The Reckoning

On Defense, Silver Linings, Golden Opportunities

Artist's concept of CVN-78, a new class of aircraft carriers.
Artist’s concept of CVN-78, a new class of aircraft carriers.
Photograph by U.S. Navy.

Gloom and doom from one side, glee and visions of sugar plum fairies from the other: As usual, the Pushmi-pullyu beast that is America’s political elite has it exactly wrong as it weighs the dire (or wondrous) implications of “Draconian” cuts facing the U.S. armed forces over the next decade. 

With each side eyeing the supposedly automatic cuts in military spending amounting to $600 billion over the next decade, scare-mongers will build the nascent threat of China’s military into a goliath while politicians whose worldview automatically ranks “defense” as less important than, say, “high speed rail” will seek to make those cuts stick.* Between the two polls, pols eyeing jobs and defense contracts in their home districts will weigh in, too, guaranteeing that, unless a more informed conversation displaces the current one, whatever happens on this issue will be misshapen, hacked, and contorted to suit ideological and pork barrel considerations, not the strategic needs of a great nation in relative decline.

Missing, so far, from the conversation that most of the American public has been exposed to is this question: What should the United States military be asked to accomplish in the first half of the 21st century, and is the awesome force slogging away in Iraq, Afghanistan, and, in more routine missions, across the planet properly organized, equipped, and trained to accomplish it?

Following 9/11, the Bush administration punted on this question, though before the attacks Rumsfeld had indicated he planned a significant rethink of America’s global footprint and capabilities. This effort, which went by the wonky moniker “defense transformation,” ultimately became conflated (and tarnished) by the completely separate and ultimately disastrous decisions taken by Rumsfeld and his commanders to try and invade and occupy two countries in Asia with a force roughly the size of the one that invaded the island of Okinawa in 1945.

But the transformation that began during the late 1990s, aimed at pushing the military to evolve the Cold War-era divisions and air wings that dominated it at the time into a force more in tune with 21st century missions and (it was presumed at the time) lower appropriation levels, had real intellectual value. With cuts in the wind and ground wars like Iraq and Afghanistan unlikely to recur any time soon, that debate deserves to restart.

For good reason, this debate got backburnered as counterinsurgency, urban combat, and other tasks the military thought it had left behind in Vietnam demanded fresh attention. But some on the intellectual side of the armed forces kept the idea, known as the “Revolution in Military Affairs,” alive, and while it remains on life support, the basic outlines exist of a “win-win” plan to maximize capabilities while reducing the bloated Pentagon budget.

Let’s set aside the political reality that Washington already is racing, like Jack Bauer in a particularly gray and bureaucratic episode of “24,” to defuse the automatic cuts. Let’s assume we use that figure—$600 billion over the next 10 years—as a baseline for cuts.

With the winding down of the Iraq and Afghan wars, and rational streamlining of the out-of-control Pentagon bureaucracy, radical reform can achieve a “have the cake and eat it too” solution. This, necessarily, is an incomplete list, and each item can be debated (and, I hope, will be). But, in my view, here’s how it’s done:

First, the U.S. must strive at all costs to never again to deploy a massive ground force in Asia. As both current wars indicate, (not to mention the Korean and Vietnam conflicts that preceded them), the problems logistical, cultural, and political involved are beyond our ability to fathom going in, and in neither place has the sacrifice of American lives and treasure guaranteed a good outcome in the long run.

Instead, the US must play to its own strengths: Naval and air capabilities should take priority, with a renewed focus on ships and in the air on reducing personnel demands through automation. Personnel, not weapons or even red tape, is the Pentagon’s largest structural cost. Less here is more, and as former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates noted, there are billions to be saved.

The Army should be reduced both in global footprint and overall size, exiting from Europe entirely and ceding its post-Afghanistan operations in the Middle East to a slightly expanded Marine Corps. Army spending should favor Special Operations Forces, which more than proved their worth in the past decade, and more intensive training of the Army’s reserve units, where pay should be kept at levels that make reserve service attractive across the U.S. socioeconomic spectrum.

The Navy should cease construction of the Ford-class aircraft carriers and its purchase of the carrier-borne version of the F-35 Lighting II warplanes. R&D should shift to the development of smaller platforms that house pilotless drones of much greater range than the current 800 mile reach of piloted naval aircraft, with existing, very expensive Nimitz-class carriers mothballed as these newer platforms come on line. (Anything less than an 800 mile range makes America’s carrier force vulnerable to a new generation of anti-shipping missiles deployed by China (and inevitably, eventually, by others).

If Britain, France, Australia, or even India wants to purchase one of our surplus large-deckers, we should be happy to sell one to them. Meanwhile, in one of the few areas that China could actually compete with the U.S. militarily in the next 30 years, development of nuclear attack submarines should continue apace.

U.S. diplomats should launch a new, aggressive effort pursue deeper cuts in the expensive and redundant U.S. and former Soviet nuclear arsenals, with a new emphasis on engaging second tier players, particularly China, India, and Pakistan, in global talks. Spending on missile defense systems should be made contingent on actual capabilities, and the agencies currently involved in separate initiatives—including the U.S. Space Command, Air Force Global Strike Command, the Missile Defense Agency and the U.S. Army Space and Missile Command—merged into a single, cost effective U.S. Missile Command.

The Air Force, like the Navy, should begin to phase out piloted combat aircraft and consider early retirement, in particular, of strategic bombers and deep-strike aircraft. The Marine Corps and Army should phase out aviation altogether, relying on Navy and Air Force assets for their requirements.

As ground capabilities go, the Army should continue the phase out its remaining heavy armor in favor of lighter, more deployable forces, retaining at most a single heavy armored brigade for contingencies and, within reason, transferring surplus M1A3 Abrams tanks to allies that actually need them: Germany, France, Poland, India, and South Korea.

The Marine Corps, which conducted a very thorough force structure review released last March, should retain its current structure, growing from 186,000 to 210,000 to support a third active Marine Expeditionary Brigade (which requires about a dozen naval vessels as support ships).

Shifts like these would take a decade or more and would be painful to those who have devoted their careers to piloting warplanes, tank warfare, or directing aircraft carrier operations. But the country has been here before, as cavalry gave way to motorized units, battleships to carriers and supersonic bombers to subsonic stealth technology. The bright side is that these older, legacy systems have built in operational costs that no longer justify their existence. With the right debate, the United States can get the defense it needs, at a price it can afford.

When it comes to our military affairs, viva la revolution!

Follow me (The Unraveler) on Twitter and preorder my book, “The Reckoning: Debt, Democracy and the Future of American Power,” coming in April from Palgrave Macmillan.

Correction, Dec. 5, 2011: This blog post originally described the defense cuts as totaling $600 million. They are $600 billion. (Return to the corrected sentence.)