Defense Secretary Robert Gates in recent speeches has covered the waterfront of the financial challenges facing the defense establishment as well as the nation. He flatly stated that the United States is on a self-destructive path if it seeks to remain “militarily strong” while becoming “economically stagnant.”
With a budget of about $700 billion, the Defense Department is adding to our national economic problems with wasteful practices, overly large bureaucracies, and generous healthcare spending, Gates said, citing President Eisenhower as the conservative paradigm of fiscal and military restraint against which current practices should be measured.
Deputy Secretary William Lynn is now spearheading efforts to cut non-essential programs, reduce overhead accounts and improve efficiencies in the force structure and modernization accounts. The savings — in excess of $100 billion over the next five years — would be retained by the services and transferred to modernization and force structure accounts.
Within this budget discussion is Gates’ criticism of the services’ requirements process. The secretary has raised questions about the justification for the current number of carriers, large amphibious vessels, tactical fighters, C-17 cargo planes, the top-heavy military bureaucracy, burgeoning healthcare costs and an alternative fighter engine for the F-35.
He took the services, particularly the Navy, to task for a requirements process that asks for more than they need to do their jobs.
The subtext of these observations is that the services should re-examine current processes for determining their requirements for weapons systems.
But how does that really work? Are the services in fact guilty of padding their requirements?
The process works as follows: The services rely on the “national military strategy,” buoyed by war games, exercises and analyses, to determine the size of the force that is needed to meet the threats that the strategy laid out. This approach is designed to give U.S. forces a decided advantage. Some have said our objective is to win 100 to nothing. While this is an exaggeration, we still do not want a “fair fight.” That would result in lots of casualties on our side — an unacceptable outcome even if we eventually won. The service preference is for a low- to moderate-risk force.
In the Cold War, this planning process led to a requirement for 95 Air Force tactical fighter wings, 25 aircraft carriers, and a 600 ship Navy. We got to about 585 ships, but never came close to the planning force for fighters and carriers. What was kept secret at the time was that in war games against the Soviet Union, U.S. forces usually came up short. The U.S. Army was equal to the first wave of Soviet forces, but follow-on echelons began to wear heavily on our ground forces, which, while tactically and technologically superior, didn’t have the numbers. So U.S. forces did not meet the demands of the strategy. The United States had a high-risk force.
And this last point is important. The United States has had demanding military strategies. The services are responsible for equipping to that strategy. If the requirements and forces are too high or unaffordable, the strategy can always be adjusted downwards. What is unacceptable is to maintain a taxing strategy and to under-resource it. The recent Quadrennial Defense Review is an example of demanding strategic requirements. It did an excellent job in assessing and laying out the threats that had to be addressed, but it failed to prioritize how U.S. forces would deal with threats.
Finally, one must consider the geographic challenges of U.S. strategy. Most of our allies focus on defending their homelands. Few have a significant, sustained power projection requirement or capability. The United States, by contrast, aims to penetrate the enemy’s battle space, to dominate and to win. This philosophy drives requirements consideration well out of proportion to the size of the potential enemy’s force structure. The United States has worldwide force projection and presence requirements unlike any other nation. But if the price is too high, then we must adjust our interests abroad, our strategic concept for fighting and the strategy itself.
Secretary Gates makes one point that is unassailable: We must link budget expectations to the financial health of the nation. It is becoming clear that the present financial course of the United States is unsustainable, so the secretary is right to focus on overhead efficiencies so that we might get the real growth in force structure and modernization that our force planning demands. And it is inevitable that we might see reduced forces and structure in order to maintain force structure capabilities in the most critical areas.
But rather than say that we don’t need particular programs or capabilities, it would be better to say we must balance our forces in an optimal manner. And while that may require giving up some things we might like to have, we are prepared to accept the increased risk in order to make the overall best use of the financial resources available. This also means we will be willing to adjust the strategy to recognize the resource constraints.
Finally, one might quibble with one of the secretary’s statements in the speech he gave in May to the Navy League. He said that success “depends less on the quality of the hardware than on the quality of their leaders.” In fact the American dominance on the battlefield has always depended on three things: Quality of the recruits and leaders; technical superiority of equipment; and the superior training regimen of its forces. You need all three. Leadership is important, but it can’t make up for inferior capability or inferior numbers lacking superior equipment.
If we have decided to accept increased risk, we might as well say so and have the discussion and debate in those terms.