Army Strategists Imagine Life With Smaller Budgets, In a World of Economic Collapse
The Army, alas, is channeling Apple Computer and has decided to “think different.”
No matter what conflicts the nation might face, say Army strategists, there is a fairly high certainty that the military will be cash-strapped in the coming decades. Politicians today may be in denial about the impact of the national debt on the military, but the Army is trying to get ahead of the game, and is openly debating how it might do business with a budget half the size of what it is now.
Rather than preparing for the future on the assumption that the military’s budget is a sacred cow, Army soothsayers at least are trying to visualize how they would live in lean times.
They have met the enemy: It's the economy, stupid.
“The United States has the biggest credit card in the world. But even that credit card has a limit. When that credit card gets taken away, what do we do?” asked Lt. Col. Mark Elfendahl, chief of joint and Army concepts at the Army Capabilities Integration Center at Fort Monroe, Va.
This and other uncomfortable questions were raised at the Nov. 2-4 “Alternative Futures Symposium” in McLean, Va., hosted by the Army Training and Doctrine Command’s future warfare division. It is one of aseries of seminars that the Army conducts as part of its larger war-gaming program.
At the seminar, three likely “futures” were projected for the period 2018 to 2030: One of global economic collapse, one where enemies would deny the U.S. military access to critical areas of the world, and one where Asia has taken over as the global center of power.
During the final day of the symposium, when all participants gathered in an auditorium to discuss their findings, by far the most provocative discourse was how the Army would cope with diminished resources — a smaller force, fewer allies and severely reduced funds to buy hardware.
“When the ways and means simply aren’t available to us, we’ve got to rethink our ends,” said Elfendahl. Under a scenario where the Army’s budget is slashed by 40 to 50 percent, “you have to completely rethink your assumptions,” he said.
One safe bet: The nation’s appetite for influencing events around the world would have to be suppressed. The costs of deploying and sustaining large forces overseas would become a huge factor in deciding what wars the Army will fight, he said. “Operations would need to be conducted quickly.”
Against this backdrop, the Army, for instance, would have to contemplate the possibility that social unrest in the United States would require military intervention. “Our sense is that there would be a greater domestic focus” for the Army, Elfendahl said.
Positing the military in a domestic law-and-order role may seem blasphemous to most Americans, but if riots erupted in U.S. cities, the Army would be one of the few institutions with the means to restore order, officials at the seminar speculated.
The Army should be prepared for that eventuality, said Elfendahl. It also would have to deal with the possibility that, if the Army were directed to pacify American citizens on U.S. soil, that it could result in diminished public esteem and respect for the military. Americans don’t respond well to soldiers marching through their neighborhoods, Elfendahl said. They might be OK with soldiers pointing weapons at Iraqis in Baghdad, “But what happens when they start pointing weapons at your cousin?” he asked.
As to what countries may emerge as potential peer-competitors to the United States, the tea leaves are tough to read, officials said.
With economic collapse gripping the globe, it is hard to imagine that wars would break out in the traditional sense, said William Rittenhouse, director of war-gaming at TRADOC. If the U.S. Army shrank in size and had to curtail its ability to intervene in foreign crises, maybe it could find ways to influence events without having to deploy massive force, Rittenhouse said. “We normally react to insurgencies. But what if we fomented insurgencies” in areas where it would be in the U.S. interest to overthrow a local government, he asked.
In this vision of the future, the Army rejects the conventional wisdom about China emerging as a military rival that is projected to go to war against the United States. “We did not paint China as an adversary,” said Rittenhouse. “They could be. But we portrayed it as a rising political entity that is spreading influence across the globe. That's what we know.” For the United States, the more important question would be “how we can co-exist with China,” said Rittenhouse.
Making do with less money — regardless of whether one believes it is good or bad — requires innovative thinking, he said. If the Army were to downsize, could it be organized in a different way? “Brigades may not be the answer,” Rittenhouse said. The notion of readiness also would have to be rethought. The current readiness model, known as “Army force generation,” assumes that, at any given time, a certain number of active-duty and reserve units will be ready to go anywhere in the world to conduct “full spectrum operations.” Sustaining such a level of readiness may one day become unaffordable. An alternative might be to return to the days of “tiered” readiness, when only a small percentage of the force is trained at the highest level.
The makeup of Army formations also may have to change in response to shrinking budgets. “We may have to lighten the force,” said Elfehdahl. “If our focus is increasingly domestic,” heavily armored forces are not essential. “Light forces are cheap,” he said. “You can maintain the maximum amount of force structure with the least impact on your budget.”
Another way for the Army to maximize the return on scarce dollars would be to dump wasteful weapon-acquisition methods. The current process by which weapon requirements are shaped and approved — known as the Joint Capabilities Integration Development System — cannot exist in a universe of constrained resources, said Elfendahl. “Our sense on the panel is that JCIDS in an awful, awfully exotic process,” he said. “It involves so may steps, twists and turns that if we continue to follow that in a world where we only have half the budget we have now we will never produce anything.”
The consensus: Scrap it.
Doing away with JCIDS, he said, could be seen as a “spinoff benefit” to having less money. “We could get stuff faster and cheaper,” Elfendahl said. “And all the folks associated with building something, they’ll just go away and find other things.”
As far as the military industrial base is concerned, the Army might have to be prepared to contend with the possible takeover of major U.S. contractors by foreign corporations from countries that may or may not be supportive of the United States, Elfendahl said. If that happened, the Army would have to identify critical suppliers and ensure that they remain in friendly hands.