As part of his plan to cut $4 trillion from the federal deficit, President Obama announced his intention of seeking $400 billion in reductions from the defense budget over 12 years. But rather than just blindly cutting, the President announced that the defense cuts would be based on a comprehensive review of national security. The Department of Defense will conduct the review which will encompass the entire national security establishment, including the State Department, Intelligence Community, homeland security and nuclear programs managed by the Department of Energy. Although no firm due date has been established, the review is expected to take months. As a result, it will have no impact on the fiscal 2012 budget.
It would be remarkable, actually unlikely to the point of implausibility, for the review to produce a significant change in the roles, missions, structure or posture of U.S. Armed Forces. First, Secretary Gates has already made it clear that the review will not come up with an answer. “I want to frame this so that options and consequences and risks are taken into account as they — as budget decisions are made, first by the president and then by the Congress.” This means that it will be up to the administration to propose touch choices, something it has not proven willing to do in most instances. Second, as the Secretary acknowledges, any decisions will involve Congress and the likelihood of the administration and its opposition in Congress agreeing on a major change in roles and missions or force structure is virtually nil. After 2012 the whole effort may be irrelevant.
But more important, the problem has already been bounded in a number of ways that make any significant changes unlikely. In its 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, the Pentagon basically found the current force structure, with its established roles and missions, the one needed to meet this country’s myriad security interests and obligations. What has changed in the ensuing year is that we have found new ways and places to employ that force, such as Libya. Another bounding condition is the set of programmatic changes instituted by the Secretary of Defense beginning in 2009. These included cuts in defense spending of well over $300 billion and the cancellation of a number of major programs. Add to that some $100 billion in efficiency initiatives announced earlier this year. The Secretary has made it clear that he thinks that he has already cut the fat from the system and that deep additional reductions must impact muscle and bone.
Defense officials have made it clear that there are a number of red lines that he is not prepared to cross. One of these is the creation of a hollow military like in the 1990s. Another is interference with critical modernization programs. Secretary Gates pointed out that “We have some investments that we have to make. We have to buy the new tanker. We have to replace some of the surface ships that will age out — that were built in the Reagan years and that will age out during this 12-year period. All elements of the triad need to be modernized.” Although the administration may seek to reduce the modernization requirements for nuclear forces by changing targeting strategy this could face a real challenge in the Congress.
Finally, the department had more than enough opportunities over the past two years to make a significant change to roles and missions and failed to do so, for good reasons. This past January, when he cancelled the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV), Secretary Gates had the opportunity to take an axe to the amphibious warfare mission area. In fact, in a speech last year to the Navy League, Gates questioned the value of amphibious warfare — along with the need for aircraft carriers and nuclear attack submarines. Instead, the Pentagon approved the Marine Corps decision not only to refurbish its fleet of aging amphibious assault vehicles but to develop a new amphibious combat vehicle, an EFV lite.
It is true that Secretary Gates will not be occupying that big office on the E-ring of the Pentagon when the National Security review is completed. But he will have set the terms of reference for the study and seen it underway. Moreover, his tenure will cast a shadow over any successor and the likelihood that the next Secretary of Defense will act against the expressed views of someone generally viewed as one of the greatest Secretaries of Defense of the past 60 years.
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