The announcement that Robert Work will be nominated to be the Deputy Secretary of Defense was somewhat anticlimactic in view of the stories that had been circulating for weeks, but is welcome nonetheless. Work is a consummate professional with tremendous accomplishments in the military, the Pentagon and the think tank world. As Under Secretary of the Navy, along with Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus and Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition Sean Stackley, Work helped guide the Navy through some extraordinarily challenging times.
The Deputy Defense Secretary will take up his new position at a pivotal moment for the Department of Defense and the nation. To be sure there is the problem of declining defense budgets, although by how much defense spending actually will decline over the next decade is anyone’s guess. Recent commentaries by some observers that characterize Work as the man who will take a hatchet to the Pentagon’s “bloated” budget are wrong on both counts. This is the same silliness we heard about Robert Gates and Leon Panetta. He is not a hatchet man in any sense of the word. Moreover, while he along with everybody else familiar with the operations of the department would acknowledge that it can be made more efficient, I am sure he would violently disagree with the pejorative characterization of the situation as one of bloat. There will be cuts in forces, programs and, I would venture to guess, back office operations. But to the degree they are up to him to decide, they will be thoughtfully done and strategic in their effect.
Declining budgets will not be Bob Work’s biggest challenge. Nor will it be the withdrawal from Afghanistan or the spate of ethical scandals in the military.
The biggest challenge that Work and the department have to face is the end of an era of unchallenged U.S. military pre-eminence and our ability to operate in relatively benign air and sea environments. The past two decades have seen only low-intensity conflicts with virtually no challenges to U.S. dominance of space, air and the seas. These have not been low cost conflicts, just low intensity and, as much as we mourn our losses and support the wounded warriors, low casualty.
The period of engaging in conflicts we would prefer to fight is over. So too is our unchallenged dominance of the strategic high ground, global lines of communications and the oceans. We will not be able to fight any significant future conflict completely on our own terms, time lines or tolerance for casualties. The world is returning to normal; the end of history is over. The decades ahead will require our planning for real wars.
Over the past decade, the Pentagon bought a lot of stuff specifically designed for the unusual circumstances we found in Iraq and Afghanistan. Much of this material is relatively useless for any more challenging situation. The Pentagon recognizes this fact. If you don’t believe me just look at what the services are doing with their massive, hugely expensive MRAP fleets. They are shedding most of these vehicles as fast as possible.
But in this same period, the DoD failed to invest enough in next generation high-end capabilities — either new systems such as the F-22 fighter, DDG-1000 destroyer and LRS bomber or upgrades to legacy F-15s and F-16s. We have Bob Gates to thank for most of these errors, as he acknowledges in his recent book.
Bob Work now faces the challenge of resetting the current force, ensuring that even as the military comes home and shrinks that it doesn’t lose the skills and lessons learned over the past decade and, most important, preparing the military for the conflicts of the future. The wars of tomorrow are likely to require entirely new military capabilities including directed energy weapons, hypersonic vehicles, offensive cyber, unmanned air, sea and land systems and new sources of energy, water and food.
This is a lot for the department to take on. But there is truly no better individual to help lead the Pentagon into this future than Bob Work.
Daniel Goure, Ph.D.
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