The President traveled across the river to the Pentagon today to preview a new defense strategy to chase down falling defense budgets.
Obama was quick to declare that the “tide of war” is receding for the United States and our military. But what he left out is that it is not always up to us when we engage in conflict or respond to terrorism here at home or prevent hostilities from getting worse in key oil shipping lanes, for example. Just because Washington announces truth does not mean that it is so.
The President went on to say, rightly, that America cannot afford to be unprepared for the future. But cutting America’s active duty ground forces to pre-9/11 levels achieves exactly that. The Army shed much of its counterinsurgency capabilities after the Vietnam War in the determination that those types of conflicts were a thing of the past. Iraq and Afghanistan proved otherwise. Keeping the modestly sized ground forces of today offer the flexibility to respond to unforeseen challenges in a way a smaller force simply cannot.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta spoke of how this defense drawdown is different than the past when threats went away. In reality, the threats did not ever go away; rather, they changed or evolved—or policymakers simply chose to ignore them in the hopes of cashing in a peace dividend.
Panetta spoke of ongoing challenges the military must face, including the proliferation of lethal weapons and materials, destabilizing behavior of enemies, the rise of new powers across Asia, and changes in the Middle East (e.g., the Arab Spring).
But no one disputed these challenges before the newest defense strategy was unveiled. Over a year ago, the Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel clearly identified five global trends facing the military:
- Radical Islamist extremism and the threat of terrorism,
- The rise of new global powers in Asia,
- Continued struggle for power in the Persian Gulf and the greater Middle East,
- An accelerating global competition for resources, and
- Persistent problems from failed and failing states.
The Pentagon claims to make a much smaller military still capable under the banner of “reversibility.” As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey has argued, the U.S. must not find itself in a position where it can do only one thing at once. This is obvious.
Pentagon leaders plan to skirt the lack of capabilities through an increased reliance on National Guard and reserve forces—the same men and women who are worn out from a decade of multiple tours overseas. DoD plans to assume more risk in the active component and the capabilities that are available immediately in the event of conflict or crisis. Examples include heavy armor brigades and tactical fighter wings.
Another tenet of the “pivot” to Asia is the transition from a military focused on manpower-intensive counterinsurgency to the light footprint doctrine of counterterrorism. Panetta has mentioned unmanned or remotely piloted aircraft, cyber, and special forces as key areas that must be protected from budget cuts. They may even get more money.
General Dempsey has called for the greater “integration of general operating forces and special operating forces.” The challenge is that special operations forces are, by definition, not scaleable. It is also unclear that a small group of highly skilled operators can sustain an operational tempo that grows every year. Also, special forces command relies upon these same forces from which to pull operators and support forces.
For all the questions about the trade-offs needed for the Pacific “pivot” to work, such a shift might be smart planning were it not zero-sum. The irony not addressed is that transforming the American military arsenal from one designed to deter and fight wars with assured access to one designed to excel when access is challenged will not be cheap. It will definitely cost more than President Obama is planning on today.
It is not enough to simply move more forces to Asia. The U.S. should invest strategically and focus on buying platforms and developing cutting-edge capabilities that will be important in the future—not merely those we have relied on in the past.