An expert's point of view on a current event.

A Radical Plan for Cutting the Defense Budget and Reconfiguring the U.S. Military

Total savings: $279.5 billion.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

In the spirit of spending wisely, here is my plan to reconfigure the military for the demands and threats of the 21st-century world and, in doing so, dramatically cut the Pentagon budget:

In the spirit of spending wisely, here is my plan to reconfigure the military for the demands and threats of the 21st-century world and, in doing so, dramatically cut the Pentagon budget:

Estimated annualized savings resulting from withdrawals from overseas garrisons and restructuring the United States’ forward military presence: $239 billion

The place to start reducing defense spending is with U.S. overseas commitments, which are vast.

Today, there are more than 317,000 active-duty U.S. military personnel stationed or deployed overseas. In the Central Command theater of operations, encompassing Iraq and Afghanistan, there are approximately 180,000 active-component personnel as well as over 45,000 reservists. Approximately 150,000 active-component U.S. military personnel are officially assigned to Europe and Asia. And some estimates note that there are two civilians and supporting contractors for each service member in certain locations.

The United States long stayed secure without this kind of sprawling imperial apparatus. But as the Cold War drew to a close, instead of adjusting force structure and spending to a strategic environment newly friendly to U.S. and allied interests, the U.S. military began a dramatic expansion of its overseas presence into areas where, historically, it had been episodic at best. America’s Cold War commitments, meanwhile, continued without interruption. After expelling the Iraqi Army from Kuwait in 1991, the U.S. military was directed to stay in the Persian Gulf and build massive facilities. And following the 9/11 attacks, the global war on terror resulted in major new Army and Air Force installations from Europe to Central Asia.

Why does America need all these facilities? The original Cold War goal of protecting European and Asian societies from communist threats and internal subversion has long ago been met, and many overseas U.S. bases are now redundant. What better time than now, when the United States faces fiscal calamity but few real military threats, to judiciously sort those that are truly needed from those the Pentagon can live without? It’s time to declare victory and go home.

Of course, the United States often has multiple aims in mind when it stations troops overseas. U.S. politicians tend to think of forward-presence forces as "critical enablers" — soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines who train with the host country and others. But another, usually unstated reason for their presence is that allies want to ensure the United States automatically becomes a co-belligerent in any future regional conflict, something that made sense when America’s allies confronted an existential threat from the Soviet Union, but not today. Future conflicts won’t look like those of the Cold War.

U.S. troops remained ashore in Europe and Asia long past the point when it was clear that a military presence was a needless drain on American resources. Today, new technology and a different mix of forces enables a lighter, less intrusive footprint. For instance, area control is no longer a mission that demands a large surface fleet on the World War II model. The U.S. nuclear submarine fleet augmented with fewer surface combatants employing long-range sensors, manned and unmanned aircraft, communications, and missiles can dominate the world’s oceans, ensuring the United States and its allies control access to the maritime domain that supports 91 percent of the world’s commerce.

In the Islamic world, the U.S.-led interventions were and remain speculative investments with questionable returns on taxpayers’ investments. For the moment, operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and more recently over Libya, have resulted in less and less funding available to reorganize and replace obsolescent, unsustainable, or worn-out Cold War-era forces designed for aerospace, maritime superiority, and ground combat — one more reason to end or drastically reduce U.S. involvement in those conflicts as soon as possible.

Fortunately, as U.S. ground forces withdraw from Afghanistan and Iraq, the appeal of the Islamists’ anti-American recruiting pitch will dramatically weaken, de-escalating the conflict. International cooperation combined with effective police action, border defenses, and immigration control is a far more economical way to prevent future large-scale terrorist action.

Estimated annualized savings from reorganizing the Army and Marine Corps: $18 billion

The changes in America’s overseas commitments must of necessity involve reductions in force structure and personnel inside the country’s general-purpose ground forces, currently bloated by the misguided and historically disproven counterinsurgency model. While U.S. ground forces withdraw over the next three years from their overseas garrisons, Congress should establish new end-strength ceilings for the combined active strength of the Army and Marine Corps: 600,000 active-duty service members (480,000 in the Army and 120,000 Marines).

As noted earlier, the proliferation of new strike weapons, conventional or nuclear, makes the massing of large ground forces extremely dangerous. Consequently, future ground combat forces must mobilize organic combat power that is disproportionate to their size and numbers and execute mobile, distributed, yet coherent joint operations. This description points toward Army and Marine ground forces designed for operations of limited duration and scope, forces that can be organized, trained, and equipped at far lower cost than mass armies created for long-term territorial occupation that beget second- and third-order budgetary effects we see in the current bloated "services and logistics" contracts, contracts that run into the billions of dollars over time.

Reductions in ground forces should also preserve and, where possible, increase the numbers of professional soldiers and Marines who can actually deploy and fight. This force transition must also be accompanied by an overall reduction in redundant or unnecessary overhead, support, and services force structure to increase the tooth-to-tail ratio and operational returns on military investments.

In a fiscally constrained environment, the country must re-examine the roles and missions of its land warfare services — the Army and Marine Corps. Reorganizing the manpower and capabilities in these large forces within an integrated, joint operational framework to provide a larger pool of ready, deployable ground forces on rotational readiness that can perform a range of missions is essential.

Estimated annualized savings from reductions in naval surface forces and Marine fixed-wing aviation: $10 billion

Command of the sea, which today includes the air and space above the surface and the water beneath it, is still the precondition for the exercise of effective influence beyond U.S. borders. Fortunately, there is no other power in the world that is able, or likely to be able, in the next quarter-century to build a fleet that could seriously challenge U.S. naval supremacy. This includes China.

However, the Navy needs a different mix of capabilities than it had during the last years of the Cold War, a mix based on reconfigured strike platforms, new platforms, and manned and unmanned submersibles with an increasingly deep operational focus. Ideally, the mix should include fewer giant aircraft carriers and more flexible ships — ships that are more easily sustained "forward" without the support of friendly, modern, deep-water harbors to improve operational agility and flexibility.

These points suggest Congress should direct the reduction of the Navy’s surface fleet from 11 to eight carrier battle groups over a period of 36 months and rebalance their home porting in acknowledgement of national priorities in the Pacific Command and Central Command areas of responsibility. This action would include concurrent "right-sizing" of all associated combatants, supporting vessels, forward deployed naval forces, and shipyards, depots, and other support facilities, excluding submarines. Combatant commanders should be directed to re-evaluate "presence versus surge" naval requirements given improved long-range precision strike and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities of smart presence alternatives.

Simultaneously, the Department of the Navy should be directed to disband the 20-plus Marine Corps F-18 fighter jet and AV-8B Harrier jet squadrons. Retire all the AV-8Bs and the older F/A-18s, retaining the newer F/A-18C/Ds and EA-6Bs until replaced with Navy aircraft. Reassign the carrier Marines to naval air groups until the remaining Marine jets are retired; and require the Marine Corps to call on the Navy and Air Force for tactical fixed-wing air cover. Marine manned aviation should be limited to an appropriate number of V-22 Ospreys or rotor-driven aircraft within the new end-strength limits. This approach enables reorganization of the United States’ three manned air forces — the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps — into two affordable air forces, one sea-based and one land-based.

Estimated annualized savings from eliminating the F-35B: $2.5 billion

Between 2003 and 2009, the U.S. Air Force cut 160 fighter/attack and 19 bombers from its active component. As a result of authorization bills in 2010, the Air Force will be required to retire about 300 older F-15, F-16, and A-10 aircraft without replacements until 2015. The cuts mandated as part of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) will probably result in the loss of a few more bombers.

Further cuts in U.S. aerospace power would seem ill-advised given the need to rely on air power during America’s withdrawal from its overseas commitments. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program, however, bears serious re-examination. At an average $92 million per plane, the JSF is very expensive for the capabilities it promises versus the performance it has delivered to date.

In practical terms, the JSF is an investment issue. Will Congress flush $44 billion of investment down the drain when the U.S. Armed Forces stand to receive at least some number of aircraft that are more capable than the very old F-16s and early-model F/A-18s? On the other hand, scaling back the complexity and size of the total buy is very reasonable and still saves a great deal of money. One way is to eliminate the F-35B version of the JSF for the Marines, especially given the disbandment of the Marine Corps jet aircraft wings. The development of a naval unmanned deep-penetrating strike capability mitigates operational risk in this approach.

Estimated annualized savings from reducing the number of unified commands and single service headquarters: $1 billion

Withdrawal of most of U.S. garrison forces (particularly its ground forces) from overseas will necessitate the elimination of many military commands. It also offers opportunities for savings through a modification of the current Unified Command Plan and U.S. Code Title 10 to reduce the current number of regional and functional unified commands from six to four. U.S. Northern Command and U.S. Southern Command would remain, but Mexico would fall into Southern Command’s area of responsibility. U.S. European Command and U.S. Africa Command should be reintegrated and relocated to the facilities formerly used by U.S. Joint Forces Command in Hampton Roads, Virginia, to be renamed U.S. Atlantic Command. Then, Central Command should be divided between Atlantic Command and Pacific Command by the end of fiscal 2012.

This approach would eliminate the four-star combatant command headquarters outside the United States and negate the flow-down justification of three-star and four-star single-service component commands aligned within, an action that is long overdue along with the deflation of the services’ general officer/admiral rank structure. As Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn notes, each of these commands have become beset by "requirements creep" without regard to the cost of capability, a pernicious effect of having so many people "in charge," demanding staff, resources, and authorities commensurate with their rank, instead of what the country needs.

In response to these actions, Congress should reduce all flag ranks in the bureaucracy by one star effective immediately. Exceptions to this mandate would be limited to the chiefs of service, regional unified commanders, and commanders of functional commands. Combined with the reduction in command overhead, this will assist in eliminating redundant single-service bureaucratic overhead and administration (uniform and civilian), especially in the setting of requirements and management of acquisitions. Again, U.S. Code Title 10 must be modified through new legislation to prevent continued duplication and inefficiency created by competitive bureaucracies. Simplified command structures that emphasize responsibility and accountability are always the keys to success in crisis or conflict.

Estimated annualized savings from eliminating the Department of Homeland Security and restructuring national intelligence and the Army National Guard: $7 billion

Inside the United States, it’s time to consider legislation eliminating the inefficient experiment that is the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The agencies combined under DHS at the time of its inception should return to their former departments, and its former national security responsibilities should shift to the Defense Department. Some may argue that this is not the role of the Pentagon. But the defense of the country includes land and sea borders — and employing the armed forces to secure those borders from threats originating in the nexus between transnational criminal and violent extremist organizations is explicitly stated in the preamble and Article I of the U.S. Constitution’s language of the "common defence." Defense of the country’s borders should not be hampered by a misapplication of posse comitatus, the prohibition on armed forces conducting law enforcement.

It also makes sense to begin disestablishing most of the armed forces’ duplications in separate intelligence services, transferring these capabilities to national intelligence agencies — retaining only operationally unique and tactical intelligence within the branches of the armed forces. Intelligence and related "black" programs have exploded in costs post-9/11 with dubious returns on these investments.

In addition, new federal legislation should be considered that prohibits the Army and Air National Guard from mobilizing for deployment beyond the borders of the United States — except in the event of a formal declaration of war. Once this legislation is on the books, the Army National Guard should discard most of its war-fighting equipment and convert its formations to a light, wheeled constabulary force designed for border security and domestic emergency/disaster relief inside the United States.

Estimated annualized savings from reducing political appointees and changing acquisition and military education: $2 billion

Other sources of potential savings in national defense exist and should be pursued. Given the current fiscal pressure, the Defense Department should consider affordable alternatives to meet threat requirements in the Air and Missile Defense portfolio. One option is to cancel the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS). The Affordable Near-Term Patriot solution is less than 10 percent of the projected $18 billion MEADS cost.

Congress should explore a one-third reduction in the number of political appointees to the Defense Department. In most cases, these appointees simply build larger bureaucratic empires underneath them to justify their activities. It would also help to disestablish service component acquisition executives, the individual service bureaucrats who buy equipment and services for the use of their respective services (Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marine Corps), and combine these staffs under the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics and legislatively abolish service-centric acquisition autonomy. It is disappointing how many times competing "service equities" are raised in arguments that end up trumping national strategic interests within the Pentagon. Fragmented acquisition authorities, granting a degree of autonomy to each service, are the principle enabler of this bad, inefficient behavior.

Finally, it is high time the armed forces consolidated the single-service war colleges into one integrated national defense college. At the same time, Congress should implement a merit-based selection system that requires examinations for entry, as well as graduation. Military education is expensive — and officers should be held accountable for their performance in it. This action would also set the tone for a much-needed reform movement to hold officers accountable across a range of military activities. Joint professional military education should not be a "check the box" exercise or an opportunity to lower one’s golf handicap. It should prepare future senior military leaders and weed out those who are intellectually and professionally incapable of meeting the challenge to perform.

Colonel (Ret.) Douglas Macgregor, U.S. Army, is a decorated combat veteran, and the author of five books. His latest book is Margin of Victory: Five Battles that Changed the Face of Modern War.

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