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 June 2006 

Lt. Gen. Lawrence P. Farrell, Jr., USAF (Ret)

Defense Debate Must Recognize Tough Realities

June 2006

by Lt. Gen. Lawrence P. Farrell, Jr., USAF (Ret)


What has passed lately for important political debate at the national level has been more focused on rhetorical back-and-forth than real treatment of critical issues.

And a paramount issue that deserves national attention is the work our military forces are doing in the global war on terrorism, and what they are telling us about their needs for resources — be it equipment, technology, people or training.

A quick look at the facts paints a picture of a competent force that is working hard against a tough enemy, while confronting daunting challenges on the battlefield. Our Army has around 615,000 troops in active status. About 137,000 of those are at war. And close to 40 percent are deployed overseas. Many of these troops are rotating into combat every 15 to 19 months. The Army’s goal is to set a predicable schedule for active-duty soldiers to deploy every three years, and for the Guard and Reserves to deploy only once every six years. The Army has a modularity initiative that will help realize these goals, but that will take some time to fully mature.

The Marine Corps, for its part, has more than 30,000 troops deployed to war from a force size of nearly 180,000.

Although the Air Force and Navy are not as stressed, one has only to look back at the approximately 12 years of air patrols over Iraq — between 1991 and 2003. During that time, many Air Force units performed seven to 10 tours of duty in the “sand box.” Air wings aboard Navy carrier battle groups can claim a comparable number of tours.

The need for a national discussion on the state of our military was highlighted by Air Force Gen. Norton Schwartz, head of the U.S. Transportation Command. In presentations to recent NDIA conferences in Miami and Atlanta, Schwartz made insightful observations on this topic. One of his points, in particular, stuck with me. He described Americans, in general, as “a good and decent people” who are largely disconnected from the realities of military service.

That is something we all feel down in our gut, but rarely say. It reminds us of the courageous, selfless, patriotic young men and women who represent this “good and decent people” on the battlefields of the world. And we are in a fight that will likely continue in some form or another for many years. If our forces are stressed now, the strain is not likely to let up any time soon.

In the defense industry, specifically, there is a clear need for long-term thinking and careful planning. The current political climate — dominated by “gotchas” and gimmicks to score near-term gains — should not jeopardize our ability to focus on the mission of providing the best equipment for present and future fights.

One argument often heard in congressional hearings and think tank policy papers is that the Defense Department is supporting and buying too many “cold war” systems. Critics question the need to acquire new jet fighters, such as the Air Force F-22 and the Joint Strike Fighter, or next-generation Navy destroyers, when there is no real peer competitor on the horizon. But you can be sure that if a nation doesn’t plan to be competitive — or even stay ahead of a notional peer competitor — it is likely to not just be challenged, but to be surpassed.

Despite pressing concerns about ongoing wars and prospects of declining budgets, we can’t ignore the reality that a proper defense posture for the United States means having a full spectrum of military capabilities.

Therein lies the challenge for us as a nation, as a security establishment and as an industry. How do we manage near-term priorities for urban and irregular warfare, and other solutions for the global war on terrorism, but still maintain and advance those high-end capabilities that potentially are required to confront a nation with a military force as well supplied and as sophisticated as our own?

This dilemma becomes especially compelling given the age, and wear-and-tear our systems currently experience. Urgent needs continue for technologies to counter the threat of improvised explosive devices, improved sensors, reconnaissance assets and timely distribution of information at the lower echelons.

Fundamental decisions lie ahead, and tough choices must be made. But these choices — whether to cancel or slow down production of key programs — will be ones of necessity, and budget-driven in most cases.

For that reason, we have to recognize, understand and plan for the increased risk that these choices will certainly entail. The debate and discussion will be extremely important and critical to our future security. The industry has to be a full partner in that debate. Industry’s input will be essential in the process of setting requirements, accomplishing meaningful acquisition reform and delivering systems to the field more expeditiously.

Those who work these problems every day know just how hard the technical and operational issues are. But also recognizing how hard American troops are working and the sacrifices they and their families make every day — and are likely to be making into the foreseeable future — should inspire us to redouble the efforts and to work smarter.

This war business is tough stuff, and is not likely to get any easier. Let’s keep our focus on the important issues, and remember that while the debate rages around us, someone has to actually solve real problems and deliver real capability.

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