Everyone knew it was coming once sequestration began and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has now made it official: the Department of Defense will conduct a strategic review. The purpose of the exercise is to examine the choices that underlie our current defense strategy and define major decisions that must be made over the next decade.
The essential “choice” that the review must address is the one that the U.S. made at the end of the Cold War to remain engaged in the world and to maintain a military of sufficient size and capability to serve the interests of a global power. Variously called the two major theater war or two major regional contingency standard, this choice allowed the United States to respond to threats in multiple regions at the same time, maintain a robust forward presence in order to shape local environments, deter aggressors and reassure allies, support humanitarian operations at home and abroad and empower partners. Since the end of the Cold War, the military has conducted more than 100 interventions overseas, four times the rate of the preceding four decades. This rate of deployment was only possible because the military was large, well equipped and well trained. There have been several instances over the past twenty years where U.S. forces were required to deploy to two separate regions simultaneously, responding to aggressive moves by regional parties.
The reality is that the nation appears no longer willing to pay for such a military. It is not that the American people are okay with a higher risk to the homeland, our overseas interests and investment or to friends and allies. They haven’t a clue what it means for the Pentagon to accept higher risk. Nor do they have an appreciation for what might happen once the U.S. military is not around to shape the international environment. Most Americans cannot remember a time when America was not the cork in the bottle and the world was not, more or less, at peace.
The outcome of the strategic review is already clear. It will conclude that since the U.S. has never actually fought two wars at the same time it doesn’t need the forces for the second contingency. The review will identify some additional force structure needed to conducted steady state activities — cooperative training, showing the flag, etc. But the only way to resolve the strategy-forces mismatch that had been building for more than a decade but was brought to a head by sequestration is by declaring victory and eliminating the requirement for more forces than needed to fight one war.
The reality is that a force sized for one major conflict will be inadequate to meet current U.S. commitments and confidently deter existing threats. Even with a force sized to deal with two wars at a time, the Navy is finding it difficult to meet the Combatant Commander’s day-to-day demands for aircraft carriers, amphibious ready groups and nuclear attack submarines. The Air Force struggles to meet the global demand for ISR capabilities. The resulting force will be brittle, at best.
The Pentagon will undoubtedly make some claim that it will develop plans to reverse the new round of cuts and reconstitute lost capabilities. But unless it is willing to mothball large numbers of ships, planes and vehicles, maintain production lines and shipyards on standby and pay design teams to invent new systems that will never get built, this will be meaningless.
Now, the review probably will acknowledge that this “choice” requires accepting greater risk. But it will almost certainly neither explain what this means nor quantify it. Nor will it be able to predict how prospective adversaries will perceive and respond to the decision to gut the military. How will Kim Jong Un or the Ayatollah Khameni interpret U.S. actions? Accepting greater risk is a way of throwing up ones hands and admitting that one has no control over how events will unfold.
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