When questioned about America's ability to conduct successful operations in the Persian Gulf and on the Korean Peninsula, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld responded confidently, "We are perfectly capable of doing that which is necessary." This answer set off a firestorm of debate over what America's military capabilities really are and what they should be.
While the United States could respond in some form to any threat to its national security, it is not optimally prepared. Changing this will not be an overnight proposition and will require that the U.S. set priorities and spend wisely.
Top Priorities for America's Armed Forces. Due to the emerging gap between capabilities and strategy caused by the ongoing war against terrorism and the increasing necessity to present credible fighting forces for the Middle East and Korea, it is necessary to prioritize the nation's national security concerns. This means that America's armed forces must, at a minimum, be prepared to:
- Fight the immediate war on terrorism,
- Fight with little or no warning in unanticipated places,
- Maintain adequate capability to deter aggression against America's allies, and
- Contribute to homeland defense.
Achieving Transformation with Limited Resources. Significant investments must be made both in modernizing existing weapon platforms to hedge against today's threats and in research, development, and acquisition programs to prepare for tomorrow's wars. Since the United States has limited wealth with which to fulfill all current and future requirements, the Bush Administration must establish clear principles for modernizing the U.S. military so that the world's best fighting force remains prepared for the uncertain challenges of tomorrow.
Concentrating Resources on Increasing Combat Capabilities. The armed forces could increase near-term combat capability by minimizing non-combat activities and shifting those resources to more urgent requirements. For example, the United States maintains approximately 8,000 personnel dedicated to Balkan peacekeeping. By reducing America's commitment in the Balkans, the Administration could apply both the monetary savings and the personnel to increasing the near-term combat capabilities of the armed forces.
The Pentagon could also increase its warfighting capability by reducing uniformed personnel's commitment to non-combat roles. The reality is that every service member in a non-warfighting role is one less soldier in the fighting force. Obviously, some uniformed personnel are needed to fulfill certain non-warfighting missions, but those activities should be kept to a minimum.
The Department of Defense could achieve greater efficiency and capability by investing in low-supply assets that are in high demand and by decreasing non-defense spending within the defense budget. In each year's defense budgeting process, Congress earmarks or adds billions of dollars for non-defense spending. Finally, accelerating the process of base closings would allow more funds to be directed to useful purposes. While closing excess bases would cost $10 billion up front, the long-term savings would be significant.
Increasing Air, Land, and Sea Capabilities. Ultimately, decisions about weapon systems must be made. The immediate focus of modernization efforts should be on acquiring new technology that allows weapons to operate with less support. This holds true for each of the services.
Although the size of the Air Force in terms of manpower (353,600), fighter squadrons (46), and bombers (112) is sufficient, the Pentagon could do better at advancing a modernization strategy consistent with today's threats and tomorrow's dangers.
In general, the Army's current force should be sufficient to meet the nation's national security requirements if it carries out a smart modernization strategy. The problem for the Army has been resolving the conflict between maintaining its relevance to a changing security environment and keeping focused on its most important mission: to take and hold land. Furthermore, it must now squeeze more capability out of its already stretched force so that it can fulfill its homeland security requirements.
Regarding sea power, the United States depends on 12 aircraft carriers to maintain America's global forward presence and maximize deterrence, crisis response, and warfighting abilities. In addition to providing deep strike capability, air cover for invading forces, air defenses, and other maritime capabilities, these carriers serve as joint command platforms in the worldwide command-and-control network. Given the many crisis areas around the world, there are not enough carrier battle groups available to respond to every potential contingency. Increasing the number of aircraft carriers, however, is not the answer to relieving the stress on naval force structure. Instead, the Navy should develop new platforms that supplement the aircraft carrier battle group to ease the strain on those assets.
Getting the most out of the armed forces' weaponry, however, will require a high-tech information infrastructure. All of these systems may require far less manpower, logistical support, and money to deliver the same amount of capability as current systems, but to achieve real transformation, the Pentagon needs to commit to information technology.
Jack Spencer is Senior Policy Analyst for Defense and National Security in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.