Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Beware Penny-Wise, Pound-Foolish Defense Cuts — Like ROTC Closures

When the Defense Department has to make cuts of the magnitude it currently faces, it no longer has the luxury of cutting waste, fraud, and abuse. It must weigh cuts to muscle and, perhaps, to bone. The U.S. military has entered that phase. Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno reports that he has only two brigades that ...

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

When the Defense Department has to make cuts of the magnitude it currently faces, it no longer has the luxury of cutting waste, fraud, and abuse. It must weigh cuts to muscle and, perhaps, to bone.

The U.S. military has entered that phase. Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno reports that he has only two brigades that are combat-ready. He says he hopes to improve that number next year, but it is hard to see how when national security planning continues to operate against the backdrop of perpetual fiscal crisis and the sequester straitjacket.

When training and readiness take such hits, it is hard to argue for other desiderata like preserving the military's connection to a broad cross-section of American society. Thus, if the collapse in readiness is shrugged at by the odd alliance of fiscal hawks and anti-military/pro-domestic spending politicos who defend the defense cuts, I do not expect much outrage at reports that ROTC will drop its program at 13 colleges and universities. But those cuts are lamentable and, in the long run, likely not good for American civil-military relations. 

When the Defense Department has to make cuts of the magnitude it currently faces, it no longer has the luxury of cutting waste, fraud, and abuse. It must weigh cuts to muscle and, perhaps, to bone.

The U.S. military has entered that phase. Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno reports that he has only two brigades that are combat-ready. He says he hopes to improve that number next year, but it is hard to see how when national security planning continues to operate against the backdrop of perpetual fiscal crisis and the sequester straitjacket.

When training and readiness take such hits, it is hard to argue for other desiderata like preserving the military’s connection to a broad cross-section of American society. Thus, if the collapse in readiness is shrugged at by the odd alliance of fiscal hawks and anti-military/pro-domestic spending politicos who defend the defense cuts, I do not expect much outrage at reports that ROTC will drop its program at 13 colleges and universities. But those cuts are lamentable and, in the long run, likely not good for American civil-military relations. 

Fiscal considerations aside, my preference is for as large and distributed an ROTC system as possible. ROTC can help bring diversity — intellectual, demographic, and regional diversity — into the military. Of course, the service academies can provide that too. But ROTC enjoys one advantage that no service academy can match: It provides unrivaled connections to broader civilian society. All the roommates, hall-mates, and classmates of the officers who are commissioned through the service academies are themselves part of the military institution. Not so for ROTC.

This is why I am especially worried that a green-eyeshade mentality seeking "maximum efficiency" may shrink ROTC down to just a few mega-programs that produce huge numbers of future officers — essentially mini-service academies at the handful of large schools that could sustain such a program (e.g., Texas A&M). Viewed through the narrowest of lenses, one can see why it is tempting to save on overhead by cutting a tiny program at, say, one of the elite Ivy League institutions (or my own Duke, for that matter) and making up the difference as needed by adding more ROTC accessions to the larger schools.

What is lost when that happens is the diversity of the elite-trained officer. That is worth something. Worth even more, I would argue, is the lost elite-trained nonmilitary friends of those officers: the roommates and hall-mates — future leaders in business, politics, education, and popular culture — who now have at least one close friend serving in the military, whereas otherwise they might have none.

Looking at the list of ROTC programs cut this time, it is clear that they avoided targeting such elite programs, at least in this round. I do not know enough about the ROTC programs at these schools to determine whether they were the right ones to cut. Perhaps, if there had to be ROTC cuts, these were the ones to make if you were determined to preserve as broad a cross-section of connections between the military and American society as you could. But any cuts in ROTC exacerbate this general problem, and I worry that the next round will have even worse side effects.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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