By Dan Parsons
The U.S. military can accomplish its primary objectives of protecting the homeland and supporting allied nations while living within a constrained budget, according to a report authored by a group of former military officers, foreign policy experts and diplomatic officials.
Once the war in Afghanistan has concluded, severe budget cuts facing the Defense Department are not as apocalyptic as some officials have claimed, as long as the nation’s military is responsibly downsized, suggests a new report helmed by the Stimson Center, a Washington, D.C.- based think tank.
By revamping soldier compensation, focusing on a smaller, more expeditionary military, and revamping acquisition strategies, the report’s authors posit saving as much as $1 trillion over the next 10 years.
That level of savings may not be realistic, Barry Blechman, Stimson co-founder and distinguished fellow said at an event at the National Press Club on Nov. 15. However, the Defense Department could more easily achieve at least $400 billion in savings over the same period while protecting the nation’s vital interests, and those of its allies, he said.
“It’s essential to make these changes carefully and without sacrificing essential programs,” and without losing face with the troops who have spent a decade fighting the nation’s wars, Blechman said.
The report puts forth a plan dubbed “Strategic Agility” that tracks closely with the guidance laid out earlier this year by the Obama administration. It also jibes with the air-sea battle concept being bandied about as a solution to policing the vast Asia-Pacific region.
The strategy is “designed to strengthen U.S. military superiority while meeting realistic budgetary expectations,” a summary of the report reads. Blechman said it was “not a radically new strategy, but an evolution of the one the administration began to put in place a year ago.”
“It essentially says, ‘Do what you’re doing, but do it faster and in a wider range,’” he added.
The report was authored by a panel of 15 national security officials, scholars and analysts. In it, they suggest 10 operating principles that focus on a smaller, agile force based stateside that can be rapidly deployed to deal with emerging threats. The days of permanently stationing large units at forward bases should be a thing of the past, a memory of the Cold War that made such deployments necessary, Blechman said.
“We should shift over time from static deployments overseas in an evolutionary way to a more rotational system,” he said. “Permanent presence in regions like the Middle East is a lightning rod for those who oppose us. It allows them to recruit supporters. It causes problems with local populations.”
Both the Air Force and Army should transition to the expeditionary model that the Navy and Marine Corps have long followed, the report suggests.
It also calls for an increased reliance on technology and research-and-development spending to maintain U.S. dominance in space and cyberspace, as well as naval and air supremacy.
But maintaining superiority in those realms doesn’t necessarily require more ships and jets. Blechman called for changes in how the Pentagon spends research funds. Much of the research-and-development spending currently goes toward refining existing systems. There should be a shift to basic R&D for new technologies, he said.
Like the Obama administration’s strategic guidance released in January, the Stimson report promotes a continued reliance on special operations and other rapidly deployable forces.
It also calls for a revision of the nation’s nuclear strategy to allow for further reductions in nuclear arms through a new treaty with Russia that would eliminate Cold War-era assumptions.
While the report does not suggest a specific budget or end strength, it lays out how significant savings can be achieved through efficiencies at several possible funding levels ranging to the current baseline defense budget to a possible sequestration.
Under different scenarios, the report envisions $200 billion to $400 billion in savings over 10 years through efficiencies that have already been identified within the defense budget without having the drastic, top-line cuts that are the law under sequestration.
Under each hypothetical scenario, special operations, space and cyberwarfare capabilities receive even or increased funding.
One scenario is what they called a “smooth sequester,” in which $500 billion in cuts are spread out over 10 years, rather than being triggered all at once Jan 1. That would allow the Pentagon to better plan for funding reductions, the report stated. Under that, the report suggests cutting the Army by 2 percent per year; the Air Force budget by 1 percent per year and retiring 13 F-16 squadrons; cutting missile defense and reducing nuclear modernization programs. That would still allow for doubling spending on basic research and development and an increase for special operations, cyber-operations and space systems, the report suggests.
“It’s incumbent on our government, big-time … to prioritize for future military capabilities against likely missions associated with securing our vital interests, and to some extent our conditional interests, within the fiscal realities of a decreasing budget,” said retired Army Gen. Burwell B. Bell, a report coauthor, and former commander of U.S. forces in Korea.
Everything the report’s authors suggest, however, is contingent on the nation not being pulled into another costly, protracted ground war like the ones it has been fighting for a decade.
“We can’t always prevent this, but clearly it’s a mistake to become involved in the kind of conflicts we’ve been involved in for the last 10 years,” said Blechman. “Providing security and governance to underdeveloped societies riven by conflicts of ideology or religion … is just too tough a job.”