Sequestration, The U.S. Military And The Value of Quantity
Joseph Stalin is alleged to have remarked with respect to military power that “quantity has a quality all its own.” At another time, the Soviet tyrant is recorded as having interrupted a speech by Winston Churchill on the need to treat Poland well because of the relationship between it and the Vatican with the pithy question: “how many divisions does the Pope of Rome have?” Stalin had learned the value of numbers, of quantity, the hard way. It was quantities in terms of millions of Russian soldiers sent into battle, the great expanse of Russian territory German forces were forced to traverse and the long-severe, debilitating Russian winters that had defeated Hitler. This lesson stuck; for its entire Cold War history, the Soviet military emphasized mass as the basis for military operations.
Western militaries have tended to emphasize quality over quantity. There are numerous examples during the era of colonial expansion of battles won by small, well-trained and highly disciplined European armies over larger adversaries. One could point to the successes of the Israeli military against its larger Arab adversaries in successive wars.
The U.S. military likes to see itself as the epitome of the quality beats quantity formula. But in truth, quantity has always played a big role in modern U.S. wars. World War Two was won by the U.S. “Arsenal of Democracy” that produced ships, planes and tanks in unimaginable quantities. Quantities mattered whether in Korea, Vietnam or the two Gulf Wars. In some conflicts, notably Operation Iraqi Freedom, U.S. commanders relied on a qualitative and quantitative advantage in firepower to compensate for a numerical inferiority on the ground. Less well documented or appreciated has been the role of the U.S. military’s lift and logistics systems as contributors to military success. After Operation Desert Storm there were complaints about the so-called “Iron Mountains” of supplies that had been shipped halfway around the world but never used. What went underappreciated at the time was the importance of this ability to rapidly move and then sustain large, joint and combined forces at the other end of the world. This is perhaps the ultimate expression of the quality inherent in quantity.
Today, the U.S. position as the world’s sole superpower is dependent on the quantity of military forces it deploys. When a nation has interests and allies in all the regions of the world and has a military strategy based on deterring not one but two theater adversaries simultaneously, the size of the military, the numbers of ships, planes and ground maneuver units matters. It is easy to point out that an airplane or warship cannot be in two places at once or that for every ship forward deployed there need to be three others to ensure continual movement, rotation and maintenance. Military units need time at home for training, reconstitution and modernization. As learned over the past decade of continuous conflict, without a sufficient quantitative base of equipment, personnel and supplies, the force wears down and eventually breaks. Also, without sufficient air and sea lift assets, aerial refuelers and logistics support units it won’t matter how many combat units the Pentagon deploys because they won’t be able to get to the fight or be sustained once in theater.
The U.S. military has already accepted enormous risk by reducing the quantities of critical advanced capabilities. There are only 19 B-2s in the inventory and 186 F-22s. The actual operational force, once maintenance, training and damage are taken into account, will be much less. Also, there are just so many sorties you can conduct over time with a limited number of planes, pilots and even weapons before the force is rendered combat ineffective. The Air Force is only meeting a fraction of the Combatant Commanders demand for strategic ISR because it lacks sufficient platforms and the ones it has are aging and need more down time for maintenance.
The services are already planning actions to deal with the impacts of a full year Continuing Resolution and sequestration that amount to a cut in force structure. The Navy has announced that it will cancel ship maintenance activities for the third and fourth quarters of the year effectively meaning that most of these ships will not be combat capable. The Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps are all planning to cut back on flying hours which will impact not only training for pilots, maintainers and support personnel but extend the period which will be required before such units can be made combat capable again. This is a return to the hollow force of the 1990s.
Beyond its immediate effects on readiness and training, sequestration will require reductions to the size of the U.S. military force structure that will put it below the quantitative threshold to meet current security obligations and support the national security strategy. As Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta recently observed, sequestration would leave the United States with the “smallest ground force since 1940, a fleet of fewer than 230 ships, the smallest level since 1915, and the smallest tactical fighter force in the history of the U.S. Air Force.” A senior Marine Corps officer warned that the results of sequestration on his service “could preclude supporting even one major contingency.” You can forget about the pivot to Asia. The geography of the Asia-Pacific region requires more ships, planes, bases and logistics support, not less.
Whether Uncle Joe said it or not the point is valid; quantity has a quality all its own. Without a military of adequate size as well as technological sophistication and advanced training, the U.S. cannot continue to be the world’s superpower. That might be fine if we had no economic and political interests in other parts of the world and if there were no threats to our interests, allies and even the homeland. But threats are growing, not declining. Sequestration will make it impossible for the U.S. military to either maintain an adequate quantity of forces or invest in quality of new capabilities.