The Obama administration’s strategy to reshape the post-war military is less than a month old, and already it is under fire from Washington insiders.
The new military playbook, "Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense," is disconnected from reality and was built on hopeful and unproven assumptions, a panel of experts from Washington think tanks said last week.
One of the sharpest rebukes of the strategy is the emphasis on shifting the military’s focus from large-scale ground combat to high-tech naval and air warfare in Asia-Pacific.
“What in the strategic environment leads them to think that?” asked Stephanie Sanok, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The guidance to the Defense Department is that it should not expect to fight in the “environment in which we’ve been operating for the last years,” she said. That might be the administration’s desire, but it is inconsistent with what is going on in the world, Sanok said.
In the words of senior military and civilian defense officials, among the biggest threats to the United States are ungoverned, “failed,” states where terrorist groups find safe havens, and countries where civil wars breed instability. “The United States has a strategic interest in maintaining stability in Africa, Asia and the Middle East,” she said. “The new planning scenario ignores the lessons learned over the past few years.”
The strategy assumes that the United States will not engage in ground wars and must be prepared for high-end combat in the Pacific. “I’m not sure why they draw that conclusion,” Sanok said.
Other analysts also have knocked the Pentagon’s sudden change in focus, considering that U.S. troops remain bogged down in a ground fight in Afghanistan.
The Defense Department is becoming “obsessed with the high tech problem,” Frank Hoffman, a defense analyst at the National Defense University, said last month.
Another line of attack against the strategy is that it assumes that other countries will take over global policing duties that the U.S. military has conducted for decades.
Sanok said she does not believe any country has yet agreed to take on specific missions now performed by the United States and, if so, it is not clear what they are. European NATO members have been slashing defense spending. “Based on my experience, they [U.S. leaders] probably talked [to allied officials] for a couple of days and they call that ‘consultations,’” she said. “It remains to be seen what our partners can do.”
The strategy mentions the use of “innovative partnerships,” which is code for relying on non-traditional allies such as Mali and Chad in Africa, and Indonesia in Asia, said Sanok. These nations have depended on the U.S. military to train and equip their own forces, so it is doubtful that they could step into any major role left unfilled by the United States. Even though these goals are stated in the new strategy, she added, “I don’t think those discussions have happened.”
Critics also have blasted defense planners for insisting that budget cuts can be rolled back, if circumstances warrant it.
“Reversibility” is the new trendy word, Sanok said, but nobody knows what it means exactly and how it would apply to specific budget decisions. “How do you un-retire something?”
With less money, some procurement programs will have to be slowed down. But so far there is no policy that points to specific programs or manufacturing plants that would have to be protected in case they have to surge production in response to a crisis. “Some members [of Congress] worry that the Executive Branch does not understand the impact to the industrial base,” she said. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said he wants to protect the industrial base. “I’m not sure what that means,” Sanok said. “What have they done to ensure that happens?”
The Pentagon’s fiscal year 2013 budget proposal, some details of which were presented last week, also has come under fire for making improbable assumptions. The plan, which cuts $259 billion in spending over the next five years, dodges the politically sensitive topic of rising personnel costs.
Compensation and benefits make up one third of the Pentagon’s budget, but account for just one-ninth of the proposed reductions, said Todd Harrison, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. It is unrealistic to not expect that personnel costs — which have been on a steady climb for more than a decade —will put pressure on other areas of the budget.
Panetta has recommended that the Defense Department create a special commission to deal with retirement benefit reforms, but no comparable debate has been initiated regarding pay and benefits for active-duty forces.
Harrison also questioned Panetta’s assertion that $60 billion of the $259 billion in savings will come from “efficiencies.”
“That’s very optimistic,” Harrison said. ”It’s incredibly risky to be banking on those savings before they’ve been achieved.”
CSIS analyst David J. Berteau, also cast doubts on these savings projections. The efficiencies, for instance, include “better use of information technologies. “Ever since we created IT we have taken money out of the budget in anticipation of savings from better use of IT,” Berteau said. Other money savers, such as “streamlining staff” and reducing contract services, are vague and tough to quantify. Another popular catchphrase of efficiency experts, “better inventory management,” also is questionable, he said. “This has been a hallmark for decades. You take the money out and then you figure out how to be more efficient.”