The question of how to squeeze $400 billion out of national-security spending has taken on greater intensity in recent weeks. Senior defense officials, both outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the incoming Leon Panetta have spoken out against “salami-slicing” defense programs (that is, taking a little bit from everything). Both they and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, have warned that hard decisions will need to be made and that force structure cuts will result in a military that is less capable.
In an era of uncertainty, increasing technology proliferation, the rise of new regional powers and the emergence of new types of threats it cannot be said that the U.S. does not need a capable military. Only on the political fringes, marked by the coinciding views of Ron Paul and Barney Frank regarding U.S. security policy and military requirements, is there anyone arguing for U.S. isolationism. Since the end of the Cold War, administrations of all stripes have found the U.S. military to be an extremely useful instrument and they have employed it frequently in peace and war.
The choice that confronts U.S. leaders is simple. One choice is to maintain a large military with lots of people but that must skimp on investments and, hence, increasingly will be obsolescing and weaker. This is a military that will be able to deploy large numbers of forces for protracted periods of time to conduct irregular warfare, stability and nation-building activities and humanitarian operations. Against less capable adversaries, such as Libya and even Iraq, it should continue to do rather well.
But modernization would have to be all but eliminated under this approach. This means that the military will increasingly fall behind in critical areas such as air dominance, missile defense, ASW, electronic warfare and ISR. Perhaps there would be sufficient resources to reset existing platform. In essence, the U.S. military would increasingly look to our European allies. How’s that working out?
The other path is to shrink the size of the military, reducing personnel, in particular, but also infrastructure while maintaining a relatively high level of investment in weapons systems, rapid logistics, ISR, cyber and training. It would not have the capability for protracted, large scale, ground-centric operations. But it would be able to fight and win any prospective medium to high-end conflict, possibly even two. It would make use of advanced stealth, precision weapons, directed energy systems, high end electronic warfare capabilities, multispectral ISR, undersea warfare and cyber operations to overwhelm an adversary. There would be full investment in the F-35, a new strategic bomber, theater and strategic missile defenses, unmanned aerial systems such as Predator and Global Hawk and even stealthy follow-ons and space systems.
Taking the first path has additional long-term consequences. In particular, the industrial base to support a modern military will erode. So too will the technology base to maintain advanced systems. As a result, should a greater than expected threat emerge, the military may be unable to equip itself with equal or better weapons.
Taking the second path has the downside of limiting the number of places and ways the U.S. military can be employed. However, the industrial and human capacity would exist to ramp back up if the situation warranted. Moreover, there would be a reduced risk that any prospective adversary would be able to technologically leap ahead.
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