warfare. To achieve a U.S. victory over the PRC, the U.S. must preserve its Cold War legacy of military professionalism.
The PRC is the enemy of the United States, and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is its principal weapon to destroy the ability of the U.S. to impede the regime’s goals. To aid the PLA in any manner is supreme folly but lamentably, this is what the U.S. military has done through its politicized policy of unconstrained military-to-military relationships, interestingly now suspended by the PRC. That suspension is a small mercy, but it would be wise for the U.S. if it would terminate all formal and informal mil-mil relationships with the PLA, encourage its allies to end them, to ensure that the PLA does not learn how to improve its combat effectiveness.
Today, given the ideological upheaval in the country, the U.S. Department of Defense must review its ability to be candid, competent, and straightforward, to determine whether safeguards are in place to preserve America’s national defense, including adapting and strengthening the institutions that undergird the department. This is necessary to protect servicemembers who offer professional critiques, most importantly of ideological sensitive topics and to do so without jeopardizing their career or prospects.
There is major concern among veterans that the U.S. officer corps is becoming increasingly politicized due to pressure from the Obama and Biden administrations. Given this pressure, now is an appropriate time for civilian and military leadership to remind themselves about the importance of objective civilian control and thus the need for civilian leadership to leave the military domain to the military. There is an opportunity for U.S. civilian and military leadership to have a renaissance in military professionalism if its civilian leadership will embrace this ethos and maintain the standards of honesty and trust exemplified during the Cold War.
The Cold War with the PRC will test U.S. civil-military relations as certainly as the struggle with the Soviet Union did. Unfortunately, it is an open question whether it will navigate those difficult waters as Cold War predecessors did. The Pentagon’s leadership must not deceive itself and permit political influences to supplant objective control through gradual erosion, by inadvertent, or by intentional explicitly ideological measures. The military domain must be sacrosanct in the U.S. civil-military relationship to provide the military effectiveness needed to deter and defeat the PRC if deterrence fails.
James Fanell is a government fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, a retired captain in the U.S. Navy and a former director of intelligence and information operations for the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Bradley A. Thayer is Director of China Policy at the Center for Security Policy. He is the coauthor with Lianchao Han of Understanding the China Threat.