Lean, Mean Fighting Machine

How to slash the Pentagon budget? Declare victory and go home.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, said it best, "When waves of change appear, you can duck under the wave, stand fast against the wave, or, better yet, surf the wave." Today, the same tsunami-like wave of debt that threatens to sweep away American economic prosperity is headed for America’s defense establishment. President Barack Obama signaled as much with his April 13 budget address, in which he warned: "Just as we must find more savings in domestic programs, we must do the same in defense."

Obama gave no specifics, promising instead to work with the Pentagon to "conduct a fundamental review of America’s missions, capabilities, and our role in a changing world." But given the poor track record such reviews have — both Quadrennial Defense Reviews and Roles and Missions Commissions — and Obama’s failure to even address the need to reduce defense spending, the president’s words don’t deserve to be taken seriously at all. Meanwhile, the Republican failure to take on defense spending — the 800-pound gorilla in the room — means the political discourse that House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and his colleagues seek may degenerate into pointless shouting matches with Capitol Hill’s Democrats.

But the message for Republicans and Democrats alike should be that cutting defense doesn’t mean going defenseless. It means reducing America’s commitments overseas — the latter-day version of "imperial overstretch" — and changing the way the United States thinks about warfare. There’s a way to do this, one that will allow for deep spending cuts, but in a manner that will preserve and enhance the U.S. military’s competitive advantages while improving American national security.

Dealing with defense is admittedly a huge challenge. If directly questioned, the military brass will insist that given the missions they are obligated to undertake (along with a host of classified war plans they could be ordered to execute), reduced spending will put the Armed Forces and by implication the American people at grave risk. Then there’s the chorus: a host of defense think tanks inside the Beltway that point out that the opportunity costs associated with cuts in spending and force structure are either unknown or too high; that unless specific alternative military options or tradeoffs are identified up front, capability gaps will emerge with potentially serious consequences for U.S. national security. These arguments are not entirely without merit. But they hardly justify keeping defense spending at current levels.

For one thing, there is no existential military threat to the United States or to its vital strategic interests. The nuclear arsenals in Russia and China could be used against the United States and its forces, but Russian and Chinese leaders have no incentive to contemplate suicide in a nuclear confrontation with the United States. Russia’s diminished million-man armed forces are hard-pressed to modernize, let alone secure their own country, which borders 14 other states. For all its rhetoric, Russia’s military focus is on restive Muslim populations in the Caucasus and Central Asia, not on NATO.

As for China, its top concern is not military confrontation with the United States, but domestic growing pains, especially the potential for its 1.3 billion people to overwhelm the Communist Party’s internal political structures. China’s internal focus on modernization and stability militates against external aggression, and this condition is unlikely to change for a very long time. Despite China’s ability to steal or buy sophisticated technology, the military establishment cannot quickly or easily translate these technologies into new capabilities, and Beijing knows it.

Other possible threats are even less threatening. The North Korean regime, the poster child for the failure of state socialism, is on the road to extinction. In recent months, China has taken steps to secure its border with North Korea to ensure that millions of starving Koreans cannot rush north into China when the inevitable collapse occurs. Iran is a long way from possessing a nuclear weapon it can deliver, and its general-purpose forces are incapable of action beyond Iran’s borders. Lastly, the world’s leading scientific-industrial states — most of Europe, Japan, South Korea, and the leading English-speaking powers, Britain, Australia, and Canada — are close U.S. allies. All of their economies can and do support powerful military establishments.

What about the possibility that U.S. forces will be needed once again in the broader Middle East? Events in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and other parts of the Islamic world demonstrate that while many of the societies in the Middle East and North Africa are broken and their people are angry about it, these problems have nothing to do with the United States. The complex cultural problems plaguing the region, from state failure to persistent social pathologies to trouble adapting to modernity, will not be solved through U.S. military occupation and counterinsurgency operations aimed at exporting democracy at gunpoint. The million dollars a year it costs to keep one U.S. soldier or Marine on station in Iraq or Afghanistan makes no sense when, for a fraction of the cost, the U.S. government could easily protect America’s borders from the wave of criminality, terrorism, and illegal immigration washing in from Mexico and Latin America.

Future conflicts in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America will not be insurgencies directed at unwanted U.S. military occupations. They are more likely to resemble the Balkan wars of the early 20th century, except that fights for regional power and influence will overlap with competition for energy, water, food, and mineral resources — and the wealth they create. The United States can probably avoid involvement in these conflicts, but if its strategic interests compel intervention, America can do so with fewer, more potent ground forces than the ones it has today, capitalizing on its aerospace and naval supremacy.

Military strength is no longer based on the mass mobilization of the manpower and resources of the entire nation-state. Fewer, smarter soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines — with intelligent technology — can accomplish more than masses of troops with the brute-force tools of the past. Precision effects (kinetic and non-kinetic) utilizing a vast array of strike forces enabled by networked intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities point the way to a fundamental paradigm shift in the character of warfare. For example, today a military contest on the model of Kursk in July 1943, a battle that involved nearly 940,000 attacking German and Allied forces and 1.5 million defending Soviet forces in a geographical area the size of England, would result in catastrophic losses for the Soviet side. That’s why those numbers you read about Chinese or Russian troops are less worrisome than they seem. Any future ground combat force that immobilizes itself in prepared defenses on the World War II model will be identified, targeted, and annihilated from a distance. Naval forces that concentrate large numbers of surface combatants risk similar losses in a future increasingly dominated by accurate strike weapons from various manned or unmanned platforms at sea and ashore.

What’s needed now is more political courage, not more defense spending. It will fall to America’s elected and appointed leaders to direct the Defense Department to aggressively accept more risk in reconciling defense expenditures with the country’s urgent fiscal situation. Above all, members of Congress must have the fortitude to challenge the misguided hand-wringing inside the Beltway and put the country’s long-term economic and defense interests ahead of winning the next election.

What is to be done?

Before turning to specific cuts, members of Congress should acknowledge that it is unacceptable to expend trillions of dollars for defense when the Defense Department cannot conduct an audit, let alone pass one. The only way to address this problem is to implement a statutory prohibition halting funding for defense beyond fiscal year 2014 until an audit is passed. If the Pentagon doesn’t know where the money is going, how can American taxpayers feel confident that their hard-earned dollars are being spent wisely?

It’s high time for something new. What follows here is a plan — arguably, somewhat radical — to finally spend wisely and reconfigure the military for the threats of the 21st century. The annualized savings presented here would reduce the current U.S. defense budget by almost 40 percent, some $279.5 billion. This isn’t just an accounting exercise, however. What’s needed is new strategic thinking, thinking that avoids direct U.S. military involvement in conflicts where the United States itself is not attacked and its national prosperity is not at risk.

As French sociologist Émile Durkheim said, "Society is above all the idea it forms of itself." For Americans who have lived in a world with only one true center of military, political, and economic gravity — the United States — changing how their country behaves inside the international system is not an easy task. The temptation to meddle in the affairs of others is huge, especially when the perceived risk-to-reward ratio is low.

Put in the language of tennis, the use of U.S. military power since the early 1960s has resulted in a host of "unforced errors." Far too often, national decision-making has been shaped primarily by the military capability to act, not by rigorous risk assessment. Regardless of how great or small the military commitment, if success is ill-defined and the price of intervention is potentially excessive, then the use of force should be avoided. America has waited too long to learn this hard lesson.

Continue Reading: A Radical Plan for Cutting the Defense Budget

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