Yesterday, the chiefs of the military services spoke before Congress with a single voice to deliver a simple message: the $600 billion in additional spending cuts required if the super committee fails and sequestration is triggered would be disastrous for the military. According to the Army’s new Chief of Staff, his service would have to cancel virtually all its modernization programs. The Air Force could lose its new KC-46 tanker as well as, along with the Navy and Marine Corps, the F-35 fighter. Several chiefs stressed that sequestration could result in the loss of critical components of the defense industrial base. They were not just referring to the ability to build relatively small items like flat panel displays but big weapons platforms such as nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines, large amphibious warfare vessels and a future bomber. What proposals to cut just the buy rate for the F-35 in half or stretch the production cycle for nuclear-powered aircraft carriers fail to mention, is that defense companies must have a minimum production rate and time line for major weapons systems if they are to make money and sustain their supply chains.
What are the solutions? The obvious one is for the super committee to complete its task — and the Congress approve its proposal, thereby avoiding triggering sequestration. But that is more difficult said than done. Moreover, the Pentagon would not be much better off if they have to absorb additional hundreds of billions of dollars in cuts imposed by a deficit agreement instead of by sequestration. In fact, the defense department might be worse off. Secretary of Defense Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman General Dempsey have gone up to Capitol Hill repeatedly to make the point that the military cannot absorb more than the $350 billion in cuts already programmed. So if disaster is to be avoided, the super committee will have to settle for some combination of other cuts in discretionary spending, reductions in entitlement outlays and tax increases.
But what are the options if defense does get whacked? The service chiefs have hinted strongly at their preferred solution: gut modernization. They would also have to make some force structure reductions and let go of some personnel and contractors. As a result, the United States will be stuck with a relatively large and well-reimbursed military that will operate with equipment that is increasingly obsolete and even possibly dangerous to use. The defense industrial base will not just shrink; critical design and production capabilities which cannot be resurrected are likely to be lost.
But there are other options. The United Kingdom is pursuing one such alternative based on its Strategic Defense and Security Review. It is creating a very small but high tech military. In fact, the decision was made to actually increase naval power by switching from the STOVL version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to the carrier version also being built for the U.S. Navy and building large deck aircraft carriers. While keeping in mind my comments about minimum sustaining production rates and schedules, it could be possible for the Pentagon to shrink force structure while preserving modernization.
All our NATO allies are dealing with the same problem. NATO has made some serious efforts to address looming hollowness through greater pooling of resources and by selective role specialization. Theoretically, the Pentagon could follow suit but that seems highly improbable. There has also been a significant merging of defense industries across national borders. However, now European defense leaders are warning that further budget cuts could prove fatal to Europe’s defense industry.
But what are the options if we anticipate that the nation will someday need a large and modern military, one capable of fighting major conflicts? One is to deliberately decide to hollow out the force. In effect, this would be a decision to turn the military from a force-in-being with an expeditionary focus to a garrison force with a large mobilization base. There would be a lot of skeletal units, equipment in storage and uniform personnel doing non-warfighting tasks. The Active Component would be cut significantly while the Reserve Component might even be increased. Training activities would be limited. There would a small cadre of fully functional units but if the situation required a large warfighting force some form of mobilization would have to take place, first from the National Guard and Reserves and then through a call for volunteers or even a draft.
One reason for deliberately designing a “hollow force” would be to maintain modernization. In some equipment categories there might be more platforms available than crews to man them. The remainder would go into mothball to be swapped out periodically with operational systems so that the overall force ages symmetrically. In some categories, nuclear-powered ships, for example, it would be difficult to simply lay up new construction. But overall it might be possible for a hollowing out strategy to preserve the critical industrial base and even vital modernization programs.
The military and many of its supporters have an absolute phobia when it comes to the idea of a hollow force. With a hollow force you risk not having a credible deterrent and even losing the first battle in a future conflict (we all have read the accounts of Task Force Smith in Korea in 1950). But in truth, the military has always been somewhat hollow — perhaps the better term would be shallow in certain places. This is a major reason why the United States has been spending over $100 billion a year for Overseas Contingency Operations above the base defense budget. The Pentagon has had to buy a wide range of stuff — e.g., small caliber ammunition, MRAPs, cold weather clothing, body armor, smart bombs, night vision systems and robots – that it did not have at the start of Operation Enduring Freedom. We managed to do rather well or at least close the initial gaps. A strategy of deliberately hollowing out the force would take these realities into account in planning future defense budgets.
Find Archived Articles: