Hard Choices: Responsible Defense in an Age of Austerity


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The Center for a New American Security (CNAS) has published a report titled Hard Choices: Responsible Defense in an Age of Austerity authored by Lieutenant General David W. Barno, USA (Ret.), Dr. Nora Bensahel, Travis Sharp. 

 While I haven’t completed it yet, it is very interesting reading. It’s available here. (pdf)

What they are doing here is recognizing that while in an ideal world, military strategy drives defense spending, right now the budget is driving military expenditures.

The authors don’t venture into what messing with military pay and retirements would do, recognizing that they have effects that can echo all over the place. This area has unintended consequences most people have never dreamed of. As an example, the reason the military adopted the 20/30 year retirement (and the up or out policies) is that they found that 65-year-old generals can’t keep up the pace very well.

What they do talk about is how we need to maintain our worldwide presence on a budget that we can afford. Such as:

United States should continue to pursue the ends of its longstanding global engagement strategy, but should do so using different ways and means than those codified in the Obama administration’s current national security plans. A new version of America’s global engagement strategy remains affordable, even in today’s fiscal environment, and pursuing it will help prevent and deter conflicts in the years ahead.

There are four budget scenarios in the report that are getting a lot of the publicity (they are good, too) but the four guiding principles they are using is even better. A taste:

First, naval and air forces will grow increasingly important in the future strategic environment. As a result, the Pentagon should prioritize these forces and not distribute the expected defense cuts evenly across the services, something it has done historically by adhering to the “golden ratio,” the near equal division of its budget among the military services.

The U.S. military needs to bolster its influence in the Asia-Pacific region and should do so by engaging more with key allies and by developing long-range and precision weapons, particularly as  . Large active-duty ground forces will be needed less as the United States continues to withdraw from Afghanistan and Iraq, though the nation will still need them to deter aggression by hostile nations and to advise and assist U.S. allies facing regional instability.

Cutting the number of ground forces may incur less risk than canceling naval and air modernization programs because the U.S. military can build up additional ground forces more quickly than it can acquire additional naval and air forces once production lines have closed Second, the U.S. military should strive to increase interdependence across the four services and to strengthen the continuum of service between the active and reserve components. The U.S. military is over-invested in expensive and often redundant capabilities that discourage interdependence among the services.

All four military services currently operate their own air forces, with limited sharing of aircraft. Some services have acquired substantial assets beyond the requirements of their core mission. For instance, the U.S. Marine Corps – the smallest U.S. service – today boasts more tanks, artillery, fixed-wing aircraft and uniformed personnel than the entire British military. Given the changing operational environment, today’s force has too many heavy armored formations, short-range strike fighters, amphibious capabilities and manned aircraft.

While some redundancy provides a useful hedge against risk, today’s extensive overlap among and within each service is unnecessary and no longer affordable, especially when joint interdependencies – such as Army helicopters flying off Navy carriers or Air Force C-130s supporting Marines – can yield comparable warfighting effectiveness at less expense. The Army and Marines, in particular, should transfer more of their expensive heavy capabilities – such as armor, artillery and fixed-wing aircraft – to their reserve components to save money and maintain a strategic hedge in the event of a large ground war. Implementing this change will require DOD and Congress to continue improving the policies that support an operational reserve component.

Third, the U.S. military should generate requirements for new weapons systems based on realistic assessments of likely threats, not on the pursuit of maximalist capabilities. Throughout the Cold War, defense plans were built mostly around specific assumptions about the threat posed by the Soviet Union. Since the end of the Cold War, however, the military has tried to prepare for a wider range of potential threats and to design capabilities for unknown but presumably potent future adversaries.

This is going to be one of our major Military/ Foreign Affairs problems and/or opportunities. It is something we all, and especially our Presidential candidates need to be thinking about.

About Neo
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2 Responses to Hard Choices: Responsible Defense in an Age of Austerity

  1. Freedom, by the way says:

    I wouldn’t dare suggest I have an iinformed opinion about our military strategies or expendiures. I leave that to the experts. However, I am familiar with the workings of government budgets (having worked for both a state and local government and married to a long-time government employee) that I know about the protecting of turf–including budgets in ALL governments. I’ve no doubt that redundancies exist. I’ve also no doubt that no one wants to blink first. I am pretty sure if a 10 or 20% cut were demanded, cooperation would follow and we would be a leaner, meaner fighting machine.


  2. I quite agree. I’m no expert either, it interests me, as I’m sure you’ve figured out, it’s sort of the crossroad of my interests in history and technology. I’m also am very sure that there is a lot (make that huge) amount of waste in defense procurement. The problem is, where? And that leads to the averaging things over all the services that they are referencing.

    Answers depend on people that know lots more than I do. But, I do think it’s important that we all sort of keep up with the broad outlines.


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