December 19, 2013  

Cut, stretch, and protect: Building the future armed forces

USAF Capt. Brad Matherne conducts preflight checks inside an F-35A Lightning II before a training mission April 4 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. (USAF)

By Joseph J. Collins

Despite recent relief, a trillion dollars of defense budget cuts in the next decade will demand “new” or at least different ways to accomplish old tasks. A recent Pew public opinion poll shows that most Americans want the United States to “mind its own business internationally” but also to maintain a superpower-level defense establishment. There is little desire to retreat into Fortress America.

For the next decade and beyond, the strategic environment will be a favorable one. Major war with a peer competitor is nowhere on the horizon, and deterring or fighting regional aggressors is well within our capabilities. Al Qaeda bears watching but has been dealt powerful blows. The war in Afghanistan will likely be successful in entering a new phase where the Afghans lead with only a relatively small, NATO advise-and-assist force on the ground. U.S. diplomatic power is highly capable of dealing with allies and adversaries alike. U.S. economic power and connectivity adds weight to a big stick, as a harshly sanctioned Iran will testify. Our allies across the globe are numerous and powerful. The allies of our potential adversaries are few in number and relatively low in both power and legitimacy. We can afford a robust defense establishment, and we can safely reduce it from the high levels of the war on terrorism.

To stay strong, after reducing bureaucracy and personnel-related expenditures, the United States should reduce some of the redundancy that permeates its defense program. It will also have to find ways to stretch the remaining forces. Finally, defense leaders will have to determine a short list of critical capabilities and enablers to protect or even reinforce in the years ahead.

What To Cut

By their nature, military forces pay less attention to efficiency than to effectiveness. Commanders and service chiefs, governed by uncertainty, tend to apply the “P for Plenty” factor when estimating the need for people, materiel, and support assets. Redundancy gives them an added measure of safety, but it can overtax the treasury and starve the future force. The United States must reduce redundancy, starting first with its strategic nuclear forces.

In the Cold War, the superpower competition was so intense that it was necessary to maintain a triad of strategic nuclear capabilities — bombers, land-based ballistic missiles, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles — for deterrence and potential war fighting. Much of that force was kept on alert. While the Cold War is over and nuclear forces have been reduced, the United States still maintains a triad, which requires three sets of infrastructure, three training establishments, and three research, development, and modernization efforts.

Today, there is a better international climate than in the Cold War, and strategic nuclear forces or total numbers of warheads are no longer a proxy for national power. Relations with Russia don’t require a triad of forces on high alert, and China maintains only a small strategic nuclear force. The United States could maintain a diverse, survivable, and effective force with a dyad of bombers — useful in nuclear and conventional operations — and highly survivable, strategic submarine-launched ballistic missiles. The U.S. could retire all or most of its 450 land-based ballistic missiles, coordinating such a move with new arms control initiatives. This move would reduce warheads, bases, and personnel, as well as tens of billions of dollars of operating and modernization costs.

Another area of obvious redundancy comes in tactical air forces. The United States, alone in the world, has three tactical air forces in its Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. Together, these three services have over 3,300 interceptor, reconnaissance, and attack fixed-wing aircraft. (This figure does not include remotely piloted aircraft, or Army and Marine helicopters, which add thousands of rotary-wing aircraft for reconnaissance, attack, and transportation.) Complicating the redundancy, the naval services operate two tactical air forces. The story is told of a foreign officer who asked a Pentagon briefer: “I know why your Navy has an air force, but why does your Navy’s army have an air force?” The short answer to this question is that this triple redundancy has paid off in wartime. But how much redundancy in tactical air forces is enough?

Right now, we are planning to buy 2,443 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters in three configurations, — basically, one design for each of our tactical air forces — in order to replace many of our aging fighter jets. The total acquisition cost of these F-35s is $390 billion; the program’s lifecycle cost tops one trillion dollars. But perhaps we could remain a superpower if we only had 1,900 F-35s. If each aircraft costs about $160 million, this would save nearly $87 billion in acquisition costs alone.

There are a few options here. One might salami-slice the buy for all services, but that would raise the per-unit price. Another way would be to cancel or reduce the acquisition of the VSTOL B model (240 planes) and allow the Marines to buy a cheaper close air support aircraft. A third way would be to cancel or reduce the buy of the Navy’s C model (320 planes in all for both the Navy and Marines), and allow them to buy more Super Hornets, while accelerating development of remotely piloted aircraft for the maritime domain.

Redundancy also exists in the Army and Marine Corps. These services have different roles and missions, but both come together to provide forces for war on land. Land forces will be deeply cut in the current defense program. Tens of billions will be harvested by reducing the Army and the Marines to their pre-9/11 levels, and indeed, the two services may well go far below the pre-9/11 levels. Reductions will follow in training costs, compensation, future retirement expenditures, and future construction costs.

Stretch The Force

Redundancy, however, is not the land forces’ only problem. The all-volunteer force is optimized for decisive results in short conflicts. The planned reductions will complicate potential long-war scenarios, where rotational forces would be needed. The Defense Strategic Guidance adds further risk by not building forces for protracted stability operations, which, despite our war weariness, remain a real possibility in the years ahead. Finding ways to stretch the smaller active and reserve components will be critical.

Here are a few ways to stretch the future force. First, a larger individual ready reserve could stretch both the active and reserve components of the land forces, and also help to break down barriers between our civil society and its military. Short-active duty reserve enlistments could provide opportunities for civilians to serve and learn more about the military, while enlarging the manpower pool for protracted operations. Patriot-volunteers could enter this Individual Ready Reserve force after high school or college and receive up to six months of training. They would then be returned to the non-drilling reserves as a manpower pool. The new individual reservists would be called up in case of national emergency and used as replacements in existing active or reserve units. They could also volunteer at any time for activation for a year at a time, or transfer to a drilling reserve component unit.

Second, the U.S. could create hybrid brigades or divisions that combine the characteristics of active and reserve units. For example, a hybrid army brigade might be maintained at 40 to 50 percent active forces, with the balance of the troops and officers from the drilling reserve components. These forces could be ready for combat within 30 days. This would provide a combat force between fully ready active forces and the best National Guard brigades which can be ready for combat in 60 days.

Third, the Navy doesn’t have the robust combat reserve forces provided by the Army and Air Force reserve components. Naval forces have shrunk from the 600 ships of the Reagan era to less than 300 today. At the same time, the cost of ships has risen dramatically, with new carriers costing around $15 billion, and other warships topping a few billion dollars per copy. There may never be enough money for all the ships that are needed. The Navy needs a force multiplier. For naval surge, the Navy also could create ships and air squadrons that combine active and reserve manning. Again, the readiness goal of these forces would be combat readiness within a short amount of time. (When this idea is mentioned to naval officers, they usually say it can’t be done. At the very least, it is time for a controlled experiment.)

Friends and allies provide a fourth way to stretch the force. The United States is rich in wealthy and well-equipped allies. In the recent past, we have replaced U.S.-based task forces with Allied-based and led task forces. Instead of leading with the preponderance of forces and assets, the United States might provide only those things that the allies do not have, or those things where there is a unique U.S. comparative advantages (e.g.: intelligence fusion, strategic lift, etc.).

This “new” way of doing business was already used in Libya, where the United States quickly handed off the lead to NATO, and in Mali, where France provided the main effort with some help from the United States and other allies. In a similar fashion, the United States could stretch its presence patrols by working with allies and coalition partners. While this was done to combat pirates in the Horn of Africa, it could reap great rewards if such ad hoc units were converted into standing naval forces.

To further help partners and allies to be helpful, the U.S. could use trainers to bring local “first responders” up to standards, or use mobile teams to train local forces on special mission work. This technique has been used across the spectrum of conflict from training commandos to training peacekeepers. For example, The Global Peace Operations Initiative (2004-14), which began under President George W. Bush, has trained 100,000 foreign military personnel to be peacekeepers, thus reducing the potential demand on U.S. forces.

Increasing training missions will challenge our already busy Special Operations Forces (SOF). To stretch SOF in Phase Zero (pre-conflict) missions, we could form conventional forces training teams or attach soldiers and marines to SOF units to allow them to expand from within. The National Guard’s overseas State Partnership Program training activities in support of combatant command objectives are already excellent ways of engagement and stretching security assistance assets. The Army’s plan to have regionally aligned divisions and brigades will provide further opportunities to help combatant commanders in this area.

What To Protect

While cutting and stretching moves will dominate the path to the future force, the Defense Department will also have to protect certain key capabilities and force elements that magnify our strengths or markedly reduce our vulnerabilities. In November 2013, speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel declared his intention to protect “investments in emerging military capabilities – especially space, cyber, special operations forces, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.”

Hagel’s list makes great sense. It covers the high-technology, “new business” areas of defense, many of which also empower and modernize the legacy force. Special Operations Forces will remain critical across the spectrum of conflict, but will be especially critical for counterterrorism, pre-conflict allied training, and advise-and-assist missions. In extremis, special operators can form mini-task forces to aid our friends and allies who are at war with insurgents and terrorists.

Other areas for special protection should include strategic air and sealift, the assets that can magnify the power of our smaller force. It is critical to quickly bring on a new aerial refueling tanker aircraft. The future of remotely piloted aircraft, capable across a wide range of tasks from precision attack to delivering packages, is yet another area for protection by Departmental leadership. The age of B-52 bombers and the need for longer-range strike aircraft in Asia-Pacific make a new bomber a high priority.

The Defense Department should also reinforce its ability to think outside the box and experiment on a grander scale. For example, a recent RAND study suggested that the Navy could be helped in the Asia-Pacific region by relatively cheap land-based anti-ship missiles. Imagine the potential savings if the new Air Force bomber were a low-tech, manned aircraft whose primary mission was to launch autonomous attack vehicles or remotely piloted aircraft. The carrier air wing of the future will include and indeed may be built around remotely piloted aircraft squadrons. On land, small numbers of super-empowered soldiers and marines might control dozens of remotely-piloted or robotic land attack or reconnaissance vehicles that could drastically magnify their capabilities to hold terrain and destroy enemy forces.

There is no need for this defense downturn to become the path to a hollow force. With the pall of sequestration hopefully lifting, there is enough money for an excellent, even if smaller force, one that still outspends its next two dozen rivals, combined. The United States Armed Forces — cut, stretched, and protected — will remain the world standard for the next 50 years and beyond.

Joseph J. Collins teaches strategy at the National War College. A former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, he has worked for the Department of Defense, in and out of uniform, for over forty years. He is a contributing editor of the Armed Forces Journal.


  1. […] option.” Besides, “for the next decade and beyond,” said Joseph J. Collins in the Armed Forces Journal, “the strategic environment will be a favorable one. Major war with a peer competitor is […]

  2. […] option.” Besides, “for the next decade and beyond,” said Joseph J. Collins in the Armed Forces Journal, “the strategic environment will be a favorable one. Major war with a peer competitor is […]