The Department of Defense is deep into repetitive budget drills, trying to figure out what kind of force structure will remain if the Pentagon has to absorb $600 billion, $800 billion or even $1 trillion in cuts over the next decade. The White House and OSD are trying to be clever by requiring that each of the military services develop their own alternative force structures not only for that individual service but for the others as well. Undoubtedly, the hope is the services will engage in intramural warfare, competing with one another to save their own programs and force structure by savaging those of the others.
In essence, the military is being asked to try and achieve current objectives with significantly reduced resources and force structure. In the past when it has conducted similar exercises, the Pentagon’s response to this impossible request has been to resort to magical thinking. It has met the problem of resolving resource-strategy mismatches by talking about “accepting risk.” Accepting risk means accepting that the chances of something bad happening will increase and the ability of the U.S. military to successfully resolve such an occurrence will decline. This is like saying you are not going to buy homeowner’s insurance, wear a seatbelt or lock your front door and instead simply hope that you don’t have a fire, car accident or burglary. The DoD formula of accepting risk is no different than crossing one’s fingers, wearing a lucky t-shirt, praying for your favorite football team to win on Sunday afternoon or sacrificing a chicken. And it is about as likely to be successful.
What is missing from this exercise is any alternative national security strategy or defense policy. It is interesting that neither the White House nor Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta have provided the military with strategies that would accompany major defense budget reductions. They have failed to specify the regions which would no longer be important to the United States, the vital interests we would not choose to defend, the terrorists we would no longer pursue or the allies that would have to go it alone. So, the military services are left with trying to figure out how they would meet the needs of current strategies with reduced force levels. The answer, not surprisingly, is magical thinking.
The only alternative strategy to emerge has come from no less a source than Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul. As he made clear in last week’s Iowa debate and on his campaign website, Congressman Paul thinks our allies should be left to fend for themselves, rogue states should be permitted to acquire nuclear weapons, the United States should not fight long wars and we should bring our military back from overseas to guard our southern border. He alone among current politicians does not pretend that defense spending can be reduced by hundreds of billions of dollars without a corresponding change in national security and defense strategies. Actually, he does it the right way: articulate a vision of U.S. national security and associated defense policy and then adjust defense spending accordingly.
There are a number of strategy options available to DoD in the face of draconian budget cuts. One option would be to rely on other nations to defend U.S. overseas interests. Another would be to cut a deal with potential adversaries and rising powers. A third would be to rely on nuclear weapons to replace reductions in conventional forces (this is a replay of the 1950s strategy of Massive Retaliation). A fourth strategy would be to return to the pre-Cold War model for defense which relied on national mobilization in the event of a major conflict. Given the state of the world, none of these may be satisfying but they have the virtue of fitting a reality in which defense spending is reduced.
When individuals rely on magical thinking to solve real world problems or to deny the presence of real dangers it can be considered a form of mental illness. When government officials do it is it any different? Solemnly intoning the phrase “acceptance of risk” doesn’t make cutting defense without changing the guiding strategy any less crazy.
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