April 1, 2011  

Message to the next SecDef

How to navigate the defense downturn

Strategists and armchair warriors might want to wall off the armed forces from budget cuts, buy new stuff, fix the war-damaged gear and maintain high personnel strengths. As sure as you are reading this article, however, defense will take significant budget cuts over the next five to 10 years.

There are three sets of reasons that make such cuts inevitable. First, we are reaching the end of not one but two wars. After every war, the defense budget comes down. This was true for World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and it was even true for the end of the Cold War. Before the Gulf War began, we were already cutting defense to reach a new “Base Force.” In the years after Desert Storm, we continued those cuts, eliminating many of the formations that brought us victory in the desert.

Second, there is much at the Pentagon to cut. The defense budget today — including spending for two wars — is well over $700 billion. Without war spending, today’s defense budget would still be well over $500 billion. In 2001, before 9/11, the budget request was less than half of today’s nonwar budget. On top of this, DoD’s reputation for efficiency is not good. Many experts believe there are billions of potential efficiencies in procurement and logistics alone. DoD also offers cut-rate retiree health care and one of the most generous nonparticipatory pension programs in the country.

Finally, and most importantly, our country is in more fiscal peril today than it has been since the Great Depression. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said that the national debt is the greatest threat to our nation’s security. The total debt — including shortfalls in Social Security and Medicare — is now nearly the size of a year’s gross domestic product, putting us in the same category as Greece and Italy. The administration’s fiscal 2012 budget submission again includes a trillion-dollar deficit. At this pace, in 2018, according to Col. Mark Troutman writing in this journal [“Fiscal Jeopardy,” January/February], interest on the debt could exceed what we pay for defense.

Much of our debt is sold as bonds to nations such as China, which have become, in effect, lenders of last resort. Our budget deficit negatively affects bond markets, interest rates, the status of the dollar as a reserve currency, and our reputation for power and consistency. We will fix our deficit problem, or other countries and the financial markets will do it for us.

In one sense, the problem is simple: The treasury takes in too little and spends too much. However, political gridlock compounds the problem. Conservatives generally don’t want to increase federal taxes, while liberals often balk at reducing entitlements or nondefense discretionary spending. A mixed set of politicians want to spend more to stimulate today’s sluggish economy. Both political parties are understandingly enamored with defense spending. After all, U.S. troops are still fighting two wars, costing about $150 billion per year. Nearly 200,000 service members are in harm’s way, and approximately 90,000 Guard and reserve personnel are on active duty.

To right the ship of state, the nation will need to increase revenue and cut spending, tous azimuts. Defense spending represents more than half of federal discretionary spending, and the Pentagon will be called on to contribute, especially post-2014, when the war in Iraq is a memory and the war in Afghanistan begins to slow down. Moreover, because much of defense spending is contingency-oriented, defense accounts can always be mentally “adjusted” by accepting more risk to the national interest. Because the U.S. outspends all major and all emerging powers on defense, and our armed forces have no peer competitors, the leadership of both the legislative and executive branches may find that accepting greater risk is an increasingly attractive option.

The next defense secretary will not be able to hide behind the two ongoing wars. Those wars are fading. The new secretary needs to shape a smaller but still effective force to support U.S. interests. Secretary Robert Gates has already picked much of the low-hanging fruit. He announced plans to cut (after 2015) the wartime personnel increases in the Army and Marine Corps and eliminate troubled programs, such as the Corps’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. He also wants to eliminate U.S. Joint Forces Command. The next SecDef will have to build on Gates’ work. Focusing on a number of key tasks will help him to play in the drawdown and to keep the armed forces ready.


The first area to work on is “entitlements” inside DoD. Service members and retirees should have to pay more for their medical care. The 20-year, half-pay retirement system should be terminated. Retiring 40-year-old officers and noncommissioned officers makes no sense for readiness and it is a financial drain. The SecDef should redesign the military retirement system along the lines of the civil service system. A “full career” point should be 30 to 40 years of service, with a year in a combat zone being counted as two years for service and retirement purposes. Service members should have exit packages at the 10th through 40th year of service. These packages should include a small pension tied to pay and years of service, as well as a saving program, like the Thrift Savings Plan, into which the service member and the government will both contribute. With allowances for danger and time in harm’s way, this system would be less expensive, more participatory and more attractive than the current setup.

The last attempt to change the retirement system left NCOs and officers with the sense that their pockets were being picked, and that the nation was not compensating soldiers in the new program as well as it did the service of their seniors. The new system must not be seen as “less” but different in nature, offering service members an opportunity to participate in building retirement options that can improve on today’s outdated plan.

MORE IS LESS A second area for potential cuts is in the duplication of capabilities. In this era of jointness, why do we need three tactical air forces? Certain systems, trucks and lift helicopters, for example, need to be in every service, but when this notion extends to stealth fighter aircraft, it can break the bank. Today, the “triplication” of fighter aircraft creates opportunities and synergies, but when you look at putting a different version of the expensive F-35 in each of three services, you have to wonder: Are three tactical air forces affordable? Are they necessary? The Pentagon pushed the Marine Corps into the special operations business. Are the Marine ground formations needed in the postwar special operations forces? Is there room for consolidation between the Corps’ special operators and SEALs, or between Ranger units and airborne infantry units? There are now more special operations headquarters and groups than even the most bureaucratic mind can comprehend. Do we need all of this overhead? Can we dual-hat four-star commands — like the Army’s Forces Command — to do joint work, too? Do we need all of the geographic combatant commands? Has AFRICOM proved useful and cost-effective? If not, should it be combined with EUCOM, or would CENTCOM be a better fit? The active-reserve mix in every service needs to be re-examined. For example, the Navy and the Army could save great amounts of money by putting more force structure into the reserves. Taking a page from the Air Force reserve forces, they could maintain units or ships for short-term call-up to support active missions. This would mean larger active-force cadres in these units, but the maintenance of Reserve units in a “nearly ready” status could support a larger overall force structure at lower costs.


A third area for consideration is protecting the systems that are force multipliers and that span the categories of warfare. Special operators; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets; and unmanned aerial vehicles — armed and unarmed — are critical and offer great potential gains in capabilities. New and improved munitions have already lengthened the life of older flying platforms. At the same time, a new long-range strike aircraft (and/or UAV) is sorely needed. The U.S. also needs to do more in the cyberwarfare area.

In a similar vein, some capabilities need to be nurtured and protected. Gates has lauded one such capability — the provision of advisers and security assistance. Counterinsurgency (COIN) will continue to be an important mission, but expeditionary force COIN will be the exception, and “COIN Lite” the rule. Helping others help themselves might prevent a larger conflict. It also avoids wear and tear on our forces and makes sense operationally. Armies of Western soldiers cannot defeat an insurgency; ultimately, local forces have to do it. The provision of thousands of advisers worldwide will be an important mission for special operations and general purpose forces.

That said, one must avoid the temptation to predict the future. Gates, a friend of ground forces, challenged Army planners in his February speech at West Point: Looking ahead, though, in the competition for tight defense dollars within and between the services, the Army also must confront the reality that the most plausible, high-end scenarios for the U.S. military are primarily naval and air engagements — whether in Asia, the Persian Gulf or elsewhere. The strategic rationale for swift-moving expeditionary forces — be they Army or Marines, airborne infantry or special operations — is self-evident, given the likelihood of counterterrorism, rapid reaction, disaster response, or stability or security force assistance missions. But in my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should “have his head examined,” as (Army) General (Douglas) MacArthur so delicately put it.

This notion points toward significant savings in the future, but history argues for caution. The U.S. national security establishment has had a lousy track record of predicting the size and character of our “next” war. The Korean War, the 1991 Persian Gulf War and Operation Enduring Freedom were near-complete surprises. To paraphrase former Soviet Premier Leon Trotsky, we may not be interested in a future land war in the Middle East or Asia, but it may well be interested in us. As our operations for the past decade in Afghanistan have shown, you don’t always get to pick the locale or the character of your wars. Moreover, even great air campaign successes, like Bosnia and Kosovo, can create significant, follow-on land power requirements.

Disregarding the possibility of major land warfare echoes the false notion of push-button warfare in the late 1940s. After the Cold War, strategic savants were also sure that land warfare had become a thing of the past. Closer in time, the key question before the Quadrennial Defense Review in 2001, right before 9/11, was how many of those less-than-useful divisions we could cut from our already small Army.

The U.S. has been at war for 25 of the last 60 years, a record that the Romans would be hard pressed to top. In most of those years, soldiers and Marines dominated U.S. battles, and Army generals commanded the war zones. This pattern is not predictive, but it is a cautionary flag for those who want to reduce Army and Marine combat forces, or who believe that adding to our air and maritime dominance is the path to optimal security.

East Asian maritime or air-centered combat scenarios are not the only ones for which the U.S. has to prepare. War in Korea is still quite possible. A war in Northeast Asia would again be one that requires a tremendous effort from each of the services. Major stability operations in post-succession Cuba or North Korea would require large-scale ground forces. As Gates noted, short-notice contingency operations will also require ready Army and Marine forces. African contingencies today remind us that those old chestnuts — carrier battle groups, amphibious ready groups, transport aircraft and paratroopers on alert — will remain highly useful in the future. The next secretary has to keep the U.S. relevant across the spectrum of conflict.

In a similar vein, some realists have recommended that the U.S. change its strategy from one of forward presence and engagement to one that features offshore balancing. Prodded by a dislike of U.S. forces fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, advocates for offshore balancing take a leaf from 19th-century Great Britain and how it participated in the European balance of power. It calls for “over the horizon” forces to intervene in the nick of time to restore or tip the balance in a situation. Using this strategy, Britain maintained a large Navy and a much smaller Army.

This was not always successful for the British, whose power was never fully appreciated by the continental land powers. More importantly, it is unclear how offshore balancing would work in the 21st century in a world with nearly 200 nations, not just a handful of like-minded regional powers. Peacetime onshore engagement — including military-to-military contact — will remain a requirement for the rest of the 21st century.

To get us through this budget crisis, we don’t need a new strategy; we need prudence, visionary leadership and tough management. As the two wars wind down, the Pentagon must remake the armed forces into a lean, efficient instrument of national policy, capable of fighting wars across the spectrum of conflict — in the air, space and cyberspace; on and under the sea; and on the land. Given the coming defense downturn, this may be DoD’s greatest challenge in the 21st century.

JOSEPH J. COLLINS, a retired Army officer, teaches strategy at the National War College. From 2001 to 2004, he was deputy assistant secretary of defense for stability operations. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Army or Defense Department.