Administration’s Defense Strategy Precedes Budget: A Good First Step

By Lawrence P. Farrell Jr.
It has been just over a year since former Defense Secretary Robert Gates started a $100 billion efficiencies campaign wherein the savings were redistributed within the Pentagon’s budget top line. He also sourced another $78 billion in reductions which lowered the top line.  All of these savings were derived from specific management initiatives.

Only a few months later came President Obama’s announcement that there would be an additional $400 billion in cuts over the next 10 years to the defense budget, but no rationale was advanced. These cuts, driven by financial considerations, have now become $487 billion, and the coming 2013-2017 future-years defense plan will bear $250 billion of this amount. 

Happily though, it provides a strategic framework — Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense — upon which to assess and judge the efficacy of these reductions.  We now have a good basis for discussion and debate.

So what’s in this framework?

The president says the plan is to proceed “in a manner that preserves American global leadership, maintains our military superiority and keeps faith with our troops, military families and veterans.” The focus will be Asia-Pacific, political and economic reform in Middle East/North Africa, and building allied and partner capacity to promote security, prosperity and human dignity. Further, the United States will strengthen all the tools of power-diplomacy, development, intelligence, homeland security, and avoid an ill-prepared military, while being ready for the full range of contingencies and prevailing in all domains. This seems overly ambitious on a reduction of $50 billion a year. Let’s look at some of the elements.

First is the pivot to the Pacific while continuing to emphasize the Middle East — especially Persian Gulf security and preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. This requires presence and power projection, naval and air forces, carriers and long-range strike, including a new stealth bomber.

Second is sizing Army and Marine Corps forces to no longer support large-scale, long-term stability operations. Peacemaking and nation building appear to have been put on the shelf as the United States will emphasize “non-military means to address instability.”

Third, the military services will continue to have the capability to operate in anti-access/area-denial environments with technological superiority. To underwrite this, the Defense Department will “maintain an adequate industrial base and our investment in science and technology.”

Special operations, cybersecurity, ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance), countering proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, robust missile defense and space-based capabilities will be emphasized. Deterrence can be achieved with smaller nuclear forces.

Lastly, a significant shift away from a two-war strategy will occur. Focus on the primary contingency will be to “fully deny” opponent objectives while the secondary contingency objective will be to “deny” or impose unacceptable costs on an opponent. China and Iran come in for special mention, though reference to China is more nuanced.

How to execute and afford this strategy is addressed in several initiatives: determining where to invest/defer investment; rebalancing U.S. military investment in Europe; developing low-cost, low-footprint approaches in Latin America and Africa; protecting the ability to regenerate capabilities such as intellectual capital and leadership; examining the mix of active and reserve forces; emphasizing reversibility in all areas: industry, people, active/reserve mix, force posture, partnership arrangements; and reducing the cost of doing business, including manpower, compensation and healthcare.

This strategy is one of doing less with less, clearly prioritizinginterests and capabilities that underwrite those interests. It carries significant risks — a smaller force structure, decreased investment, and deactivation of certain capabilities in forces and in industry. The concepts of regeneration and reversibility are particularly ill defined, and for many reasons, slender reeds upon which to base a strategy.

For industry, there are still many questions that need answers. Especially in this time of shrinking budgets, business leaders want to see government communicating openly and often with the private sector to ensure that cutbacks in the industrial base are deliberately managed, rather than left solely to market forces.

But the most ill-defined and worrisome piece of the strategy is a passing reference to compensation and healthcare costs of the force. It is a bothersome thought that the only entitlement reform being contemplated in this country is for our troops.

In David Halberstam’s book, “The Coldest Winter, America and the Korean War,” he ends with a vignette on Sgt. Paul McGee, who participated in the battle of Chipyongni. “When he fought in Korea, he never had any doubts that he was doing the right thing. He had volunteered for it, and even during the worst of the battle of Chipyongni, he did not doubt the decision that brought him there. The ensuing half century did not change his mind. But it mattered to him and some of his friends … he thought they had done the right thing … it had been worth … the hardship and loss of life. All in all, he thought he was glad he had gone and fought there. It was a job to do, nothing more, nothing less, and when you thought about it, there had not been a lot of choice.”

Today’s troops and retirees are their generations’ Paul McGee. They have also given their unselfish, uncomplaining full measure to duty and mission.

Service members and much of the defense community will be watching closely to see how we honor our promises to them.

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, War Planning

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