On January 5, 2012, President Obama stepped to the podium at the Pentagon to deliver a speech outlining the United States’ new defense strategy. In just over 12 minutes, the Obama Administration managed to roll back a military strategy that had been in place for more than 60 years. No longer will the U.S. military force structure be sized to conduct two large-scale operations simultaneously.
The Administration’s new plan prescribes a force structure capable of engaging in one war while maintaining the ability to deny the objectives of, or imposing unacceptable costs on, an opportunistic enemy in a second region or theater.While the U.S. military will maintain lessons learned over the past decade, it will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale counterinsurgency and stability operations.
The Administration has determined that these new strategic guidelines, coupled with the end of combat operations in Iraq and the accelerated timeline for withdrawal from Afghanistan, will permit the military to safely shed more than 100,000 service members over the next five years. The bulk of these reductions will come from the Army and Marines, who will reduce troop levels by 72,000 and 20,000, respectively. The Administration asserts that this reduction in capacity will be offset by enhancing capability. They contend that by investing in technologically advanced weapons systems and increasing the Special Operations forces, the United States will be able to meet the challenges of the 21st century with “acceptable risk.”
However, these assessments are fundamentally flawed and ignore the realities of recent history. As violence increased in Iraq in 2006, the Bush Administration made a tactical decision to surge forces into that country to quell the growing civil conflict and restore order and stability. With the announcement of the surge on January 10, 2007, it was necessary to increase the end strength of the military to meet this challenge. While most observers would acknowledge that the surge was instrumental in stabilizing the situation in Iraq, they would also concede that success there came at the expense of operations in Afghanistan. In fact, following a comprehensive review, General Stanley McChrystal characterized the situation in Afghanistan as “serious” and noted that “the overall situation is deteriorating.” He argued forcefully that “failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) … risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.”*
This example illustrates that just within this last decade, with a force structure sizably larger than the one the President is now proposing, the U.S. military did not have the capacity to simultaneously defeat the insurgency in Iraq while denying the objectives of the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. While the President’s strategy proactively asserts that the U.S. military will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale counterinsurgency and stability operations, the best laid plans and strategies are often overcome by events. We must ensure that America is prepared to meet the challenges and threats facing our nation with both capability and capacity, to include the potential that we may once again find ourselves engaged in counterinsurgency and stability operations.
To his credit, Army Chief of Staff General Raymond Odierno has publicly acknowledged this challenge in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, stating that in order to reduce and mitigate the risks associated with drawing down the size of the U.S. Army, they “will continue to rely on the reserve components to provide key enablers and operational depth” and “that an operational reserve comprised of a discrete set of capabilities with an enhanced level of readiness will be essential.” Further, in a recent Associated Press article, General Odierno stated that if necessary, the U.S. will rely on National Guard and Reserve forces while the active component builds its end strength.
Yet, over the last decade, our military has largely depended on Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funds to fully operationalize our Guard and Reserve forces. The end of combat in Iraq and the drawdown in Afghanistan will be accompanied by commensurate cuts in OCO funds. This trend has already begun with OCO funds decreasing from approximately $187 billion in 2008 to $88.5 billion in the President’s fiscal year (FY)2013 defense budget request. OCO funds simply cannot be counted on in the long term to finance the readiness of the Guard and Reserves. Further, the FY 2013 base request contained only $3.2 billion for the procurement of National Guard and Reserve equipment, 44 percent below the FY 2012 budget request. If the Administration’s risk mitigation strategy is to rely on the Guard and Reserve, and they are publicly stating that the maintenance of our operational reserve is essential to their new strategy, it would seem reasonable that they would not want to cut their equipment accounts by nearly half, especially with the impending reduction of OCO funds.
The problem with the Obama Administration’s new defense strategy is that there is no strategy at all. It lowered the bar on our nation’s strategic objectives to help justify both significant troop and budget reductions, failing to acknowledge that even our current force structure is inadequate to meet these new guidelines. Additionally, while it acknowledges the risk associated with these reductions, it does not appear committed to properly resourcing its own mitigation strategy. Furthermore, while investing in technologically advanced weapons systems and increasing the Special Operations forces will no doubt increase our military capability, at some point capacity becomes capability. If we continue to divest our capacity in terms of adequate force structure, we will lose the capability to respond to the broad spectrum of threats facing our nation.
*Catherine Dale, “War in Afghanistan: Strategy, Operations, and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service report, March 9, 2011 (R40156).
Congressman Joe Heck (R) represents Nevada’s 3rd District in the U.S. House of Representatives.
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