Kohn to defense Chicken Littles: It’s time to trim defense spending, and here is how

Kohn to defense Chicken Littles: It’s time to trim defense spending, and here is how

By Richard H. Kohn

Best Defense department of political-economic affairs

“The sky is falling,” cried Chicken Little.  And so say many in the national defense community about another $600 billion in budget cuts if the automatic “trigger” reduces government spending by $1.2 trillion over the next decade.  “It’s a ship without sailors,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told Congress.  “It’s a brigade without bullets.  It’s an air wing without enough trained pilots.  It’s a paper tiger” that would “force us to cut across the board” and “lead to a ‘hollow force.'”

The doomsayers are wrong.  The cuts will amount to something over 15 percent of the projected defense spending over this decade, most taking effect in mid-decade or after.  The U.S. will still spend more than the rest of the world combined on national defense, and still have the most capable military.  We should be able to absorb the cuts without significant damage to our national security.

Here’s how.

The most important step is to recognize that our military establishment is largely a holdover in strategy, doctrines, force structure, and culture from the Cold War.  Our military must be reviewed, reconsidered, rethought, reconceptualized, and perhaps reorganized down to the core.  Cutting around the margins, across the board, and leaving the thing as it stands, would jeopardize the common defense.

First, rethink policy and strategy.  Twenty years after the end of the Cold War, the implosion of the Soviet Union and the death of communism, do we need to be prepared to fight a world war on the model of the mid-20th century, with combatant commands covering the entire globe (including North America), with enough headquarters personnel to people the entire U.S. Foreign Service several times over?  Even if American commitments aren’t reduced, the military requirements to fulfill them must be reviewed.

Second, reconsider force structure.  Do we need to keep ready enough ground forces to win quick wars when such are unlikely?  Our present structure has been unable ever since World War II to do that with the exception of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, which didn’t prove decisive anyway.  What more could be put in the reserves, or even be assigned to mobilizing another portion of the American people and the supply chain to support them?  How much of our forces need to be based overseas?  What can we really assign to contractors, and how can we manage them efficiently and effectively? With weapons so precise and intelligence so improved and platforms so much more advanced, how many ships and airplanes, and of what types, do we really need to maintain our peacetime commitments, avoid and deter war, or win one quickly?  What’s the relationship between numbers and capability?

Third, get serious about redundancy.  Air power is indispensable, but do our armed services all need their own separate air forces?  Do we need six war colleges for a military that is half the size of its Cold War model when we had five then?  Must the services maintain medical, legal, chaplain, and other professional cadres of support troops that are separate?  How much overlap in service roles and missions is necessary?

The answer is that we don’t know, and the reason is that neither the armed forces, their civilian chiefs, the White House, or Congress are willing to press these and other such fundamental issues.  As the saying goes inside the Pentagon, “If you can’t stand the answer, don’t ask the question.”  The political and economic implications are just too scary and too risky for our leaders to put such issues on the table. 

But as radicals used to chant in the 1960s, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing.”  The money is diminishing.  We’ll either cut the military smartly or stupidly.  It’s time to choose, and get on with it.

Richard H. Kohn is professor emeritus of history and Peace, War, and Defense at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  He was chief of air force history for the USAF, 1981-1991, and a congressional appointee to the Independent Review of the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review.