The Department of Defense (DoD) is faced with an impossible problem. It needs to find a minimum of $480 billion in savings over the next ten years. At the same time, the Pentagon cannot forego its responsibilities to maintain the military arm of the world’s sole superpower, one with global interests, friends and allies. DoD might be able to resolve the dilemma between the many demands on military power that result from America’s global role and the increasing scarcity of resources were it not for the reality that the world is not becoming a more peaceful place. There are the ongoing worries about China, North Korea and Iran. Add to these the growing threats to the global commons, including particularly cyber space. There are humanitarian disasters, manmade and natural. Finally, there is the continuing problem of global terrorism.
DoD is trying to carefully craft a “Goldilocks” defense strategy: not too much, not too little, just right. It will not abandon any commitments; if anything, there is likely to be more activity with friends and allies in critical regions. Even as U.S. forces are withdrawing from Iraq, Central Command is making provisions to secure its deployments throughout the rest of the Middle East. We may ship a brigade home from Europe and deploy fewer ships forward but that will be at the margins. There will be no decision to abandon major missions, although a few may be slightly redefined to save some money. The Pentagon will continue critical acquisition programs as well as conduct cutting edge research.
But the situation confronting the United States is not a fairy tale or, if it is, it is more like something from the Brothers Grimm. The problem is that the Pentagon cannot reduce the nation’s security commitments — not that it really wants to. That is something only the White House and Congress can do and they are not going to make any radical changes in alliances, treaties or security guarantees going into an election year. Frankly the combination of worldwide security obligations, rising fixed costs to maintain a large military, the challenge posed by an aging force structure and the need to reset existing forces and invent new ones constitutes a set of imperatives which requires more money than the current budget not less.
In addition, there is no one who really believes that the current $480 billion in spending cuts are the last, despite how loudly and long Secretary of Defense Panetta and the Joint Chiefs protest that further cuts will cripple the military. More defense cuts will come as a result either of the super committee’s decisions or through sequestration. Whatever strategy and force posture DoD comes up with in the next few weeks will be a temporary bandaid on the problem. Another revision and new force posture will follow and then another and another. While it might make more sense to come up with the final strategy and force posture now, that is not the way things work in Washington. So DoD will suffer the death of a thousand cuts.
There is no way to achieve a Goldilocks defense strategy, one that is just right for the range of demands for military forces and also affordable for the resources that will be available. Either the United States ponies up the resources or it must decide to radically reduce America’s role in the world and its reliance on military power to protect those interests and the global commons. Unfortunately, defense officials cannot say this.
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