October 05, 2011

A Blueprint for the Pentagon's Grim Reaper

One of Washington's most influential think tanks – its ranks filled with retired and ex-soldiers – has bad news for its Army brethren still in uniform: you guys are going to take it on the chin in the coming budget battles. You too, Marines. “Ground forces will play a less central role in the projection of U.S. military power in the next decade than in the last,” concludes the report, by the Center for a New American Security (and a partner with TIME's Battleland blog in regular Command Post videos).

In its most dire projection, the report says the Army would have to be cut from today's 547,000 to 430,000 troops – "reducing its ability to operate in a high-intensity ground war without accepting high casualties" -- and the Marines from 200,000 to 150,000. Cuts of such magnitude "would require U.S. policymakers to make much more cautious choices about how and when to use force," the study says. "Leaders would have to prioritize global missions and objectives far more clearly than they have in the past,." The report -- Hard Choices: Responsible Defense in the Age of Austerity -- matters more than most such efforts.

 That's because the CNASties are not only Army-centric (one of the reports three authors is Dave Barno, a retired three-star Army general who commanded all U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan for 19 months early in the war), but because of where the four-year old outfit's co-founders now work. Michèle Flournoy currently serves as the Pentagon policy chief, while Kurt Campbell is now the assistant secretary of state for east Asian and Pacific affairs.

The report, which Barno and co-authors Nora Bensahel and Travis Sharp will officially unveil Friday, traces four possible arcs for U.S. military spending over the coming decade. They range from what's currently on the table – slicing the $350 billion already mandated by Congress and President Obama – to close to $1 trillion in cuts if the congressional "super committee" can't come up with a better plan to get the nation's fiscal house in order.

Even if cuts are only half that amount – some $500 billion to $550 billion – "we judge that the U.S. military's ability to execute America's global engagement strategy, as it is currently articulated, will be placed at high risk," the study warns.

The authors urge the U.S. to shift its emphasis from Afghanistan and Iraq towards China, and encourage wholesale changes to save money in antiquated Pentagon personnel policies.

"Constrained resources require U.S. civilian and military decisionmakers to prioritize key geographic regions more effectively," the report says, before undertaking a brutal Rand-McNallying of the globe that relegates Europe well down on the list:

-- The U.S. military should focus on the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean and broaden engagements along the Pacific Rim, largely through a stronger maritime and air presence as well as the strategic use of ground forces to support key allies.

-- The Middle East and Mediterranean Basin should remain an area of vital interest, second only to East Asia. In this region, the United States should pursue a defensive strategy designed to contain potentially hostile regimes and dismantle terrorist networks while ensuring an uninterrupted flow of energy supplies.

-- While the United States should remain engaged with key allies in South and Central Asia, it should pursue a more limited defensive military posture focused on limiting nuclear proliferation, preventing a major Indo-Pakistani conflict and disrupting terrorists capable of striking the United States.

-- The U.S. military should consider Europe a tertiary priority as NATO's and its member states' military capabilities decline. Other areas of the world – especially Africa and Latin America – should be the lowest priority, and the U.S. military should focus only on deterring and addressing specific threats to U.S. vital interests in those regions.

The challenge, as always, is in deciding which parts of the world the U.S. should relinquish. Global engagement has been good for the U.S. economy for close to a century, but how long should the U.S. military protect international commerce as nations like Brazil, China and India are becoming economic powers in their own right?

A passage from the report speaks of weaponry, but its logic needs to be applied to regions of the world, as well:

Since the end of the Cold War…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 uncertainty has encouraged the military services to develop weapons systems requirements that are often unmoored from either technological limits or defined enemy capabilities.