The three week blitzkrieg that has taken the extremist group that goes by the name of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) almost to the gates of Baghdad should be enough to convince any reasonable observer that this is a bad time to be reducing the size of the U.S. military. As of a few months ago, no one in Washington had even heard of ISIS. It was just a couple of years ago that President Obama assured the American people that Al Qaeda and its affiliate groups (one of which, it turns out, was ISIS), were decimated and on the run. Now U.S. “advisors” are back in Iraq, unmanned aerial systems are conducting surveillance missions over the newly declared caliphate, a carrier battle group and amphibious assault ship loaded with Marines are positioned in the northern Arabian Gulf and Central Command is developing plans for possible air strikes.
This sudden turn of events is ironic, in part, because the Obama Administration’s defense policy, as reflected in the 2012 Strategic Guidance and 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, had as a central operating assumption that this country would not again engage in a large-scale and sustained stability operation anywhere in the world. This assumption was the basis for the decision to slash the size of the Active U.S. Army from a high of 570,000 to some 450,000. While President Obama has promised that there will be no American boots on the ground can we hold him to his word if ISIS threatens to take Baghdad? What about when ISIS turns its attention to Jordan, a long-standing U.S. ally?
The reality is that our leaders have generally done a poor job of predicting when, where and how this nation will fight. Since 1950, what repeatedly saved the U.S. from military disaster has been the size of the Armed Forces, our advantage in technology and the robustness of the defense industrial base. The Cold War military was of sufficient size and power to make up for a plethora of strategic and operational mistakes. We discovered, for example, that the B-52s originally acquired to deliver nuclear weapons on Soviet targets were really good as conventional bombers. Moreover, we had so many of them that the Air Force could afford to lose nearly two dozen during the Linebacker II Operation over North Vietnam. Fighter aircraft designed for the skies over central Europe proved highly effective in providing air support for ground forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was fortunate, as well, that we had lots of them. When our allies wanted to deal with instability in Libya and Mali, they turned to the one country with sufficient airborne ISR assets and a large fleet of aerial refueling tankers to enable their limited military capabilities, the United States.
Now, all three of these historic sources of salvation are at risk. The military is being reduced to a size at which it will be able to fight one war, at best. Our technological edge is being challenged by prospective adversaries abroad and at home by our own broken acquisition system. The U.S. defense industrial base, while still capable of producing world class weapons systems, lacks the robustness to support a rapid and sustained defense buildup.
The rise of ISIS is but one of a host of strategic, operational and technological surprises that have confronted the United States in recent years. If this nation is going to protect its vital interests, deter conflicts with would-be regional hegemons, reassure allies and respond to crises of all sorts, it needs a robust military, one of sufficient size, sophistication and resources to deal not only with the known threats but with the inevitable surprises. A key measure of the adequacy of U.S. military might is its ability to withstand surprises of all kinds.
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