Yesterday, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General James Amos, gave a presentation at one of the Nation’s premier foreign and defense policy think tanks, the American Enterprise Institute. General Amos provided a far-ranging, enlightening commentary on global security, U.S. defense spending, current and emerging threats and his struggles to preserve a ready force while also cutting end-strength and modernization programs. General Amos’ rationale for choosing readiness over other objectives is because of the Marine Corps’ unique role as America’s 911 force.
In the context of his discussion of projected defense budget cuts, on the one hand, and the explosion of international crises and threats to U.S. interests, on the other, General Amos opined that he expected his service and the Joint Force, at a minimum, to be ordered to do the same range of activities as before defense budgets were cut. In order words, “to do the same with less.” His real concern, he acknowledged, was that the U.S. military would be asked “to do more with less.” In recent months his Marines have deployed without much warning to South Sudan, the central Mediterranean, the Northern Arabian Gulf and the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. See the trend?
How does the military do the same or more with less? One way is by working the force harder. The Marine Corps is already doing this. It is deploying units overseas for longer and, as a consequence, reducing their time at home. It is also using equipment at a higher rate, thereby increasing maintenance and sustainment costs and bringing forward the date at which aircraft, ships and vehicles will need to be overhauled or even replaced. Eventually – really in a few short years – this approach will break the force.
The other way of doing more with less is by accepting greater risk. The term risk, while often used by military officers, defense department civilians and think tank experts, is never clearly or accurately defined in ways that are understandable to members of Congress or the general public. What it really means is that while the mission, the region or the commitment will not be formally abandoned, there is no way it can be supported or defended with the forces available. Insufficient, inadequately trained or poorly supported forces will be sent to accomplish the impossible. Remember Task Force Smith in Korea in 1950? Ultimately, this approach means that Marines (and other service personnel) may sacrifice their lives needlessly.
What our political leadership are attempting to do is rewrite the standards, the metrics by which the adequacy of U.S. military power is measured. The Obama Administration has already done so by abandoning the two major theater war standard that has guided U.S. force development for more than two decades. It also has declared that the military will no longer size to conduct a prolonged, large scale stability operation (i.e., Iraq). This seems rather optimistic in view of the recent successes of ISIS. Political leaders can rationalize accepting risk by arguing that the chance of war appears low at the moment. Pentagon officials can salve their consciences by claiming that they warned us.
The closest anyone has come to making clear what the Pentagon means by accepting increased risk was in testimony by the Joint Chiefs of Staff last year before the House Armed Services Committee. These esteemed gentlemen stated quite clearly that if sequestration continues, they could not say with confidence that the U.S. military could successfully handle even one serious conflict! Not a war on the Korean Peninsula, a conflict over the Strait of Hormuz, the defense of Japan or Taiwan from attack or even meet our obligations under the NATO Treaty to defend Europe. When asked by Rep. Randy Forbes if they could execute the military’s basic Strategic Planning Guidance, which requires that U.S. forces be able to handle one enemy and to deter another, the Army, Navy and Air Force leaders all said no. Risk in this case means losing at least one war.
One reason that administrations of different political persuasions have been able to get away with asking the military to do more with less and using the fig leaf of “accepting increased risk” is due to the absence of a way of measuring the changing relationship between the demand for military forces (do more) and the supply (with less) over time. Each administration starts afresh with its own national security strategy, defense program and, for the last twenty years a Quadrennial Defense Review. The goal posts are constantly moving, as is the definition of risk. Nor has there ever been an accurate assessment over time of the rise or fall in risk to our defense strategy or the Nation’s national security resulting from changes to the defense budget or force structure. Only by establishing an enduring, comprehensive system that measures U.S. military power over time against classic, long-term missions will it be possible to understand how much risk the American military is really being asked to accept.
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