By Harlan Ullman
Suppose you are in great health, exceedingly fit and athletically gifted. During a routine medical check up, you receive some very bad news. You have developed a degenerative condition. Without a lengthy and painful course of treatment, in five years time or less, you will be hardly able to walk, let alone run or play any sport.
Unfortunately, this diagnosis applies to the Department of Defense. The U.S. military has never been in better shape and is held by its fellow citizens in the highest regard. Yet, sometime this decade or sooner, unless or until dramatic actions are taken, the U.S. military could implode. A recent study by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies posits the extreme choices that lie ahead.
Consider two extremes. Assuming moderate inflation and no further significant cuts in defense spending meaning no sequester, during this decade, to keep our forces at current levels of modernization and readiness, the active duty force of approximately 1.4 million will have to be cut by nearly 40%. Or, if current force levels are kept, modernization and readiness would be slashed to the bone leading to a “hollow force.” And if additional defense spending cuts are made, which seems exceedingly likely given the national debt, the future is even grimmer.
How this happened is painfully obvious. The costs of people and weapons are skyrocketing. Consider pay, benefits, retirement and medical costs for a service man or woman in the all volunteer force who enlists at 18; spends twenty years in uniform and retires at 38; lives another 40 years at half pay; and receives virtually free full medical coverage including for his or her family. That is a huge sum of money.
Similarly, the costs of advanced weapons and sensor systems are also spiraling upwards at an accelerating rate. Advanced technology is very expensive. And the regulatory and bureaucratic requirements of the acquisition process continue to increase the cost burden.
Barring the emergence of an existential military threat, the United States cannot do what is has mostly done since the beginning of World War II and spend its way clear of danger. Worse, a broken political system and seemingly unbridgeable ideological divides between left and right, when too many politicians believe that military brawn and large forces are more important than intelligent and creative uses of a smaller and more adaptive capacity, incapacitate rational decision making.
Denial and deferral cannot work. Having the courage and skill to take effective action likewise may be naïve expectations. Since spending our way clear of danger is no longer an affordable or available course of action, a single alternative exists. We must exercise our grey matter and begin thinking, not spending, our way out of trouble.
A short column cannot fully articulate what a brains based approach to strategy means. In simplest terms, a smaller, highly professional military in which numbers are far less important than how these forces are used in peace and crisis is the foundation. That strategy does not require all these forces to be ready all the time. Hence, reconstitution and regeneration of military power as new threats emerge is an essential component.
Such a strategy would require an active duty force of about a million with a deployable joint force on each coast of about 150,000 at high levels of readiness. Other active duty forces can be at lesser degrees of readiness
Regarding strategy, greater reliance on allies and relationships with allies is vital so that, when needed, the combined forces can operate together reflecting a qualitative and not quantitative approach. And cleverness does not hurt.
For example, the term anti-access, area denial (A2AD) is used to describe how China is shaping its forces. Rather than build countering forces principally designed to attack the Chinese mainland, in concert with our many allies in the region, why not turn the tables and create A2AD plans to block Chinese power that plays to our geographic advantage?
In the case of the defense industrial base, why not develop the equivalent of a ten-year rule that assumes it will take time for a major military threat to emerge? During that interim, the costs of maintaining reconstitution and regeneration capabilities for that base as insurance could be underwritten. Indeed, the term and definition of industrial base should be modernized for the 21st century and renamed “an intellectual property base” to reflect where the power for our military resides.
Will any of this happen? Probably not. So do not be surprised if a return to a “hollow force” becomes inevitable. Still a brains based approach to strategy and to thinking our way, not spending our way, clear of danger does make the most sense.
Harlan Ullman is Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business and Senior Advisor at Washington DC’s Atlantic Council.