In the original Karate Kid movie, the aging instructor or sensei, Mr. Miyagi, played by the great character actor Pat Morita, trains his young student by having him perform menial repetitive tasks. These, the student learns, are surrogates for basic karate moves. One such task is to wax his collection of cars. In what has become a classic line, Morita instructs his student tersely “wax on, wax off.”
Watching the Department of Defense (DoD) struggle to deal with declining budgets brought this image to mind. For the Pentagon it is a case of “build up, build down.” This is, in part, the predictable consequence of ending the conflicts in Iraq and beginning a reduction of forces in Afghanistan. The Army and Marine Corps were granted a temporary increase in end strength in order to stabilize the force generation process. But budget reductions of between $480 billion and almost $1 trillion are necessitating even sharper reductions in personnel, infrastructure and weapons systems.
If a movie is successful, Hollywood immediately tries to exploit the situation by producing sequels. Something similar happens in defense. Only here the signature line is different. Having drawn down its forces and reduced spending on defense, the nation finds itself again in danger. The inevitable sequel for the Pentagon becomes “draw down, build up.”
The challenge for the DoD, as one senior Army official put it to me, is to build down instead of simply drawing down. A build down is taking reductions in such a way as to ensure that there exists a capability for rapid growth, a build up. The Army, for example, is considering ways of maintaining a robust Generating Force, those Army organizations whose primary mission is to generate and sustain the operational Army’s capabilities. This may seem counterintuitive. If the military is getting smaller this would seem to suggest putting more emphasis on deployable combat forces. However, as the Army discovered in the wake of 9-11 and Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, building up combat forces while also sending more than 100,000 soldiers overseas and responding to urgent requirements from the field put enormous pressure on a Generating Force that had been severely reduced as a consequence of the last draw down.
The need to consider a future build up when managing a draw down applies also to the defense industrial base. There is a set of skills, processes and capabilities that go along with designing and producing state of the art weapons systems which are nonexistent in the commercial economy and which would be difficult or even impossible to restore. While attention tends to focus on the status and health of the major defense companies, the so-called primes, the defense industrial base is extremely dependent on smaller companies and lower tier producers that often possess unique attributes. A build down, as distinct from draw down, will require a major exercise in industrial planning and management as well as investments in both science and technology and research and development in order to maintain this country’s advantage in military technology and preserve the infrastructure necessary for a future build up.
Put simply, it is a matter of “build down, build up.” If the Pentagon does not plan during the build down for the next build up, when the time comes to increase the size and capability of the military in response to emerging threats it may not be able to do so in a timely and effective manner.
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