Article Published in the Los Angeles Times
Like the San Gabriel Mountains emerging from the morning haze, the dim outlines of a Bush administration defense posture have begun to appear through the fog of bureaucratic warfare at the Pentagon.
It isn’t the big leap ahead that had been expected, but it is progress along a path of change begun during the Clinton years. If the emerging plan is supported by Congress, the U.S. may preserve global military superiority for another generation. If it isn’t, America’s post-Cold War demobilization will continue the erosion of U.S. military power.
Three events in August signaled what the game plan will be.
The nomination of Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace to be vice chairman. Myers’ resume reflects several Bush strategic themes: growing emphasis on space operations, a shift of strategic focus to Asia, better coordination among the services. Pace would be the first Marine to occupy either position, a clear indication of other changes to come.
Disclosure of mission priorities contained in the classified Defense Planning Guidance. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz described five priorities: protecting forces from chemical, biological or nuclear attacks, especially those launched on ballistic missiles; countering efforts by enemies to deny U.S. access to Europe and Asia; depriving enemies of sanctuary through precision attacks; conducting space operations; and assuring service coordination in wartime.
Distribution of budget directives to the services on which programs must be funded to support the mission priorities. The directives stressed defenses against missile attack and information warfare, increased investment in high-tech air and space systems and arresting the decline in naval forces. Most of the preferred programs leverage America’s lead in information technology.
These aren’t new ideas. They echo goals embraced by the Clinton administration. Don’t be misled by partisan bickering over a handful of symbolic issues such as national missile defense. The Pentagon’s new management sees the post-Cold War world much the same way their predecessors did. Which means the big political battles in the years ahead will be over how much money is enough rather than over which programs merit funding. It’s hard to see the Bush team’s plans for change can be implemented without more money.
The new team inherited a huge overhang of unfunded obligations for military health care and other benefits as well as maintenance backlogs and decrepit infrastructure in need of repair. The cost of fixing those problems could consume all $33 billion of the requested increase for defense in 2002.
But fixing today’s problems won’t prepare the military for tomorrow. The Clinton administration talked a good game about modernizing, but its budgets for buying weapons never came close to matching the amount needed to sustain its defense posture. The Joint Chiefs of Staff peg the military procurement requirement at $103 billion annually. Clinton’s average in his second term was $50 billion.
That problem-a modern-day missile gap-now belongs to the Bush administration. If the administration’s original economic projections had panned out, there would have been enough money for both a tax cut and a hefty increase in Pentagon procurement. But they didn’t. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld knows he can’t continue neglecting weapons purchases. Even if new technology weren’t essential to the changes he has in mind, the arsenal is wearing out. What he doesn’t know is where to go for the kind of money he needs.
He can’t cut forces, because they already are spread thin covering existing commitments. He can’t hold down military pay and benefits, because too many people with critical skills are leaving. And Congress won’t let him pursue efficiencies such as outsourcing for fear of the electoral consequences.
So even as the Pentagon’s game plan emerges, the capacity to implement it seems to be receding. Defense traditionally has been regarded as a Republican political franchise. But with a weak political base and shrinking budget surpluses, the White House’s willingness to protect that franchise will be tested. It won’t be long before the military discovers whether help is on the way or on the wane.
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