Presentation to the Heritage Foundation Seminar for Journalists
The next president will confront a series of national security challenges that are in many ways as daunting as those made by President’s Truman and Eisenhower at the start of the Cold War. Then the challenges were to refashion a military built for World War II into one capable of exerting power across the globe, and of dealing with a host of new threats. These threats included Soviet nuclear weapons, Marxist insurgencies and newly-independent regional powers. Now the challenges include managing the global war on terror, preventing nuclear proliferation, curbing the ambition of would-be regional hegemons and designing and buying a military that most likely will have to last through the rest of the 21st century.
The U.S. fought the conflicts of the past two decades with a military built largely in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. That force is both worn out after six years of war and increasingly technologically obsolete. It faces threats that are increasingly diverse and have greater access to advanced technologies. It must meet the needs of an all-volunteer cadre, one that, more often than not, is married with children. It must improve its ability to collaborate with allies both old and new.
In addressing these myriad national security challenges, the next president will need to focus on three issues. The first is strategy. The second is force structure. The third is defense spending.
There is a debate raging in defense circles regarding future strategy. The debate revolves around a relatively simple question: what should be the purpose of the military? Some argue that new dangers require a new strategy. These experts argue that for the foreseeable future the principal threats to U.S. security will come from terrorism and asymmetric methods of warfare in the hands of both state and non-state actors. Compounding these new dangers are such problems as the increased number of so-called failed states, struggles for natural resources and the need to protect the environment. There is relatively little in the existing force structure well-suited to the needs of a strategy based on a combination of global policing and environmental stewardship.
There is another view, however, one that argues that the U.S. will continue to face a spectrum of threats, including that posed by regional peers and non-state actors occupying territory and equipped with advanced weapons. Some who hold this perspective also suggest that the terrorist threat has been overblown and that the use of the military for nation-building is an enterprise doomed to failure.
Whatever strategy the president and the nation chooses, it must have the forces to implement it. In the event a new strategic path is chosen, large-scale force structure changes may be required. But the force that will result will still be large, relatively complex and highly reliant on technology. Therefore, it will not be cheap to build or maintain. Moreover, radical change to the force will not come quickly. Thus, the next president will face the difficult problem of implementing a new strategy with forces designed for a different era.
The second issue is force structure. It is not clear that the U.S. military of the future can be both a warfighting force and simultaneously one capable of addressing large-scale peacekeeping and stability operations. The lessons of recent wars from the Balkans, Palestinian territories, South Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan is that the skills involved in being successful in one form of conflict tend to negatively affect the ability to be successful in the other form.
The weight of the future challenges of which I spoke are likely to fall most heavily on U.S. ground forces. Whether the task is defeating a peer force, hunting down terrorists or sustaining failed states, ground forces must control territory. Moreover, they must do so in an environment that is increasingly inhospitable to traditional ways of warfare. The singular lesson of recent conflicts is that irregular forces on the ground are making greater use of advanced technology.
The Army is investing extensively in capabilities that will support flexibility and maneuverability. It is ironic that the Army of today, in contrast to that envisioned by leaders such as former CSA Eric Shinseki, is a heavier force. However, it is also a more effective one.
One of the factors that distinguishes the U.S. military from all others and enables it to conduct a full spectrum of operations is air power. The American successes in operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom were due, in large part, to our ability to dominate the skies.
However, U.S. airpower is a waning asset. United States air superiority is based on a fleet of aircraft designed in the 1970s and largely bought in the 1980s. They are reaching the end of their extended service lives and must be replaced with modern systems capable of defeating the types of aircraft now becoming common in the world. There is no choice but to acquire the F-22 and F-35. In addition, the U.S. has begun a long process of replacing its aerial refueling tankers and upgrading its fleets of inter- and intra-theater cargo aircraft. These programs must be allowed to continue.
The Navy’s shipbuilding program is largely broken. This is due to that service’s inability to define a clear and compelling vision for the future of American seapower. The problem is exacerbated by problems with a number of the Navy’s most important programs, particularly the DDG-1000 and Littoral Combat Ship.
Regardless of whether it is a new force or one that is refurbished, major investments will have to be made in new capabilities. I am speaking, in particular, of network centric communications and advanced systems to provide real-time ISR. Systems such as Blue Force Tracker, Land Warrior, JTRS and Win-T will be of vital importance to forces operating anywhere on the future spectrum of conflict. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has called for filling the skies over Iraq with sensor platforms, primarily unmanned systems. The success experienced with systems such as Predator, Global Hawk and Scan Eagle foretell of a future in which unmanned systems may well darken the skies. The combination of networked communications and ubiquitous ISR is the answer to the growing capacity of so-called asymmetric adversaries.
One last area that must receive attention is precision munitions. Improved ISR creates the opportunity for precision employment of kinetic power. This has a number of advantages. Precision weapons enable reduced logistics footprint. Precision engagement allows the targeting of hostile forces within close proximity to friendly ground forces. Finally, precision means reduced collateral damage. Among the systems that are being deployed are Excalibur, PGK and precision mortar rounds for the Army and the small-diameter bomb and joint air to surface standoff missile (JASSM) for the Air Force and Navy.
The third issue is defense spending. Currently, defense spending is approaching $700 billion. Unquestionably this is a lot of money. But in truth, much of that money has gone to refurbishing a military that is becoming obsolescent and making up for investment shortfalls of the past several decades. Over the past four or five years, much of the increase in defense spending has gone for such programs as recapitalizing the Army and Marine Corps fleets of medium and heavy trucks, filling war stocks of small caliber ammunition, refurbishing and upgrading main battle tanks and armored fighting vehicles.
The temptation to reduce defense spending and achieve a “peace dividend” may be enticing to a president faced with large budget deficits, rapidly expanding entitlement programs, rising interests rates, a falling dollar, crumbling infrastructure and continuous demands by special interests for a share of the federal budget pie.
However, there is no real peace dividend to be had if the United States is going to play its rightful and necessary role as a world leader. Regardless of which strategy the next administration chooses to pursue, it will need a military that is large, operates sophisticated technology, and can deploy to distant and complex battlefields.
The consequences of decreased defense spending are both immediate and long-term. Usually, a decline in defense spending is experienced immediately as less support for the troops is manifested in such things as reduced training time or flight hours, aging military facilities and less support for dependents. If the cuts are large and sustained they can be achieved only by reducing the size of the Armed Forces and canceling or decreasing the buy rates for new weapons programs. In the 1985-1997 downturn the military shrank by nearly 40 percent and more than 100 weapons programs were cancelled. The consequences of a smaller military to the current global war on terror have been experienced as stop-loss orders, the need to deploy National Guard units in combat and extended tours of duty overseas for both Active and Reserve component units.
The long-term consequences of reduced defense spending can be a military that is obsolescent and less relevant to the challenges of the future. In order to stay modern and relevant, military establishments must continuously replace existing systems and technologies with new ones. Since most military assets have operational lifetimes of between 25 to 40 years, the recapitalization process generally takes several decades to complete. When reduced defense spending results in cancellations and delays in the acquisition of new weapons systems this means that older systems must be maintained in the force longer, often past their planned operational life. These older systems are usually less capable than those intended to replace them, have much higher maintenance costs and may have to operate with safety restrictions that decrease their operational utility. Moreover, once recapitalization is delayed for a number of years or even decades it creates a “bow wave” in future defense spending as the necessity of replacing old systems grows.
A number of organizations including the Heritage Foundation, Aerospace Industries Association, the Center for Strategic and International Studies and my own Lexington Institute have argued that there needs to be a floor under defense spending. The repeated boom-and-bust cycles of the past 40 years have played havoc with force planning and raised overall costs.
The work of the above organizations generally supports the idea of pegging defense spending at approximately four percent of GDP. This number is calculated based on the predictable and continuous growth in manpower costs, the resources necessary for operations and maintenance and the growth in the cost of weapons systems from one generation to the next. Thus, for a force of a given size with a specified number of personnel and pieces of equipment, the future costs of that force can be calculated. The number, interestingly, is the equivalent of four percent of GDP.
So, regardless of strategy, the United States will wish to deploy a large and capable military. The challenge will be to pay for it or see its value erode.
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