America’s Strategic Drift

America’s national-security policy is strategically adrift. But that’s nothing new. The ambiguity began more than 20 years ago, with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

During the Cold War, the threat posed by the Soviets’ conventional and nuclear forces drove Washington’s defense programming and budgetary decisions. The collapse of the USSR, coupled with the failure of successive presidents to redefine America’s security strategy in the post-Soviet era, ultimately led to a lapse in the practice of linking force-planning assessments to articulated threats and missions. Over time, this departure enabled partisan and fractious political debates to drive the discussion of defense policy. The result: dissonance today over what is, and is not, defense planning.

Worsening global threats, the impact of increased operational tempo on the armed forces, and an increasingly under-resourced defense budget have only exacerbated this strategic drift, making a reorientation of defense priorities ever more urgent. But getting back on track requires that we first understand the nature of the problem.

The lack of force planning, a problem since 1993, has been greatly exacerbated over the past four years. The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), the Defense Strategic Guidance, the Strategic Choices and Management Review, and the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review all purported to provide a substantive foundation for strategic choices. In reality, these documents fail at their main purpose. They reflect the fiscal and political pressures of their day, not rational, threat-based defense planning. This failure makes these reports, for all intents and purposes, budget-driven and strategically shallow exercises. Allowing budget constraints to dictate force planning puts the budgetary cart before the strategic horse.

Even before the severe spending cuts imposed on the Pentagon by the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA), the Obama administration had presided over successive reductions in the defense budgets. During 2009 and 2010, the administration asked for $400 billion worth of cuts in planned spending. These initial cuts, in addition to the BCA sequestration, have produced significant shortfalls in defense spending. The idea of taking a peace dividend while the country is still at war should make every American cringe. As it is, the Department of Defense suffers pressures from both top-line budget reduction (the overall funding available for defense) and automatic increased costs of many of the elements that compose the defense budget, from unconstrained acquisition costs, to rising personnel obligations, to underutilized bases that cannot be closed.

As much as the Obama administration might want to believe otherwise, America’s armed forces are, and will remain, heavily engaged around the world. American troops are still fighting in Afghanistan and have been recently redeployed to Iraq and Syria. The administration is attempting, and properly so, to shift additional resources to the Western Pacific as part of its “rebalance.” The armed forces are engaged in counterterrorism in numerous places around the world. Continuing force requirements, in conjunction with NATO, remain in Japan and South Korea. America’s armed forces also remain on call for crisis response to disasters such as Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.

While there was an increase in defense spending following 9/11, it did not result in the kind of military buildup that took place during the Reagan years. Large portions of the increased budget of the Department of Defense were dedicated to the increased cost of maintaining an aging inventory, the growth in compensation and benefits for military personnel and retirees, and fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The funding increase was not used to develop systems geared toward fighting the wars of the future, and we are facing this stark reality today.
 
Worsening Global Threats

Despite the fall of the Soviet Union, the world has not become a safer place. The threats to American security at home and core interests abroad have morphed and multiplied. No longer is risk concentrated in a great-power competition. In today’s world, a myriad of actors, big and small, threaten American security and interests.

Future challenges are increasingly shaped by the People’s Republic of China, its robust military modernization, its increasing territorial disputes with its neighbors, and its pursuit of regional hegemony. The Chinese government has massively increased its military budget and invested in its nuclear arsenal, naval fleet, and air- and sea-based missiles. The Chinese are developing capabilities that will enable them to disrupt American targets and interests in the Pacific. In the future, China represents the pacing-state competitor – the threat that should drive defense planning – to American interests in the region.

Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine signals its intention of using force to change national borders, with clear and troubling implications for the future of NATO. Russia’s provocations have spotlighted the weakness of our European allies. As the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel (QDR Panel) found, Europe can no longer be considered a “net security provider.”

The threat of Islamist terrorism that struck America on 9/11 has not gone away. In fact, according to the QDR Panel, it is higher than it was on September 10, 2001. Not only does the al-Qaeda threat persist, it now encompasses a greater number of terrorist groups over a larger expanse of the world. According to Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, in 2004 there were 21 Islamic terrorist groups in 18 countries; now there are 41 such groups in 24 countries. New organizations such as the Islamic State are potentially even deadlier than al-Qaeda.

The government in Iran still pursues nuclear weapons, still blatantly and regularly violates human rights, still believes that Israel has no right to exist, and still funds proxy forces to achieve its state goals. The fundamental problems with the Iranian regime have not changed over the past six years and have in fact metastasized. Even as world powers resume negotiations on a long-term resolution to the Iranian nuclear issue, there is little reason to expect that Iran will take the November deadline any more seriously than it has previous deadlines. In short, Iran represents a regional threat that has the potential to destabilize the Middle East, with implications for the whole world. Iran benefits from America’s new focus on the Islamic State and seeks to use this window to fundamentally alter the geopolitical balance of power. North Korea continues to build nuclear weapons and improve its intercontinental ballistic missiles while regularly threatening war against the United States and its allies. The QDR Panel report warned that “a war on the Korean peninsula or an internal crisis ending in the collapse of the North Korean regime” is a very real possibility that would place inordinate strain on the armed forces. The U.S. needs to be prepared to deal with the geopolitical fallout in the event of either scenario.
 
Cracks Starting to Show

Congress is a creature of habit. Under fiscal or political pressure, it is easy to argue that cuts in military modernization can be made in any year without seriously damaging the efficacy of the armed forces. The problem, however, occurs when the same argument is repeated year after year through budget gimmicks and political maneuvering. What follows is what we’ve come to witness: the steady deterioration of military capability, capacity, and readiness without any real public debate or reasoned attempt at avoiding bad decisions or at least minimizing their impact.

A decade of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan coupled with successive budget cuts has left the services inadequately sized and equipped to meet ever-worsening global threats. Much of the military’s equipment is old, unreliable, and increasingly obsolete. The average age of aircraft in the U.S. Air Force inventory, for example, is 27 years. Depending upon their usage, most aircraft have an initial lifespan of 20 to 30 years — meaning that the majority of Air Force assets are reaching the end of their intended service life. Meanwhile, the military gets smaller each year.

Readiness continues to decline across the services due to funding shortages for training and maintenance. Secretary of the Army John McHugh and Chief of Staff of the Army General Raymond Odierno testified that due to sequestration, “80 percent of the Army is considered to be at a ‘lower readiness level.’” Sequestration caused many Air Force fighter and bomber units to stop training; today, fewer than half of those units have returned to readiness status. Additionally, Marine Corps commandant James Amos testified that more than 60 percent of non-deployed units are experiencing degraded readiness in their ability to execute core missions. These shortcomings pose a serious risk to our service members and to our national security. The QDR Panel went so far as to say: “In fact — and this bears emphasis — we believe that unless recommendations of the kind we make in this Report are adopted, the armed forces of the United States will in the near future be at high risk.” There should be no doubt that unless we change the course of current defense policies, the military will not be able to execute the strategic guidance at acceptable levels of risk. Moreover, America’s overwhelming battlefield superiority — the principle that we don’t fight fair fights — will further erode, further endangering our troops and limiting our options.

Rebuilding America’s National Security

So how do we get back on the path to sustainable and rational defense priorities? The minimum required to begin rebuilding American national security, at least according to the QDR Panel, is a return to the funding baseline proposed in the Gates FY 2012 defense budget. However, this baseline proposal should not be understood as a panacea — it simply represents a bare minimum for reversing the trend of the nation’s defense policies. The QDR Panel Report acknowledges that events over the past three years make it likely that the funding baseline proposed in the Gates 2012 defense budget will be insufficient.

Congress and the president must also act to remedy the military’s near-term readiness shortfall. Existing training and sustainment shortfalls throughout the military services limit the forces that are available and ready for decisive action. Ultimately this restricts our ability to respond to national-security crises. Given worsening threats, this introduces unacceptable risk.

It is also essential that national decision-makers halt planned reductions in force size. Across the board, the military services are suffering from deficits in needed ships, aircraft, and end strength. Although the Navy’s top brass, for example, was able to mask this problem earlier this year by revising the way it counts ships, the service’s actual battle force remains woefully inadequate, and further declines are inevitable under the current budget baseline.

But the Department of Defense needs to get its own house in order. The Pentagon must work with Congress — actively, earnestly, and constructively — to reduce its bureaucratic inefficiencies, cost overruns, and balance-sheet cost drivers. To start, the Department of Defense needs to assess how it acquires new systems and modernizes existing platforms. Acquisition reform has long been a DOD talking point, but it must become a strategic priority. Streamlining the acquisitions process would not only save the department billions of dollars, which could be spent elsewhere; it also would ensure that the right weapons are reaching the right war-fighters at the right time. We can’t afford — literally and figuratively — to be putting old weapons in the hands of America’s young heroes.

Another category of huge DOD expenditures that we cannot ignore is personnel. The Pentagon’s compensation is both costly and unbalanced; it should be reformed to ensure that the department spends money wisely and is able to recruit the best people now and retain them for the future. A blue-ribbon, bipartisan DOD compensation commission is due to report in February, and Congress would be well advised to consider its recommendations.

Finally, the department believes it can save several billion dollars per year through a new Base Realignment and Closures (BRAC) round. That opinion deserves more respect than Congress has so far given it. We have argued in this article that the department needs to plan a future force based on its assessment of threats to the national interest and that the plan would probably result in a larger force structure than is now envisioned. Obviously, any major change in the anticipated size of the force would have implications for the kinds of facilities the department needs to base the force properly. We agree with the QDR Panel that if after that review the department still believes that a BRAC is necessary, Congress should support it. No opportunity to increase efficiency within the department, and free up dollars for use in modernizing and recapitalizing the force, should be overlooked.

The military must begin planning for future threats by ensuring the viability of capabilities for the long term. We cannot take for granted the United States’ technological edge over potential adversaries. For example, a variety of sources have documented that China’s rapid military buildup is centered on exploiting the vulnerabilities of American forces.

We repeat that reforms such as these are important from more than just a standpoint of funding. The gross inefficiencies in acquisition, for example, not only waste dollars; they also obstruct and delay the development of new platforms that are essential to executing the national military strategy at a low level of risk. What we need is an actual plan to develop a force that can deter or defeat the threats facing America, an honest assessment of the reforms we can achieve, and joint action by the Department of Defense and Congress to both develop the force and implement the reforms.

Under the Constitution, the only responsibility the federal government must exercise is providing for the common defense. Our government is failing to meet that responsibility. The United States military must be ready to act anywhere in the world where vital national-security interests are threatened. We can achieve this only by wisely giving the military the resources it needs. Determining what those resources are requires an end to our strategic drift and a return to rational defense planning.

 - Jim Talent is a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
 
 - Pete Hegseth is the CEO of Concerned Veterans for America.

About the Author

Jim Talent Distinguished Fellow
The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy

Originally appeared in National Review Online