The international environment and its threats and dangers have dramatically transformed from well-armed military forces and states with aggressive and expansive designs to smaller, ideologically motivated groups relying on terror and non-military means to achieve their aims.
U.S. and allied defense and security forces must assimilate and respond to these profound shifts.
And, while the distant dangers of a rejuvenated Russia challenge or China as a peer competitor are possible, it is too early to use either as the major basis for sizing and shaping our military.
Senior Pentagon leaders at the highest level understand that the U.S. Defense Department faces a massive budget crisis.
Including not just annual defense budgets and supplementals to pay for the wars, but nuclear weapons programs, intelligence, veterans’ benefits and the projected expense of caring for hundreds of thousands of retirees and those physically or mentally wounded in battle, the bill approaches $1 trillion a year.
With a $15 trillion gross domestic product, that is about 6.5 percent, sustainable in a growing or prospering economy.
That isn’t the current case.
Within the Pentagon, the most expensive budget item is people. Those costs, depending on how retirement and healthcare are calculated, grow roughly 3-4 percent a year and consume about half of spending, again sensitive to what is included.
The costs of weapons systems have escalated sometimes exponentially as technology advances; regulation and oversight layers pile on adding expense; and commanders’ urgent operational requirements in the field for specific equipment are met sometimes irrespective of costs to ensure our fighting men and women are supplied with the best there is. And there is excess and waste such as bottled water costing $800 a gallon to reach forward operating bases in Afghanistan.
Another cost driver has been the Pentagon becoming the default position for assuming tasks and burdens that should go to other departments of government that for whatever reasons lack the resources or capacity to assume those responsibilities.
Hence, in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military had no choice but to undertake what is called nation building in implementing local government, community infrastructure projects and other civil support roles.
As a consequence and despite lip service toward a whole of government approach to security, the Pentagon must be relieved of many of these default assignments and other departments and agencies held accountable and responsible.
The United States has more than 1.5 million active duty military personnel and just less than 900,000 reserves and guardsmen. A new strategy or organizing construct would be to reshape and focus capabilities around four functions: traditional combat operations in so-called high-intensity wars against more-or-less like-armed adversaries; “small wars” defined to include counterinsurgent, counter-terror and supporting operations that may ultimately lead to enhanced training and assisting roles noted next; train and assist partners and friends to enhance their capability; and reconstitution, that is the capacity to field additional forces commensurate with new or emerging threats.
Over the course of some years, the total number of active duty forces would be reduced to about 1 million and some functions such as reconstitution possibly shifted to the reserves.
Regarding reconstitution, placing forces such as carrier battle groups; brigade combat teams; and tactical fighter wings in a stand down, “cadre” or inactive status with much lower levels of manning sufficient to conduct maintenance and limited training isn’t new.
Instead of replacing those forces as has been the case in the past with new procurement, maintaining them in a standby status will provide a capacity for restoring them to full operational capability should circumstances require.
Greater emphasis would be put on enhancing intelligence/special forces/law enforcement coordination and cooperation including funding to support these capabilities.
And, as opposed to deploying substantial forces to regions around the world as we have in the past, tailored and focused use of train and assist teams to serve in global locales would substitute in part for large scale military exercises and deployments reshaping how the United States is building and using this newer tool kit.
Obviously, reductions in budgets and people including the consequences for a still large defense industrial base must be made with great care. Providing a predictable glide slope for industry in terms of future programs and means to help service personnel transition out of the forces are essential and will not be cost free.
However, the combination of reductions in numbers; how forces are deployed and prepared; reliance on reconstitution; and the intent to use minimal rather than maximum force in many circumstances should conform to likely budgets and possibly draconian cuts.
Most important are people. The No. 1 priority is to ensure that our forces of the future are as prepared and professional for that very different world as they are today. But it is and will be a very different world.
Harlan Ullman is Senior Advisor at the Atlantic Council, Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business, and a frequent advisor to NATO. This article was syndicated by UPI.