The role of Congress in War

I recently read three very different articles, about very different aspects of military operations. I really think that these are worth your time to read in totality.


So despite being about “unconventional warfare” and how politicians starting wars tend to lose them, and the role of the President in declaring and waging war, the common theme across these three articles is the role of Congress. Or more specifically, the consequences of a lack of Congress filling their intended Constitutional role.

The currently “hyper partisan” structure of the US Congress didn’t change how the “war on terror” was waged no matter which party was in power (similar to how in the good old days of Korea and Vietnam having cross aisle dialogue still led to bad choices). Whether Congress was red or blue didn’t seem to matter because the Congress learned that getting re-elected is easier if you aren’t a meddler in military affairs. It’s a cop out to say, “let the professional Generals handle it.” since that seemingly absolves a Congressman (gender inclusive term) from saying, “No, I don’t think military adventurism in Bumfuckistan is a worthwhile expenditure of resources to advance a poorly articulated foreign strategy.”

From Congress’ perspective, getting involved in active military operations is a suckers bet. Getting involved in procurement, or base re-alignment, or even revamping a VA payout structure so that more money flows into your constituency is a much more rewarding use of a Congressman’s time. It makes it look like you care about the military, or responsible fiscal policy, because you are “involved.” But…it leads to the F-35 program where Lockheed Martin deliberately put manufacturing jobs in 48 states in order to make the program, which is massively over budget in both time and money, which is unkillable instead of killable the way the F-22 was killed for being over time and over budget. It also leads to the Army filling out seven whole Stryker Brigades using “Low Rate Initial Production” because Congress dragged their feet on allocating funds, but now Congress wanted to fund a second buy of Dragoon variant Strykers with a 30mm cannon before the first purchase was even fielded (because look where the jobs would be from that). Between the original flat bottomed versions, the upgraded “double V hull” versions, and various specialty versions there are now over 25 variants of the Stryker vehicles to maintain across the Army.

So if we can’t expect, at least rationally or logically, any sort of meaningful involvement from Congress, then you are really stuck with this status quo. The President gets a private Army in the form of SOCOM to “advance foreign policy through their worldwide mission” conducting operations with or without a declared theater of hostilities. Sometimes those missions are above the board, sending a Civil Affairs team to do an assessment for development with the State Department, other times it’s a “tier one unit” conducting a snatch and grab on someone who will never again see the light of day.

Outside of the SOCOM realm you have the regular armed services. The Army saw the writing on the wall at least a decade ago and started working on “regionally aligned forces” to get more of that “foreign policy deployment” experience. With the new Security Force Assistance Brigades standing up as a proposed permanent force structure the SF community finds itself in a bit of a pickle. No matter what they tell you, so many of “operational deployments” by SF Teams are in fact to train and mentor regular allied forces (I’m looking at you Thailand and Philippines deployments, not to mention damn near everything 10th Group does in Europe). So SF doesn’t want to say that the SFABs are designed to take their mission, because in doing so they’ll have to admit that since the fall of communism their core competencies have shriveled.

The trend is clear, the normal military forces are going to do a lot more “military to military engagement” operations, and going to do a lot of “advising and assisting” and “enabler integrating” that used to fall into SOCOM’s lap. And Congress is going to let this happen as long as it doesn’t impact jobs in their voting districts. And the President will continue to have even broader latitude to authorize or deny military action.

I wish that I had a simple fix for this political pickle, but really other than shrinking the Army and USMC to fractions of their current active duty strength, and then expanding the National Guard and Reserves to make for a truly leviathan capability, not much comes to mind. Even the call up of the Guard and Reserves was only mildly challenged as a “backdoor draft” by John Kerry in what feels like a lifetime ago. Literally both Red and Blue teams accept the upheaval of the NG and Reserve as just the cost of doing business now days.

If you have any better ideas, please share in the comments.

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