The Obama Administration is using a new buzzword when referring to its national security strategy: “reversibility.” In the most recent Defense Strategy Guidance, this term is described as “a key part of our decision calculus” and essentially states that the military will maintain a smaller force that can be built up rapidly to respond to national security threats. Rather than attempt to reverse dramatic defense budget cuts, the Administration seems to be creating the illusion of a responsible strategy that will not leave our future armed forces weakened and less capable.
The means by which reversibility is to be executed are not clearly defined. Many analysts have presented significant concerns about the concept. A Heritage Foundation memo on America’s defense industrial base argues, “Unless there is an ongoing acquisition program, the ability to build something in the private sector basically starts from scratch.” The Administration is attempting to assure concerned citizens that it has the ability to restart military programs quickly during times of crisis; this is simply not realistic.
Aircraft carrier construction is a good example that demonstrates two weaknesses in the reversibility concept. From the date it was ordered to its expected commissioning, the Navy’s newest flattop will have taken seven years to complete. Even if the Navy were to restart production of an older, less capable model, construction would still take four to five years. There is nothing “rapid” about this. It is also worth noting the effects a construction halt has on a shipyard’s workforce. Skilled workers are difficult to replace, and training is both costly and time consuming. The concept of reversibility is unfeasible, and its implementation could actually increase the costs of programs it may attempt to restart.
The report on the industrial base also argues that “Competition Builds Security.” However, when the defense budget is dramatically reduced, competition is inevitably weakened. Recent history provides a clear and troubling example of this effect. The “Peace Dividend” of the Clinton Administration, which vastly drew down military forces after the end of the Cold War, effectively shrank the number of major defense contractors from “roughly 40 major players…to barely a half-dozen.” While this massive consolidation may have created immediate efficiencies at the time, Pentagon officials must now rely on just a handful of contractors to perform the bulk of the work.
There is an important distinction to be made between the Clinton Peace Dividend and the recent defense cuts. Due to robust procurement and research and development programs during the Reagan years, the effect of the 1990s cuts was softened. Conversely, military spending increases over the past 10 years resulted from the demands of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Research and development accounts took a back seat as immediate operational needs were given priority. As a result, the Obama Administration spending reductions will have an exaggerated effect on modernization.
This “reversibility” rhetoric is just that—rhetoric. Rapidly restoring our armed forces to a viable size and scope is far more easily said than done. Rather than using buzzwords to temporarily quell fears of a hollow future force, the Obama Administration should attempt to reverse any irresponsible defense budget cuts that have not yet gone into effect.