This time the defense drawdown will be different. In his remarks at the unveiling of the new defense strategy, President Obama stressed that an important goal of his plan was to avoid the mistakes made in previous downsizings that resulted in the so-called “hollow force” of the late 1970s and early 1980s and the underfunding of infrastructure, readiness and procurement that occurred after the end of the Cold War. This probably means that the Pentagon will have to take addition reductions in combat forces in order to provide funding for support activities and personnel.
Another way of addressing the increased risk associated with cutting the size of the U.S. military, slowing down or canceling weapons programs and bringing forces home from abroad is by designing reversibility into the drawdown. Reversibility means building in ways and means to build up forces or add new capabilities on a relatively short timeline. In the inter-war period, Germany took a number of steps to create the means to reverse the effects of its enforced demobilization under the Versailles Treaty, a number of which violated the spirit if not the letter of that agreement. While reducing its overall size, the German Army structured its remaining units in a way that would allow them to move up a level — companies would become battalions, battalions would become regiments and so on — in the event of expansion. They also sustained an unusually large cadre of non-commissioned officers and midgrade officers. They conducted a wide range of exercises and experimented, often in secret, with new technologies such as the tank and dive bombers, that became centerpieces of the blitzkrieg.
Clearly, the Department of Defense can take a number of steps denied to Weimar Germany. For example, if the U.S. Army is going to eliminate some brigade combat teams and the Air Force is going to reduce its number of squadrons, they both should stockpile the excess equipment and platforms. Both services would have to make plans to rotate equipment and platforms between remaining operational units and the stocks to ensure uniformity of service life.
Reversibility will also require an approach to the industrial base quite different than the laisse faire strategy that occurred during previous downsizings. In prior eras, the Pentagon simply bid adieu to defense companies with the expectation that they or someone very much like them would be available when the need arose again. Benign neglect will not work this time. Key sectors such as shipbuilding, defense electronics, small arms and soldier clothing and individual equipment cannot be expected to remain intact without direct government involvement. DoD will need to design an explicit defense industrial strategy to ensure both the continuing flow of modern equipment over the next decade or two as well as the additional or virtual industrial capacity to support a future defense buildup. The barriers between the private and public portions of the defense industrial base will need to be broken down. The seams in the current acquisition system between procurement and sustainment need to be addressed.
In addition, reversibility will require that DoD revamp its current approach to acquisition. The Pentagon needs to institutionalize aspects of the rapid prototyping, acquisition and fielding approaches devised for the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Also, the currently broken requirements definition process needs to be thoroughly changed to emphasize affordability and producibility. The U.S. may not have the luxury of time when the demand arises for additional forces. Stockpiles of equipment, munitions and materiel can provide some cushion. But there will not be time for a twenty or even a ten year acquisition cycle.
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