Editor's note: The following is an opinion piece. The writer is not employed by Military Times and the views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of Military Times or its editorial staff.
Early last year, the American people received some brutally honest facts about the deteriorating state of the U.S. military.
During his confirmation hearing in January 2017, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said he was “shocked” by the poor state of military readiness. One month later, senior leaders from all the services were similarly candid in their public assessments.
A year later, things have changed. Not the readiness problems: We know that they continue to worsen. What has changed are the ground rules for communication between the Pentagon and the American public. Transparency has vanished.
In March 2017, senior public affairs officials were told that Mattis “wants us to be cautious about publicly telegraphing readiness shortfalls.” The rationale: “We have to remember that our adversaries watch the news too. Communicating that we are broken or not ready to fight invites miscalculation.” This message has been since repeated to Pentagon senior leaders.
Now, there are even more troubling developments. This week, Defense News reported that the Air Force has directed all elements to curtail interaction with the press “pending completion of operation security training” for public affairs staff. This can serve only to further limit transparency.
Restrictions that prohibit frank conversations about military readiness make it harder for the American public to arrive at informed opinions about the nation’s priorities. This threatens the very foundations of our republican system.
Certainly information which can give our adversaries an advantage or insights into our vulnerabilities should be protected. But an overzealous application creates pitfalls which may be just as dangerous in the long term.
Withholding information from the American public, and what our troops need at the operational level, ironically makes it less likely that the Defense Department will get what it needs from Congress to rebuild military readiness.
The Pentagon will argue that it provides members of Congress with all the information they need in closed sessions. But that argument ignores the fact that in our republic, elected representatives should be responsive to citizen input, and those citizens need to know what’s going on if they are to advocate wisely.
Rep. Mike Gallagher, a Wisconsin Republican and a Marine Corps veteran, recently criticized the Pentagon’s approach: “If the bias is toward silence to prevent adversaries from finding out about unique capabilities or potential weaknesses, guess what — there will never be a public constituency for acquiring or mitigating that.”
Other influential members of Congress have echoed this sentiment. At a Heritage Foundation briefing in October, Rep. Mac Thornberry, a Texas Republican and the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said that the continuing silence makes his job of convincing lawmakers to approve more funding much more difficult: “I’m in the middle of trying to improve our weaknesses,” he said, “and if we don’t talk openly about them, at least to some extent, I’m afraid we will not do as much as we could to fix them.”
Given the current political environment, Congress will invest in our military only if it is convinced of the need. Gallagher and Thornberry’s point is that the military continues to hamstring those efforts.
Fighting for sustained defense funding after 2019 will be hard enough. Hiding from public discussions of how that money has been used in 2018 and 2019, and why even more is needed in 2020 and beyond, will make the struggle even harder.
The second problem is that this approach assumes our adversaries know what only they see in American media. Through a variety of collection methods including cyber-espionage, it’s safe to assume that our adversaries are already aware of U.S. military shortfalls. Restricting public information will ensure that the only ones truly in the dark are American citizens.
Finally, our nation has a long history of cooperation between its military leaders, Congress and the American public.
As commander of the Continental Army, Gen. George Washington was not shy about highlighting the deficiencies in his fighting force. During the pivotal winter at Valley Forge in 1777, Washington turned the spotlight on the perilous state of the fledgling American military.
In a desperate plea to the states, he wrote:
Failure to do so, Washington warned, would mean “the Troops will never be in a situation to answer the public expectation and perform the duties required of them … we shall never have a fair and just prospect for success. ...”
In the 18th century, maintaining security was far more difficult, and methods of communication were more easily compromised. Yet Washington (and others) saw fit to keep Congress and the public informed.
If Washington’s example is not one to emulate, it is hard to imagine whose is.
Today, America’s military needs to be rebuilt. But that may not happen if the military leaders insist on holding all discussions of the problem under a cone of silence.
A massive rebuilding effort requires the support of the American public. And the people will demand straight talk about what needs fixing before they back the effort.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr is the director of The Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense.