October 1, 2008 — To read the full article, please click here.
Michèle A. Flournoy is president and cofounder of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) and a former principal deputy assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton administration.
Shawn Brimley is a fellow at CNAS.
The next U.S. commander in chief will face the most daunting defense inheritance in generations when he takes the oath of office in January. Not since the Johnson-Nixon handoff 40 years ago has the country faced such a challenging wartime transition. Ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will force the new president to make early and consequential decisions regarding the U.S. approach toward both conflicts as well as the search for al Qaeda's top leadership in the lawless frontier lands along the Afghan-Pakistani border. President John McCain or Barack Obama will inherit a military that, although still the best in the world, is experiencing profound strains after nearly seven years of constant warfare. A young person entering the combat branches of the Army or Marine Corps in the months following the September 11 terrorist attacks has almost certainly deployed numerous times to Afghanistan and/or Iraq. An entire generation of young military personnel has endured years of difficult and heroic service and sacrifice. Their morale is high, but they and their families are tired.
The next secretary of defense will inherit a department that also is under enormous pressure. The constant imperative to support forward-deployed forces engaged in current operations has strained the ability of the military services and their civilian leaders to adequately plan for a complex and uncertain future. The high financial costs of two wars, rapidly increasing personnel obligations, and huge cost overruns in most major procurement programs have caused Pentagon spending to skyrocket. With the U.S. economy sliding toward recession and the national deficit and foreign debt rising to unprecedented levels, the next president and secretary of defense will need to avoid strategic overstretch and make difficult decisions about where to place emphasis and how to prudently balance risk.
The next Pentagon team will thus be faced with the dual challenge of presenting the new commander in chief with the best possible advice on key current wartime decisions while providing the support and leadership necessary to prepare U.S. armed forces for a future far different from the one for which they were optimized. This challenging endeavor will require forming a comprehensive and strategic view in order to chart a way forward.