December 1, 2011  

Cutbacks and crises

How the military must adapt to an era of shrinking budgets and growing threats

The subject of the hour in defense circles is guessing how deeply the defense budget is going to be cut as the U.S. economy retrenches, and which services will be winners and losers. There are the usual Defense Department panels and think-tank prognostications, and the cynic can hear, behind the scenes, the services gearing up their publicity departments to explain why their particular part of the budget should not only be preserved, but expanded. Short of actual warfare, nothing draws attention to the Defense Department like cutbacks. Here are a few thoughts about the coming budget wars.

First, we have to finish, and win, the wars we’re in. The withdrawal of troops from Iraq will not end our involvement in that country or our concern for the stability of the upper end of the Persian Gulf. Stay tuned. At the same time, the war in Afghanistan has entered the delicate phase of turning over to the Afghans responsibility for their own security — a long-anticipated and necessary phase of the war. In neither case are the wars “lost,” and pundits and politicians who decry a loss of U.S. grip in both theaters are simply unable to move their own minds through the inevitable and desirable steps necessary to conclude modern wars. The challenge now for the U.S. — and particularly for the Obama administration, which has been deeply ambivalent about both conflicts — is to find the political steadiness to continue U.S. assistance, both for the sake of the Iraqi and Afghan people and also for our own standing as a dependable ally. After all the rhetorical Beltway chaff about the meaning of “winning,” the less-sophisticated world makes some brutal assessments about winners and losers, and those assessments will affect American credibility in other theaters for decades. Winning is better.

This is going to be a challenging century for democracies and the rule of law. If the 21st century continues as it has begun, the social and technological forces that enabled the breakup of the Soviet Union, the abortive Iranian protests and the Arab Spring will continue to support growth of “grievance cultures” based on tribes, religious groups, localities or other substate fragments. This will make more challenging the growth of stable, cohesive national identities, particularly in weaker states with fewer resources. Indigenous security forces will simultaneously have to confront traditional threats from other states — some of which will be “outlaws” like Iran and Venezuela — as well as home-grown criminal bands, insurgents and terrorists that make forging a democratic consensus very difficult. Protecting and building a state on both fronts can be done — Colombia is doing it now — but it is a long-term effort and calls for more resources than some emerging democracies can muster. Additionally, because splinter groups may straddle political boundaries, purely national solutions may not be adequate. Future security challenges will probably require regional, rather than purely national, solutions.

Even our more traditional geopolitical challenges, including China, are going to be hit by social and political change. The waxing of China’s economic and military power over the past decades has been utterly predictable. The country’s rise to global predominance — its awakening — is in part highlighted by the U.S.’s relative and temporary decline, but mostly reflects its size and the industry of its people once unshackled from Maoist rule. But while China does pose challenges in coming decades to the West — and particularly to the U.S. — in the long term, it remains vulnerable to the same disintegrative forces discussed above, particularly if its current kind of government remains unchanged. One-party rule, with all the restrictions that implies, runs counter to the growth of the technologies and social forces of the 21st century. Democracy may have tough sledding in the century ahead, but the future is darker for large, monopolistic and more rigid governments sitting atop widely varying cultures (as in China). By midcentury, China and other monopolistic states — Iran, for example — will be struggling with internal fissures that are not reconcilable by their current ruling elites. States that survive in the future will have elastic, adaptive governments, and republican democracies, provided they can keep the balance between mob rule and oligarchy, will be the most likely survivors.

U.S. military organization

What does this mean for the long-term organization of the U.S. military services? The good news is that the land, sea and air services have begun the changes they must make to adapt to the new century. Budgets aside, moves to decentralize, to revamp military education and to move into the spheres of space and cyberwar are healthy. The struggles against terrorism and criminal insurgencies will continue through the century, regardless of the outcomes in Iraq and Afghanistan. The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have changed, among other things, the environment in which the armed services operate, perhaps forever.

For land forces, and the Army in particular, “expeditionary operations,” “shock and awe,” “rapid, decisive operations” and other faddish terminology that represented lightning-fast forces smashing enemy defenses in climactic battles are as obsolete as the horse cavalry charge. Instead of “expeditionary warfare” as a first option, future military strategy will — and should — focus on assisting allies to fight their own battles, committing U.S. troops only when there is no other option; this is cost-effective defense. The land forces — the Army and Marines — must embrace military assistance to allies as a primary mission, even as they maintain conventional forces ready to fight and win if required.

U.S. strategy might envision an “outer ring” of U.S. alliances and partnerships, supported by U.S. arms and advisers, with discrete U.S. support and participation in certain fields such as intelligence and special operations.

Ground forces, which will unavoidably absorb more than their share of defense budget cuts, should be modestly reconfigured to include more officers and noncommissioned officers at midlevel ranks. An augmented officer and NCO corps would give the U.S. a strategic capability for more advisers and technical support to allies, an expansion in U.S. military schools to provide more participation by allied students and, finally, a pool of experienced senior people to provide critical staffs and leadership upon mobilization of reserves and the establishment of new command-and-control headquarters — which always happens in wartime.

Of course the maximum number of combat-ready brigades should be maintained, supported by reserve and National Guard forces, as ready combat forces, as repositories of military effectiveness and training for officers and NCOs, and as models for mobilization when required.

Future combat will still require winning on the battlefield, even if the strategic picture has changed. Army recapitalization of materiel worn down by decades of warfare is an urgent requirement, and plans for a new family of modernized combat vehicles might have to be suspended while the service resets.

American air forces have seen the handwriting on the wall. The proliferation of long-endurance unmanned aircraft for ground attack and intelligence-gathering is rapidly making conventional fighter aircraft obsolescent, and the short-legged F-22 and F-35 may be the last manned fighters the U.S. produces. The manned penetrating bomber may also be on the way out, to be replaced by missiles or ultrahigh-altitude unmanned vehicles.

In one area, though, the future of manned flight is secure. The United States’ strategic airlift fleet is unmatched in the world, and the U.S. should make every effort to ensure that its armada of C-5, C-17 and C-130 aircraft, augmented by other types when necessary, remains updated and is expanded. The American system of wide-bodied, short-field strategic lifters, accompanied by a superb system of rapidly deployed airlift control headquarters, is unique in the world. It ensures not only the rapid transport of U.S. forces by air and support for U.S. and allied military forces, but also supports disaster relief and humanitarian support missions. Given the time it takes to develop new aircraft, we should be working on eventual replacements for the aging C-5M and C-17 fleets, even as they enter upgrading programs to extend their service lives.

Space is the next frontier for the Air Force, and current classified programs should continue, as should the NASA heavy-lift program. The U.S.’s increasing dependence on low earth orbit for everything from telecommunications, intelligence, weather and GPS makes satellite security and rapid replacement an urgent priority. And beyond low earth orbit, use of the higher orbits, Lagrange points and other bodies in space might tempt a potential enemy unless the U.S. has capabilities to reach and inspect those points. As UAVs and rotary-wing aircraft become more capable of ground support, the Air Force should look to space.

Naval outlook

Of all the services facing cutbacks, the Navy’s capability to do its mission — to protect American interests overseas, to maintain freedom of the seas for global commerce and to support U.S. allies — will be the most seriously threatened by cuts. This is particularly true if U.S. strategic focus shifts from the Atlantic to the Pacific, with its vast distances and many seafaring cultures. A Navy forecast to comprise about 300 combatant ships will be overstretched to credibly represent American interests there, particularly since the Atlantic and Mediterranean (read: Middle East) will still require forces, the Navy will continue to deploy Aegis ships as part of the nation’s missile defenses, and routine maintenance and overhaul continue to be required. For those reasons, and because of the extraordinarily long lead times required for ship construction, the Navy’s shipbuilding program should be not only protected, but expanded.

Two other facts pertain to the Navy’s future. First is the littoral combat ship (LCS) program. The term “littoral combat” came around after Desert Storm, when the surface Navy played only a supporting role and the term — and the idea — was a way to get back into future fights. We see now that littoral combat was a fad, along the same lines as “shock and awe.” The LCS class of ships is range-limited, built for a specific function when the Navy needs general-purpose bottoms, and hugely expensive for value returned. The program should be curtailed, and the money and effort put into ships capable of multiple missions and extended seakeeping. The Navy’s future certainly includes the support of operations on land, but also extended operations on blue water. Specialization is a luxury that the Navy can’t afford.

Second is the Marine Corps. The Cold War law that set the size of the Marine Corps, and the hugely expensive sealift and air establishments required by today’s doctrines, are due for an overhaul — not because the Marines aren’t worth it, but because budgeteers will be faced soon with trade-offs between an adequate Navy or an adequate Marine Corps. The Marines have actually become a second “land army,” and whether the nation needs an amphibious force as currently organized and equipped is open to question. The trades to be made are probably in the composition of the air arms and size of the amphibious fleet. However the budget is worked, priority should be to support the expansion of the combatant fleet into a global Navy for the 21st century, with the Marines absorbing whatever hits are required to ensure that the Navy remains fully capable of dominating the sea.

Finally, nuclear forces must be protected from budget cuts and modernized at a pace that maintains U.S. security and keeps our scientific edge. Proliferation is a fact. Russia and China remain nuclear powers, though the threat of an imminent nuclear cataclysm has been defanged. But new nuclear powers are rising — shaky Pakistan, with an arsenal reported at a hundred nuclear warheads; unstable and threatening North Korea, with an unknown capability and long-range missiles; and Iran, openly hostile to the West and a clear state sponsor of terror, plunging ahead with its nuclear program. The detonation of a nuclear weapon in any population center on the globe would change the world even more profoundly than the events of Sept. 11. While the development, testing and maintenance of nuclear weapons are not strictly DoD responsibilities, the delivery systems, deterrent strategies and use of the weapons are Pentagon missions, and the importance of nuclear weapons on our defense thinking — our weapons and deterrent strategies — should never be forgotten.

For anyone familiar with the history of the U.S. defense establishment, cutbacks in the middle of a war is something new. But also new is the information age into which the world is passing, which will affect deeply the political and social landscape on which wars are fought. One thing has not changed, though, even with the looming current and largely self-imposed fiscal crisis: The U.S. has the resources, expertise and will to make the right choices, without hanging onto the habits and attitudes of the past.

COL. ROBERT KILLEBREW is a retired Army infantryman and an AFJ contributing editor.