Our incredible shrinking military
by Mackenzie Eaglen
This article originally appeared in American Legion Magazine. You can find it here.
Too often in Washington, the focus of partisan fights is a dollar sign, particularly when it comes to defense. Depending on who’s talking, the military budget is too high or too low (though a consensus is forming around “too low,” one that includes the Joint Chiefs, President Obama and most members of Congress).
Instead of focusing exclusively on the size of the defense budget, policymakers should instead examine what these dollars buy in terms of safety, security and stability. In other words: look at the complex outputs rather than simple dollar inputs.
These days, defense dollars are buying less and, in a first, getting less.
The United States of America is officially a one-war power, a husk of its traditional status as a two-war superpower. Few realize this reality outside the Pentagon. Policymakers argue about defense vs. non-defense spending, the use of base vs. war spending, or which party is to blame for the Budget Control Act – a policy Frankenstein everyone seems to hate but no one is capable of rescinding permanently.
As a result, the nation’s armed forces face two distinct challenges that will worsen as budgets level off and the military atrophies: first, a force-planning construct that is woefully inadequate for the global and everyday demands of wartime and peacetime; and second, a board of directors (the Pentagon, White House and Congress) that cannot clarify priorities, make difficult trade-offs, redefine service roles and missions, or take any assignment off the table – even as the military’s capability, capacity and readiness decline in tandem.
NO MORE TWO-WAR CONSTRUCT
Since the end of World War II, the United States has been the underwriter of the liberal rules-based international order, building crucial organizations, managing alliance systems to address common threats and maintaining the freedom of the commons. Because our national interests reach most corners of the globe, it was reasonable to expect to employ the tools of statecraft – most visibly the U.S. military – in a variety of places at once to keep the peace and, when necessary, win wars. These assumptions about the nature and scope of U.S. interests and responsibilities abroad lasted through administrations both Republican and Democratic.
After the Cold War, the Pentagon codified the U.S. interest in active participation in global affairs through a two-war force-sizing construct. Not only has the U.S. military been charged with fighting and winning two wars for a quarter-century, but it has been tasked with doing so in overlapping timeframes or in close succession.
This was not the result of freeloading allies or a desire to show off but because vital national interests deemed it necessary. For years, the two classic conflicts around which forces were planned, sized, built and bought were Iraq and North Korea. The types of wars that qualified as “major theater” wars or “major regional conflicts” (MRCs) were akin to the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, a possible Iranian conflagration in the Persian Gulf or a full-scale war on the Korean peninsula.
Despite the massive personnel drawdown and procurement holiday of the 1990s, the two-war model was never openly challenged. After all, Russia had shrunk from its former glory, China was focused inward, Iraq and Iran were contained, and global jihadist terrorism seemed a footnote of history. The national security situation was less stressing than at any time since 1940.
Yet that two-MRC standard has breathed its last – not with a bang, but with a whimper. After a combination of events that included the Budget Control Act, an emphasis on reducing federal debt and a presidency that prioritized “nation building” at home, America quietly dropped its two-war construct for something closer to one war plus something smaller. Official Pentagon parlance now characterizes this as “defeat and deny.”
There are two problems with this landmark shift in force planning. First, the nation’s interests have not diminished, nor has policymakers’ appetite for employing those in uniform to deter aggression, shape events and, if needed, win conflicts. Second, this long-held multigenerational standard was dropped with little fanfare and even less debate. In a town where people talk too much, this should raise many red flags.
Today’s modified war plans are geared toward one short-duration, high-intensity event with a country like Iran and a scenario like, say, closing the Strait of Hormuz. The second war remains a traditional conflict on the Korean peninsula, but shorter and with a heavier reliance on our South Korean allies. Gone is any plan that foresees conflict taking longer than one year in duration or any contingency with a whiff of stability operations, long-term counterinsurgency or counter-insurrection, or nation building of the type seen in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This wag-the-dog approach, in which defense spending is starved to restrict U.S. foreign policy, has been effective in increasing caution among commanders and therefore limiting the types of scenarios in which U.S. forces will now engage. It succeeded partly because the timing was right, and Washington was ripe to accept a more restrained foreign policy in the circular argument that investment in defense would naturally decline alongside our budgets and the economy more generally.
Also, it just sort of happened – unofficially, in a byzantine and bureaucratic fashion somewhere between Obama’s pivot to Asia, a budget-cutting drill known as the Strategic Choices and Management Review inside the Pentagon, and the last official defense strategy issued in 2014. There is dispute among current and former Obama officials about what exactly took place and when, which would be frightening were the policy abandonment not more so.
Read more: www.aei.org