Wes Bush, the president and CEO of Northrop Grumman, said at the CNAS conference that, in his view, the United States is risking its technological advantage over the rest of the world. "Our national strategy rests on technological superiority," he said. And at the current rate of investment, he said, "that's not sustainable."
He added that he thinks Americans don't understand the rate at which the rest of the world is advancing technologically. The pace, he said, is "absolutely extraordinary."
For his company, he said, the key question is human capacity -- keeping and attracting new talent.
In a discussion of how to fix the defense budget, Eric Edelman, a former undersecretary of defense for policy, said that we should "dramatically cut the Joint Staff." He didn't say by how much.
I am not sure how this is relevant, but I noticed that Edelman wears a pinky ring and a gold bracelet. Lots of bling for a policy wonk.
They are, according to five of my CNAS colleagues, these:
1. Redundant Overhead, Layering and Workforce
2. Inefficient Business Practices
3. Excessive Acquisition Costs and Overruns
4. Excess Infrastructure, Installations and Management Costs
5. Unaffordable Increases in Cash Compensation
6. Unsustainable Growth of Military Retirement System Costs
7. Escalating Military Health Care Costs
If these seven money gluttons aren't tamed, they warn, "DOD will have no choice but to find savings through deep cuts to force structure, modernization and readiness -- the very core capabilities required for the U.S. military to maintain global pre-eminence."
By Robert Kozloski
Best Defense guest commenter
When talking about reducing defense budgets, metaphors involving body parts abound -- cutting the fat, giving a haircut, cutting into the muscle (even to the bone), and tooth-to-tail ratios to name a few. Here is another -- the appendectomy.
Natural evolution renders the appendix as one of those body parts humans can do without. Yet, the human body clings to it because the current model has been that way for a long time. The Marine Corps faces a similar situation.
After a decade of war and being aware that the size of the Marine Corps would be reduced from surge-level highs, the USMC Force Structure Review Group identified that the operational "sweet spot" for the Corps of the future is somewhere between traditional army units and special operations teams.
Institutionally committing to this sweet spot and focusing on smaller unit operations provide opportunities for the Marine Corps to deal with the fiscal pressure facing the entire DOD.
Some options to consider:
Eliminate Duplicative Headquarters: If divisions and wings are no longer the right size units, can they be eliminated and battalions and squadrons aligned directly to MEFs and MEBs? Could the entire 0-6 level of command in the operating forces be eliminated?
Think Naval: Consolidate and integrate with the Navy. For example, the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command was created in response to 9/11 and maintains capabilities similar to those in a MEF. Can the two naval forces be better aligned? Should a new Naval Expeditionary Combat Element become the fifth element of the MAGTF, thus creating a true Naval Expeditionary Force? Could the Marines become the naval executive agent for Irregular Warfare for the naval services, while the Navy reciprocates for cyberspace?
SOF Integration: Instead of duplicating existing SOF capabilities, SOCOM should assign missions to the MEU(SOC) while NAVSPECWARCOM could integrate all naval special warfare capabilities. To increase the Marines' SOF presence in the future, ANGLICO teams should replace Air Force personnel on the ground and free the USAF to commit resources to SOF aviation requirements.
Use the Total Force: By requiring "Civilian Marines" to deploy to the field for administrative work, entire military career fields could be eliminated. Non-sweet spot units designed primarily to fight major wars should be moved to the reserves. The Marine Corps should also close the gap between its enlisted and officers. Some of the future high-end missions being considered for the Marines require a more mature and specialized enlisted force.
Marine Aviation: The schism between Navy aviators and ground units isn't what it used to be. Could Navy tactical fixed-wing squadrons be placed in support of Marine units to get the Marine Corps out of the fixed-wing aviation business?
Initial Accessions: Close one of the two recruit training depots. If a Korea, Vietnam, or Iraq type surge is needed, build temporary facilities at 29 Palms, CA or Quantico, VA to augment the throughput.
Defenders of the status quo will resist any significant change to the organizational structure within the Marine Corps. This defense will likely involve using a flawed planning system, rich service history, and unacceptable risk to national security as elements of the defense. However, removing components that are no longer necessary because of the evolution to smaller unit operations may help preserve capacity and resolve long standing problems. Obviously, reducing force structure from the Marine Corps is a measure of last resort and should only be considered after efforts to resolve the excessive overhead problem within DOD have been exhausted.
Robert Kozloski is a program analyst for the Department of the Navy and served in the Marine Corps from 1997 to 2007. He is the author of "Marching Toward the Sweet Spot: Options for the Marine Corps in a Time of Austerity" in the new ish of the Naval War College Review. The views expressed are his alone.
The other day FP carried a standard carriers-are-great piece by a trio of admirals. A friend of mine, appalled at what he regarded as the ostrich-like views of the high-ranking authors, sent a corrective note to me:
Key questions to be considered would be:
- To what degree will China be able to impede our ability to freely use carriers in the Pacific in the future?
- How willing would U.S. political leadership be to commit carriers in a high-threat environment where China would view a negative outcome for them as a threat to the survival of the Party (recognizing that in that culture every defeat, even small ones, are a threat to the survival of the Party)?
- Would POTUS commit a carrier if there was a 10 percent chance it would be hit?
- How about 20 percent, or 30 percent?
- How many of the vertical launch tubes on the destroyers and cruisers are committed to defending the carrier vs. carrying Tomahawks to carry out power-projection missions?
- When does the Navy come in a la Bay of Pigs and say that it can only operate carriers forward to accomplish the mission if it is allowed to hit targets on the mainland, placing CONUS at risk to reprisal, and how does the president respond?
- When does the POTUS realize that for years we have built platforms that we cannot afford to lose, either in monetary cost or the cost of lives? That is the key question. Rule number three of war is never build a weapon that you cannot afford to lose or have defeated. We seem to proceed on an assumption that no one will ever attack our carriers. I think the Chinese will see themselves as being in a position that they cannot afford NOT to attack our carriers.
- How does this all affect our position vis a vis Japan, the Philippines, Australia, and India? All of those relationships will be at risk if we don't have an alternative.
Final thought: The Navy has already accepted that the fleet is going to shrink to 270 ships, and I am here to tell you that it will go smaller than that, probably 230 before this is all done. This is largely because all of those ships that were built by Reagan are all retiring at the same time and we are not building replacements at the same rate right now. That will be the price of maintaining 10-11 supercarriers at $12-13 billion with an annual shipbuilding budget of $15 billion. The price will decrease overall naval presence, and raise questions as to the U.S. commitment to local security concerns.
I mention in another item today how much I liked the McKinsey interview with General McMaster. I was less taken with another article in the same issue, about what defense companies should do to weather the current decline in Pentagon spending.
The article is laden with phrases that apparently carry great meaning for the authors, but might not be so evident to the reader. They recommend "reimagining the business portfolio." They want executives to "redesign the talent strategy" -- but they don't say what that means. (I am guessing it means hire different sorts of people, but who knows? And what sort of people?) They also call for "appropriately managing incentives." Why does no one ever call for "inappropriate" steps? Those might be more fun, and certainly more interesting.
Their bottom line: "History shows that the time to act is in the depth of the downturn." My translation: "Buy low, sell high." In other words, what you need to do is simple: Just be the Warren Buffett of the defense industry. Any stockbroker will tell you this is easy to say, hard to do.
This court finds the authors guilty of aggravated assault on the English language, and sentences them to remedial readings of Strunk & White, and then George Orwell's essay on clear thinking and clear writing.
It was underwhelming. Got it, he admires Ike. So do I. As a friend of mine said, "This was a terrible speech. Said nothing and awful delivery."
Not a good sign for a SecDef leading a Pentagon on the budget roller coaster.
I've been reading a briefing by Maj. Gen. Richard P. Mustion, commander of the Army's Human Resources Command, who predicts that the Army will have to eject about 24,500 soldiers in the next five years. That is, in order to reach the projected size of 490,000 in 2018, it will have to lose 17,000 more enlisted soldiers than it would lose through natural rates of attrition, and also 7,300 officers.
I hadn't seen those numbers before. Have youse?
I actually think the Army is going to have to lose more than that, because I think the overall defense budget will be cut more than the Pentagon expects. If that happens, I hope the Army aims to maintain quality more than quantity.
Crist: One of the things as a federal employee who works on current Middle East issues, and having studied pretty extensively for a project on the Joint Staff the lead-up to decisions on Iraq, the thing that has struck me is that the lessons learned among policymakers from Iraq is there was a lot of thought given -- which was not the case in 2002 and 2003 -- given to second- and third- order effects of American action and what are the ramifications for this that we don't anticipate. Whether that can be sustained over the next generation or just each generation learns its lesson, institutionalizes it and [inaudible].
Dubik: The lesson-learned process and what people learn from our 10-year experience is important. There is a reasoned way to think through using force, there is a useful process in increasing the probability that you'll get it more right than wrong -- not that you'll ever get it absolutely right.
I fear that we are throwing out counterinsurgency because we are never doing that again. But we already did that once: It was post-Vietnam. Counterinsurgency is not a strategy; it's a way to deal with an insurgency, and if you face it again, it gives you a relatively decent structure to think through these things. It certainly shouldn't be a national strategy. It was never designed to do that.
Ricks: Another person who could not attend today, Kyle Teamey, who some of you may know, a terrifically smart young man, sent in this question: "Is there anyone at this table who thinks we will not do counterinsurgency again?"
For the record, I want to note that everybody agrees we will do counterinsurgency again.
Mudd: But we went in to do counterterrorism, and now all we talk about is counterinsurgency. So success on Sept. 12 would have been, "Is there going to be an attack against the United States?" and by 2003 that answer was no. And now we say success is: Should we have a third election? And my view would be, if the Taliban wins, I don't care as long as we have a residual capability to eliminate the target we went in to get.
I hate counterinsurgency, because it wasn't our threat. Just a quick asterisk: In parallel with these major wars we had intervention in places like Somalia and Yemen. There's been no tactical conversation here, and I think appropriately -- but especially with the new tactical capability-- we've been able to say, "Man, we are giving the president in some cases better options, but in some cases much tougher?" You want to go into Mali? You want to go against Boko Haram? I want to know why we are not talking about armed drones against cartels, which were a much bigger threat to this country than terrorism ever was or ever will be. But it is interesting that parallel subwars or campaigns is part of this war and what they mean about American intervention in the future that leads not only to things like increasing the capacity of the partner but also unilateral use of force against a target without ever having to put a boot on the ground fast.
Ricks: What do they tell you?
Mudd: That tells me that we are going to be into it because we are going to say there's a way to get out of this without putting big green on the ground.
Flournoy: I think that there probably will be some point in the future where we decide to help a government deal with its problem of insurgency, and that's the thing: It's not our insurgency. The question is: Can we come to some consensus on what's the right model? Is there a single right model for that, or is it really entirely case by case? To me, after the experience of the last decade or more, the El Salvador model looks a lot more attractive than the conventional occupation model of Iraq and Afghanistan, but is that just being falsely wedded to something? Can we generalize from these different experiences to say there is one approach that either is generally more effective or, from our own political culture, generally more acceptable and sustainable to the American people?
Ricks: I'm going to try and answer your question. I would say, yes, clearly: Light footprint, minimal American boots on the ground, leading from behind, helping host nation abilities, or even helping third parties like we've been helping the Colombians help the Mexicans on the drug war. These are the things that work; these are the things also that go to the issue of sustainability. I once was talking to Elliott Abrams, and I said I thought secretly more Americans had been killed in El Salvador than were killed in the 1991 Gulf War. He said, "Yeah, but I won my war."
Alford: You also have to design the force to support your strategy. You got to start thinking about the force.
Ricks: We have a force that's tactically magnificent, but is it relevant, Colonel Alford?
Alford: No, I don't think we are organized the way we should be right now for the future.
Ricks: How should we be better organized?
Alford: Well, I mean all the things you just talked about were what the U.S. Marines do from amphibious ships. We are balanced, we are flexible, we are adaptable, and we are forward deployed. We can go in and be out and not have to put a footprint on the ground for any significant period of time. And that's what we want.
I mean, I love the U.S. Army -- we have the best U.S. Army in the world, but in Kosovo when you take in 24 helicopters and it takes 6,000 troops to support those 24 helicopters, that's not the future.
Ricks: I need to go now to the Army generals who have been shaking their heads.
Dubik: We have a great Marine Corps for a reason, and I'm glad we have it. But we have a great Air Force, and Navy, and Army for a reason that we need also.
But I play golf with 13 clubs. And I like to solve problems with more than one conceptual framework. So I'm not at all satisfied with a conclusion of our last 10 years of war that "quote, unquote" this approach works. I think that that would be a dangerous way to come out of this war. For me, the lesson learned is come to a war with more than one conceptual framework. Because every war, while it may have some common elements, every war, as Clausewitz says, is a chameleon, admits to its own solution, and you have to think through that solution. So the light-footprint approach that you talked about works in many, many circumstances, but there are an equal number that it won't.
Ricks: So be adaptive is what you're saying?
Dubik: Intellectually adaptive.
Ricks: I've been reading another history of World War II recently which Churchill keeps on saying in ‘39, ‘40, ‘41 that this will not be a force-on-force war.
Dubik: [Laughs.] Yeah, well it ended up being that way.
And that gets to my comment about adaptability. It's not just intellectual adaptability but force adaptability. If you predict one future and you optimize your force for that future, you're either a hero or a goat. You're a hero if the future unfolds as you predict. You're a goat because you've got the country's reputation on something that now is not relevant. So in our force-structure decisions coming up necessarily as a result of the position we are in strategically and fiscally, maintaining as many options as we possibly can is an important way forward in an uncertain environment. It's organizationally important to have alternatives.
Ricks: Is it possible to maintain options in an era when I'm guessing defense budgets are going to go down 30 percent in the next few years?
Dubik: My own answer is yes. The number of options may be reduced, but you can still retain a good number of options if you are willing to break some rice bowls in terms of current organizational structures, active, guard, reserve in each of the components.
Mudd: A sand wedge is what you're saying.
Dubik: Yeah, I use a sand wedge.
Alford: One of the four words I used there was adaptable. You've got to have a number of tools in the box to cross the threat that we are going to face, which I believe is going to be a more hybrid, irregular, not a toe-to-toe threat. That's going to be the most prevalent, I believe.
Ricks: And the other head-shaking general?
Fastabend: I'd like to make two comments. Jim [Dubik] talked adequately about the need to have 13 clubs in the bag. I can't restrain myself from saying this now that I'm retired: You can't help but love the Marine Corps. They are simultaneously one of the greatest and most insecure institutions that I've ever encountered in my life.
(More to come, as the Army-Marine smackdown continues)
By Michael Haft and Harrison Suarez
Best Defense guest columnists
The inspector general's sign said to contact him in case of fraud, waste, or abuse. We laughed cynically about which issue he might find most egregious.
Would it be the non-alcoholic beer shipped around the world into Afghanistan? The civilian contractors who slept all day in their hootches and ignored the war going on around them? The ostentatious Post Exchange at the Marine Corps's headquarters in Helmand Province, with its aisles lined by televisions, air conditioners, and stereos?
Or maybe it would be the money-losing commissaries back in the United States, a system of grocery stores receiving $1.5 billion in federal subsidies every year? Or perhaps the Semper Fit girls in Camp Lejeune, who acted like personal trainers but seemed like little more than beneficiaries of a welfare program for Marine dependents?
Our brainstorming went on, but we never did find out. At the time it wasn't our place. We had to pick our battles, and we weren't military planners, we weren't financial management officers, we weren't whatever military occupational specialty handles budgeting. We were just two infantry officers looking around every day at all the bloat and wondering how it had come to this.
If we've seen such excess in the Marine Corps -- traditionally the most frugal service and one that receives just 4 percent of the defense budget -- we can only imagine the extent to which it takes place in the other branches. And as sequestration slowly comes into effect, it's worth asking: Might a budget cut actually be a good thing for our military?
It could be, if our generals can make smart fiscal choices. And although our top military leaders have spent months decrying the potential effects of sequestration, it's worth noting that the Department of Defense budget has just about doubled in the years since 9/11, that this figure doesn't include money spent conducting the wars, and that what our leaders are bemoaning is just a 7 percent cutback on the baseline budget.
As former Marines and members of the service that has always prided itself on doing more with less, the discussion thus far has been frustrating to watch. Very few people seem willing to question whether America has gotten its money's worth from the ever-expanding military-industrial complex.
Meanwhile, we aren't convinced. It's just too easy to call to mind examples of questionable spending or hours of productivity lost due to outdated systems. Meals at the dining facilities in Afghanistan cost more than $25 per plate. Back in America, many of our computers still had floppy drives. And all of these examples don't even get at the murky process of weapons procurement and acquisition, in which no-bid contracts have become all too common.
No question, when we were deployed we enjoyed those meals tremendously on the rare occasions we visited large bases, and we were the beneficiaries of new gear and weapons that came from some of those contracts. But it is simply unbelievable that there isn't money to cut, that every dollar spent goes to a worthwhile program.
Leaving Camp Lejeune for the last time a few months ago, we drove by a series of newly-constructed LED billboards. On the screens, a digital version of the American Flag waved in an imaginary wind. It felt obscene, and as we passed each caricature, we couldn't help reflecting on all the times our junior Marines had been forced to scrounge for necessary supplies or to pay for better gear out of their own pockets.
Why was it that we had money for such frivolities, but sometimes not the slings for our rifles? Why was it that every contractor we talked to bragged about his six-figure income? Why was it that the new two-story chow hall had a Mongolian barbecue, but there were never enough spots to attend humvee training?
How did it come to this?
Our military leaders can do better. We believe that the budget cuts will instill some much-needed fiscal discipline. We believe it's possible to cut back without hollowing out the force. And we believe that it's time for our generals to prioritize, something that has fallen by the wayside in this era of military-industrial excess.
In the end, all we are asking is that our senior leaders take some of the advice we were given as young lieutenants: Stop pointing fingers elsewhere. Figure it out. Improvise, adapt, and overcome.
Michael Haft and Harrison Suarez are former infantry officers in the United States Marine Corps. They served together in Helmand Province, Afghanistan during the summer of 2011, where they embedded with the Afghan Uniformed Police and the Afghan National Army. The views presented here are their own and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense or the United States Marine Corps.
Pfc. Crystal Druery/DVIDS
By Thomas Donnelly
Best Defense office of historical force structure analysis, French and Indian War to World War II division
Beyond the official story, that Army chart tells you a couple of things:
1. Army was never as big as planned.
2. It got heavier -- more tanks and more artillery.
3. It got heavier in different ways than planned -- fewer tanks, a lot more artillery.
4. Didn't buy as many aircraft as planned.
5. Needed many more higher-echelon support troops than planned.
1. Were the differences a result of policy, manpower constraints, industrial constraints, tactical learning?
2. For a war that's supposed to be about the rise of tactical aviation and close air support, the increase in artillery and failure to meet aircraft goals is interesting.
3. Higher-echelon support troops: Like other wars, this was fought in coalition and at great strategic distances from the United States and at great operational distances within the theaters. Is "tail" actually "tooth?"
Air Force Lt. Col. Dan Ward wasn't at all impressed by Darth Vader's management style, which he finds overly reliant on motivating workers through "telekinetic strangulation." Also, he says, "Death Stars can't possibly be built on time or on budget, require pathological leadership styles and...keep getting blown up."
The lessons of "Star Wars," he concludes, are: Build simple, inexpensive weapons, and rely more on droids than on Death Stars.
Meanwhile, since I have nowhere else to put it, and I don't have the copyright clearance to run it myself, here's a link to a great weird photo.
Words for our time?
I have felt that the military departments of the Government did not devote sufficient time, investigation and effort to the evolution or development of a system which would provide the necessary security with the minimum of financial output. We were forced into stringent economies by drastic cuts in appropriations, but there is a decided difference between effecting economies by cuts, particularly under pressure, and deliberately concentrating on the search for a system that permits a more economical set up and operation of an adequate military force.
I think we have erred at times on the side of a too dogmatic statement of requirements without regard to whether or not there was a reasonably practical possibility of obtaining the necessary funds through the years.
--George Marshall to the graduates of the National War College, June 20, 1947
(P. 157, The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, Vol. 6: ‘The Whole World Hangs in the Balance.' Edited by Larry Bland, Mark Stoler, Sharon Stevens, and Daniel Holt. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.)
By David Forman
Best Defense guest columnist
Though smaller defense budgets are now as certain as death and taxes, the real question is "just how bad is it going to be?" According to Clark Murdock, who spoke at a recent panel hosted at CSIS, fewer dollars is only half the issue. The more significant, though less discussed, problem is how "weak" defense dollars have become due to internal cost growth. This "double whammy" of fewer and weaker dollars will make cuts feel twice as bad as they look on paper.
Current Operations and Maintenance (O&M) costs are projected to consume 80 percent of the budget by 2021, and the entire budget by 2039. Even though total force size increased only 3 percent over the last decade, personnel costs increased 90 percent. These projections are clearly unsustainable, but since the Defense Department can't do without people or operations, what should it do?
Mr. Murdock recommends re-conceptualizing the defense budgeting structure and sticking to it by asking "how much is affordable" instead of "how much is enough." The budget should have two major categories. The first category, "Institutional Support," should not exceed 30 percent of the total budget and would cover training, recruiting, facilities, and administration of the force. The other 70 percent should be allotted to the "Operational Force" that would directly support military operations for combatant commanders. Within the Operational Force allotment, 35-50 percent should be spent on common core capabilities (considered the musts), and the other 20-35 percent should be spent on strategic investment (considered the coulds).
Time will tell if the upcoming Quadrennial Defense Review adopts these recommendations, but the panel at CSIS brought to light two excellent points that can help minimize the gamble on this double whammy.
First, strategy development needs to become an iterative process. As it stands now, combatant commanders take strategic guidance and establish force requirements based on cost assumptions, but when their assumptions price out too high, we do not adjust strategy to make it affordable and determine where to accept more risk.
Second, military personnel compensation reform can't garner congressional support because the focus is mainly on cuts to current compensation. Todd Harrison of CSBA provided the freshest perspective I've seen by referring to his report on maximizing value from the entire military compensation system. Instead of just cutting, we need to adjust compensation to areas of cost-effective value to service members. Military personnel value certain benefits more than others, but not all benefits have the same relative government cost for perceived value. By measuring value and cost (as he did in his report) and spending accordingly, the Defense Department can still attract high quality personnel without consuming the entire budget.
As the next defense secretary confronts a lower top-line budget, with or without sequestration, internal cost growth must be addressed. Now may be the best time to re-conceptualize how defense dollars are allocated. Success in this process will create a sustainable budgeting structure that supports an affordable national security strategy executed by a high quality and well-compensated military force of all-volunteer Americans.
LCDR David Forman, USN, is a senior military fellow at the Center for a New American Security. The views presented here are his own and do not represent those of the Navy or the Department of Defense.
By Max Boot
Best Defense guest columnist
In my new book, Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present, I argue that low-intensity warfare always has been and always will be the dominant form of combat. Assuming my analysis is correct -- and I believe it is confirmed by thousands of years of experience -- what does this mean for the future of the U.S. armed forces? What kind of military do we need to fight terrorists and guerrillas?
It is hard to top the description offered by Colonel Pierre-Noel Raspèguy, one of the central characters in Jean Larteguy's classic novel The Centurions (1962) about the French paratroopers who fought in Indochina and Algeria. Raspèguy, modeled on the real-life legend Marcel "Bruno" Bigeard, says:
I'd like France to have two armies: one for display, with lovely guns, tanks, little soldiers, fanfares, staffs, distinguished and doddering generals, and dear little regimental officers who would be deeply concerned over their general's bowel movements for their colonel's piles: an army that would be shown for a modest fee on every fairground in the country.
The other would be the real one, composed entirely of young enthusiasts in camouflage battledress, who would not be put on display but from whom impossible efforts would be demanded and to whom all sorts of tricks would be taught. That's the army in which I would like to fight.
As it happens, the United States today already has the second kind of army -- and a Marine Corps too: Both have been shaped by a decade of war into counterinsurgency (COIN) forces with few peers in history. They may not look good on parade, and they may not be as proficient at fighting with tanks and artillery as the peacetime forces of prior decades, but at the messy, trying business of fighting terrorists and guerrillas they have few if any equals.
Achieving this level of proficiency has not been easy. It has required overcoming the built-in bias in favor of conventional conflict among all conventional military forces. Indeed the COIN revolution in the U.S. military would never have come about were it not for the fact that the more conventional method of fighting nearly led the United States to disaster in Iraq between 2003 and 2007. The danger now is that the armed forces will revert to their default setting -- preparing to fight some version of the (nonexistent) Red Army -- and turn their back on the hard-won lessons of the past decade.
The danger is especially great because the heavy deployment tempo of the last decade is winding down and both the Army and Marine Corps are downsizing -- the former is set to lose at least 80,000 troops, the latter at least 20,000. Actually, the personnel cuts may be even deeper if $500 billion in sequestration cuts are implemented or if they are turned off by a budget deal that inflicts smaller but still substantial cutbacks on the armed forces. A smaller force that will experience less combat may see the exit of some of its most experienced COIN veterans -- the hardcore warriors who have no desire to serve in a spit-and-polish parade-ground army.
A smaller force will also be less capable of COIN operations in the future because such campaigns are manpower intensive. The Iraq War showed that, while you don't need that many troops anymore to take down a conventional force like Saddam Hussein's army, you need a lot more personnel to pacify a country of 25 million people. We did not have enough troops, in no small part because of the "peace dividend" cuts of the 1990s which eliminated one-third of the Army's active-duty ranks. There was a modest plus-up in active-duty strength over the past decade, but if the Army and Marine Corps are now cut again they will lack the riflemen they need to conduct COIN operations in the future.
Of course COIN requires not only large numbers of general-purpose troops but also as many as possible who know the culture and language of the land where they are deployed. This has long been a weakness of the U.S. military, which has never stressed foreign-language training or foreign-area knowledge save for a handful of foreign affairs officers who are typically consigned to career purgatory. This is supposed to be a specialty of the Army Special Forces, but over the past decade their A-teams from all over the world have been sucked into Iraq and Afghanistan and focused on direct-action missions, sacrificing whatever local language proficiency they might have previously cultivated.
It will be hard to enhance the foreign-area expertise of the armed forces without taking some steps that are anathema to the bureaucracy. Some ideas:
Whenever such proposals are put forward, the bureaucracy raises myriad reasons why they are supposedly impractical. What's really impractical, however, is forcing the armed forces to fight on human terrain they don't understand.
None of these is meant to suggest that we should get rid of all heavy conventional forces. The Army and Marine Corps should keep their tanks, albeit in smaller numbers than today -- not because there is great likelihood that anyone will once again fight an armored war against us, as Saddam Hussein tried to do twice, but because tanks can come in handy in COIN. (See the two battles for Fallujah or the Israeli Operation Defensive Shield during the Second Intifada.) The Air Force and Navy shouldn't focus much on COIN at all -- they need more ships and aircraft to counter the rise of China and deal with other conventional threats. But low-intensity conflict will remain the most common form of warfare in the future, and the Army and Marine Corps will need to dedicate the bulk of their resources to preparing for this kind of war in the future.
And that will require not only identifying and shooting insurgents but also dispelling the conditions that give rise to insurgency. Perhaps the most important step we can take to increase our COIN capacity in the future would be to create a civil-military nation-building office, possibly by transforming USAID into an agency focused not on promoting "development" for its own sake but on building up state structures in strategically important countries that are endangered by actual or potential insurgencies. In other words, places like Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Mali, and post-Assad Syria.
I know that "nation-building" is anathema to political expediency in Washington. But there is really no other choice. If we can't do a better job of assisting other countries to govern themselves, especially in the arc of instability stretching from West Africa to Central Asia, we will find our military forces sucked into more difficult and costly conflicts in the future.
Max Boot is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present (Liveright).
. . . The United States has the most lavishly funded military on the planet, and what does it buy you? In the Hindu Kush, we're taking 12 years to lose to goatherds with fertilizer.
Something is wrong with this picture. Indeed, something is badly wrong with the American way of war. And no one could seriously argue that, in the latest in the grim two-thirds-of-a-century roll call of America's unwon wars, the problem is a lack of money or resources. Given its track record, why shouldn't the Pentagon get a top-to-toe overhaul - or at least a cost-benefit analysis?
Just to be clear: I disagree with Hagel on Israel, on Iran and on most everything else. But my colleagues on the right are in denial if they don't think there are some very basic questions that need to be asked about the too-big-to-fail Defense Department. Obama would like the U.S. military to do less. Some of us would like it to do more with less -- more nimbly, more artfully. But, if the national security establishment won't acknowledge there's even a problem, they're unlikely to like the solutions imposed by others.
By Travis Sharp
Best Defense senior number cruncher
During last week's debate, President Obama said several times that Governor Romney would increase defense spending by $2 trillion. Romney didn't protest. Obama's claim is accurate, but the underlying issue goes far beyond arithmetic. It is really about strategic risk and national priorities. The candidates' differing visions for defense spending represent the most significant contrast on national security policy in the 2012 election.
DOD's 2013 base budget excluding war funds is $525 billion, which equals 3.3 percent of GDP. Under Obama's plan, it will continue to grow modestly in future years. Romney has said that he wants to reverse the Obama-era cuts, return to the 2010 plan crafted by Robert Gates, and set the goal of spending 4 percent of GDP on defense. Those three objectives are different, so he'll have some wiggle room should he become president.
Let's compare Romney's third objective to Obama's plan. We'll run two scenarios for Romney. Under "Ramp Up," he increases defense spending by 0.1 percent of GDP per year until it reaches 4 percent and keeps it there. Under "Immediate," he increases defense spending to 4 percent of GDP immediately and keeps it there.
The table compares the Obama and Romney plans. The data are derived from OMB and CBO and denominated in billions. (I first did this calculation at the request of CNN Money in May. The resulting article has received some attention. The New York Times ran a signed editorial on the issue in August).
From 2013 to 2022, the difference between Obama and Romney "Ramp Up" is $2.063 trillion. The difference between Obama and Romney "Immediate" is $2.316 trillion.
Why is there such a big difference between Obama and Romney? Because GDP tends to get bigger over the long run, so indexing defense spending to GDP will cause the defense budget to grow -- sometimes rapidly -- in perpetuity. Don't just take my word for it. Cato's Chris Preble ran this excursion and got similar results. AEI's Tom Donnelly said an earlier iteration of this analysis presented "obvious, but undeniably true, facts." This chart illustrates the differences between Obama's and Romney's plans and puts them in historical context.
Readers should note a few things. First, cost estimates are not an exact science. Second, defense spending today is relatively low in historical terms when measured as a percentage of GDP. Third, inflation continually saps DOD's buying power, so defense spending increases are not as mighty as they appear. Fourth, the "4 percent for defense" plan has percolated among policymakers like Robert Gates and within think tanks for years. Fifth, the transmission mechanism that moved the plan from defense policy ether to Romney platform was presumably Senator Jim Talent, a top Romney defense advisor (and SecDef frontrunner, rumor has it) who has been hot on the plan for years. (Those interested in a deeper discussion of the recent evolution and potential weaknesses of the "defense spending and GDP" approach might read my 2008 essay in Parameters).
The candidates fundamentally disagree about how much it will cost for the U.S. military to maintain its global preeminence, and about how much preeminence is enough. Romney's plan would reduce strategic risk by buying more ground forces, fighter aircraft, naval ships, satellites, and all the rest. As I argue in a new essay, the Obama administration has struggled to communicate effectively about the risks of budget cuts. It has exaggerated some risks in order to deter sequestration, but it has also downplayed some risks to reassure allies and the American public in an election year. The ambiguity has allowed Romney to draw a contrast. His plan wouldn't eliminate risk completely because that's impossible. But it does force policymakers to ponder whether they want to spend more to reduce risk.
In the broadest sense, Romney's plan is affordable if the necessary political decisions are made. Policymakers chose the current mix of taxes, entitlements, and discretionary spending. They can make different choices in the future. Romney hasn't explained how exactly he would pay for $2 trillion in additional defense spending. His plan doesn't look realistic under the current status quo, and Obama is justified in calling him out on it. But the debate shouldn't only be about the arithmetic of the status quo. It should be about choosing America's role in the world and deciding which candidate has the leadership ability to bring that choice to fruition.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.