Military Budget Cuts: No Big Deal or Excellent Opportunity?

Secretary Panetta is set to come out with his new “strategy” to offer his assessment on how to cut the military budget. The question remains: will it be the same old or will he have the courage to mandate what truly needs to be done to build a stellar military for America’s future national security needs?

It seems inevitable that US forces will be looking at about a $450 billion budget cut over the next ten years. Moreover, if Congress doesn’t stop its incessant bickering over who stole whose cheese, the military will then lose an additional $500 billion to cover the US government’s flagrant disregard for Congress’s failure to responsibly use your tax dollars.

So I ask you all out there in US land — what is the big deal? Warren Buffett could cover the $45B a year decrease (or $95B a year if the full cut goes through) before you can say Goldman Sachs. Although I bet neither Warren Buffett nor Goldman Sachs would lend or, in this case, give that money away without first figuring out what recipient is going to do with it and, more importantly, what they are going to get out of it.

This, however, is not true for Congress or the Pentagon. Like previous downsizing ventures, the Department of Defense is scrambling. They will be managing these defense reductions on the fly. Congress will yet again mandate cuts without any semblance of a long-term strategic view making it impossible for the Joint Chiefs to make any true change.

Yet again, the status quo will no doubt win out and any possibility that our military’s top brass will be able to ensure that US forces remain ready for a relatively unknown and increasingly complicated future is as unlikely as finding human life on mars.

One can hope, but historically, cuts in defense have failed to produce the real change. Successive U.S. administrations have failed to outline a post Cold War defense strategy while American interests have remained constant over the years and any recent attempt at a global national security or grand strategy has been preempted by fear of rocking the defense department boat, political infighting and, more importantly, two wars.

And yet again it seems the powers that be are reverting to past practices instead of future realities. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s first major policy address focuses on air and sea-based capabilities and highly modernized adversaries which are code words for “the US is sending military policy right back to the cold war paradigm.” The Administration is, again, repeating history. The Army will shrink substantially to control current debt and fatigue after a decade of war. While America’s other forces ramp up and focus on China, which will replace the defunct Soviet Union.

Forces will be subject to the age-old percent budget based ancient parameters instead of need. As usual the Army will get the lion’s share and the same old safe solutions will be again based on past budget deduction cases and, not on the hard choices and changes our military must make. Choices like keeping planes and ships in production, which support Panetta’s speech and are sure to please the military industrial complex, do nothing to address larger national security requirements.

Unfortunately, percentage cuts, which are the easy way out, will probably win out. Thus, it is up to those who lead to ensure that America’s military remains strong and able. The military chiefs must not allow petty politics to intrude on making a comprehensive military assessment and creating a 21st century military to address its outcome.

Despite the inevitable drawdown, the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the military have a unique opportunity to make wide-ranging change in the pentagon as a whole. By streamlining bureaucracy, minimizing operational overlap, reorganizing personnel and improving the capacity of all troops to truly exhibit “jointness,” America’s forces can continue to be the modernized, adaptable, and rapid reaction military that the United States needs or, if you will, a lean mean fighting machine.

In this context, it is also time that the Defense Department embraced “lessons learned,” instead of gathering them up, filing them and staying the course much like it did during the Clinton Administration and, again, miss this chance to bring the US out of the Cold War and ready for the next decade.

Pure percentage cuts do not make good strategy. They instead cause infighting and fail to look at the overall defense picture viewing the parts instead of the whole. Leaders must therefore look beyond. The US is coming out of two wars where it amassed vast lessons on bringing Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines, including National Guard and reservists together to win the fight. Turning our back on these joint operational gains would be a mistake.

The Joint Chiefs and Combatant Commanders must come together to turn the tide away from politics and strategically asses what is needed for a stellar combined force ready for the next twenty plus years while making the Pentagon as disciplined as the troops.

They are part way there. According to the Stimson Center’s report, What We Bought: Defense Procurement from FY01 to FY10, among other things, the military has “completely upgraded all the Army’s vehicles, bought more ammunition than expected, acquired a whole new fleet of F-22s and C-17 cargo aircraft for the Air Force, and a lot of new naval vessels.” All absolutely necessary, however, the main problem, after ten years of upgrades, is not modernization; it is the lack of a long-range comprehensive strategic forecast of the future operating environment including threats and opportunities across regions. That is what will shape future US intervention and defense policy. It includes economic austerity, but is not beholden to it.

Without a complete strategic assessment it is truly impossible to make any reliable assessments as to whether the current force is “good enough.” No one really knows whether an “Air-Sea Battle” focus will prove sufficient, or even right. Devoid of a strategy and proper prioritizing of US national interests, the armed services is again left only with an increasingly difficult “math problem.” One that focuses solely on who gets cut and who gets cut out.

No one can predict the future, but it is counterproductive to try to guess what, where and when threats will present themselves. These types of faulty determinations leave consecutive Administration with the inability to guage whether it should invest more or less in air, sea, or land forces (or combinations thereof). The result is inevitably quantitative assumptions, political debates about which party is better on defense, and, no surprise, parochial competition between services.

Today’s political leaders must play a part in this as well. Rather than consuming themselves with partisan politics and protecting the military-industrial complex, they must take their oversight responsibility more seriously. Congress must understand that within the context of our economic concerns, our nations security is going to depend on a disciplined Defense Department that must plan strategically in order to protect the American people.

Until American lawmakers and military leaders commit to the necessary changes for the nation’s defense, this country is limited to random military decisions and pure speculation on threats and force structure. In the meantime, if the military can do nothing else, it must invest in educating and training the highest quality soldiers, airmen, marines, and sailors while encouraging civilian excellence as well (the highest-quality diplomats, foreign service officers, intelligence professionals, and first-responders, to include our teachers). Our human capital is the only outlay that is more likely to guarantee future success since no one has the courage to engage in strategic planning despite an increasingly uncertain future.

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