Let’s be honest. The current U.S. defense program is underfunded, even at over $500 billion a year in the base budget and another $100 billion plus in contingency expenses. A large, active, modern military is very expensive to maintain. The U.S. military suffers from a number of particular problems that exacerbate its financial distress. Personnel costs, particularly health care and veterans’ benefits, are rising at an unacceptable rate. Too many uniform personnel are being employed in positions that could be filled, at lower costs, by government employees or contractors. The failure to adequately modernize the force over the past decade has resulted in equipment fleets that are old, obsolescing and generally very expensive to maintain. At the same time, new systems cost more because they are so much better than those they replace. Finally, the military has been used extensively over the past 20 years wearing out both people and machines.
It is clear that the defense budget will be reduced; it is only a question of by how much. Current proposals range from a low of $400 billion over ten years by President Obama to over $800 billion from Democrats in the SASC to more than $1 trillion from the likes of Ron Paul and Barney Frank. Even the lowest number would put tremendous pressure on the Pentagon; a cut of $1 trillion and we could see the size of the U.S. military reduced by 25 percent.
At the same time, the United States has been unable to define a national security strategy and defense program that does not assume a future in which threats proliferate and the military continues to be used extensively and intensively. Even as it threads its way through the labyrinth of withdrawal from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama Administration managed to get this country involved, albeit as a supporting player, in a new one in Libya. The Department of Defense and the military services continue to publish planning documents arguing that the nation faces a broader range of threats in the future than today and that they must be prepared to address all of them.
This is an impossible situation. The defense budget is about to be cut at the same time that requirements on the military are being expanded. There are ways of reducing defense costs, such as by streamlining supply chains, using best business practices, eliminating outmoded policies such as the 50-50 rule that protects the military depots and relying more on contractors for O&M services. But ultimately there is no choice but to redefine the way the military is deployed and employed and on that basis reshape its structure and reduce its costs.
Incoming Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta appears to understand the nature of the problem, based at least on reports that he has directed the Pentagon to create a new vision of a leaner U.S. military and a strategy to transition the Pentagon in the next five to ten years. The critical determinant of the utility of such a vision is whether it takes a strategic approach to the redesign of the U.S. military. A new vision cannot be based on simply shrinking all parts of the defense establishment equally. Such a so-called “salami slicing” approach is both inefficient and self-defeating. To be useful, the Panetta vision must address not just the supply side of the problem, the budget, but also the demand side, our strategy and defense policy.
I would propose a couple of ideas for Secretary Panetta to consider in developing his new vision. First, the number of significant military threats to the nation’s security is not growing, it is declining. This is true even at the high-end of the conflict spectrum. Therefore, it is time to ditch the Cold War model of instantaneous readiness for conflict against a near-peer competitor. Even if China, the rising military power becomes an adversary we have time to generate or even mobilize forces to oppose such a threat, providing the defense industrial base is protected and allowed to flourish. Second, we need to be capable of rapidly dominating a regional rogue state, possibly one armed with advanced conventional and unconventional weapons. This means a capability in the Active Component for very intense, high-end conflict of limited duration. Third, we need to look at ways of expanding the contribution of the Guard and Reserve both to extend the deployable timeline vis-à-vis the regional adversary and also to provide a hedge against a second regional conflict. Fourth, we need to reshape the military to create greater combat power, reducing the number of uniform personnel in positions that can be filled by civilians/contractors and generating a force that is weighted towards “trigger pullers.” Finally, we need to do much more to empower partners and allies to provide for their own defense and they, in turn, must be willing to spend a credible fraction of their GDP on defense and develop forces that can actually be deployed to a fight.
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