Policy skeptics vs. defenders of policy execution


Does the U.S. Navy have more ballistic missile submarines than it needs? Dramatic reductions in deterrent patrols – but not submarines – suggest so.

the reply:
We have the right number of SSBNs to provide our required sea-based deterrent. Some contend we can reduce our SSBN force and still meet requirements. This is not true.
The current force of 14 SSBNs is necessary to provide 10 operational SSBNs and support our national deterrence requirements.

Of course, Kristensen was thinking about the quantity the country needs, not the quantity mandated by the government. Unlike the high-ranking military bureaucrat, he was thinking of an actual need, not about meeting the policy. He questioned the policy.

(The British think four boats are enough, the French think four boats are enough, the Chinese have six and the Russians have eleven in a questionable readiness. Some people (claim to) have nightmares from the mere idea that some country far, far away could get a single basic fission device - without any sophisticated military delivery technology at all!)

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This is one part of what's wrong in many military-related discussions. All too often, officials recite a policy as if it was an argument. It's not an argument - it's an outcome, and the quality thereof is usually the subject of the discussion. Ex ante policy qualifies as background information, not as an argument.
Some authoritarian minds don't get the idea that policy doesn't justify itself, but that's their deficit.

Such behaviour goes beyond bureaucratic self-preservation; I've seen it also in context of ridiculously stupid procurement programs until the day before their cancellation. The bureaucracy's best interest isn't necessarily served with such statements (albeit it seems to be the case in the submarines example). Sometimes the official is just recommending himself for a well-paid military contractor job for after his retirement, other times he is just that genuinely stupid - and there are many more reasons for such behaviour. I cannot trace such useless if not damaging behaviour to any single cause.

Officials who believe they can smack down policy critique by replying with a defence of the policy's execution seem to lack the intellectual curiosity to even understand that someone is questioning the policy and trying to think of an alternative. Well, either this or they use a strawman argument and are thus simply dishonest.

I suppose officials should simply shut up if they have nothing to bring to the table (which can happen if they don't know any real argument that's unclassified). It is after all not their job of executing policy that's typically the subject of the discussion, but the policy itself.

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By the way; this all is quite similar to the typical conservative / bureaucrat remark of noting that things have been done in a specific way and should be done like it in the future, too. I remember one high-ranking officer of the Heer who preferred to refer to what's being taught at the Führungsakademie (officer academy) as what should be done. He was apparently not exactly a great thinker, running out of actual thoughts that quickly.

To refer to authority, policy, tradition or doctrine is no argument. It's merely a description. It is quite safe to predict that this fallacy will be repeated almost as long as there is mankind. The question is: Will their audience confuse a statement of a decision with an argument informing the decision, never learning the distinction?



  1. On the other hand, easy substantiations suitable for interviews die off quickly as you go into higher numbers.

    1 sub: Minimal and intermittent deterrent
    2 subs: Allows for something close to a continuous deployment.
    3 subs: Minimum necessary for continuous patrol.
    4 subs: Add a safety margin for long overhauls or accidents.

    After that, the discussion quickly explodes into considering the number of targets the enemy has, what damage expectations are needed and suitable ... nothing suitable for quick answers.

    So I guess just citing "doctrine" is a fast way out.

  2. But from a military point of view they have to meet that policy. Policy is a political mandate not a military need. Now some would say that we set the police to meet military needs. But if you never revisit that police how do you know if the needs haven't changed? I am not sure we want all military officers questioning the policy's set by government. I woulds say at a certain rank they should be having input on police but it is still the politicians that make it.

    1. They shall execute the policy if it's legal.
      They should not influence public debates mistaking policy for an argument.

    2. You are misunderstandig the argument, both Kristensen and Breckenridge argue based on the same policy imperatives. They disagree about the ressources needed to implement these.

    3. I doubt it; Kristensen is as far as I know anti-nuke in general. Fewer SSBNs is but a salami slice to him.

    4. At least he doesnt SAY anything else. Not answering to hidden agendas is actually the smartest thing to do :)

  3. I am not sure about that. I think at a certain rank you become more politician than solider. The solider at some point should be asked do you think this will work? If not then I think you are putting them in a tough spot. Military disasters happen that way.