The war in Iraq is over. The war in Afghanistan is winding down. Today, the challenge facing the Pentagon is identifying the best military plans in an era to be defined by economic austerity. The world will be just as dangerous, but in different, even more unexpected ways, than in the years after the Sept. 11 attacks, when the Defense Department had a virtual blank check to pay for its programs.
A new study, “Sustainable Preeminence: Reforming the U.S. Military at a Time of Strategic Change,”released Wednesday by the Center for a New American Security, a policy research center in Washington, offers some provocative ideas for how the Pentagon could reshape itself for this new era.
The authors — Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, a retired three-star Army officer who served as the top American officer in Afghanistan, Nora Bensahel, Matthew Irvine and Travis Sharp — call for merging several of the regional combatant commands, which are the global headquarters controlled by powerful four-star officers responsible for military actions in their corners of the world. Civilian and contractor work forces should be reduced, they say. The Army should transfer more of its combat brigades into the Reserves. The Navy should retire an aircraft carrier. And the Air Force should focus on building a stealthy, long-range attack and intelligence-gathering aircraft — but one without a pilot in the cockpit, and so flown remotely.
Although former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates began a quest to seek efficiencies and savings in military spending, and the current Pentagon chief, Leon E. Panetta, has proposed a budget with cuts approaching $500 billion over the next five years, the study argues that the Pentagon still has not enacted reforms “necessary to sustain U.S. military preeminence into the future.”
“Too many DOD structures, processes, programs and operational concepts are legacies of the past, which create unnecessary redundancies, waste valuable resources and encourage unproductive competition among the services rather than competition,” the study says.
The study argues that more money is not the answer. “We disagree with those who argue that preserving American military preeminence requires maintaining or increasing current levels of defense spending,” the authors state, adding that the Pentagon “must maintain America’s military preeminence but spend less on defense by operating more efficiently and effectively.”
The authors certainly join the Obama administration’s strategic pivot in advocating that naval and air forces should be prioritized “to project power and deter aggression in the vast Asia-Pacific” but without ignoring the “volatile greater Middle East.”
And it makes the case — no less noteworthy because past efforts have so famously failed — that the Pentagon should reduce unnecessary duplication of effort.
But in a clear break with a decade of spending that focused on the “today” wars of Afghanistan and Iraq, the study advocates “investments in technologies that leap ahead of the planned next generation of existing systems, especially technologies related to unmanned, autonomous and artificial intelligence systems.”
How, exactly, should all that be done?
One redundancy identified in the study is in the efforts of the military’s global combatant commands, and the authors propose eliminating two. That would be done by merging the new and smaller Africa Command into the European Command. Other efficiencies, the authors say, could be found by combining Northern Command — responsible for the defense of American territory as well as coordinating military activities with Canada and Mexico — with Southern Command, a light-footprint headquarters responsible for American military affairs in Central and South America.
The study sets a specific target for reducing the Pentagon’s civilian work force by 100,000 over the next decade, in keeping with the diminished number of people in uniform over that time. Because about 30 percent of the Pentagon’s civilian work force will be eligible to retire by March 31, 2015, the Defense Department “should be able to accomplish some of the reductions through attrition,” the authors say. The study sets a goal of reducing contract employees by at least 15 percent more, which would reduce their numbers to the levels on the payroll in 2003.
In assessing the individual armed services, the study says that “to accommodate budget cuts and the end of two major ground wars,” the Army “should transfer up to one-quarter of its active component armored brigades to the reserve component.” The report also calls for delaying the Army’s next ground combat vehicle until 2021.
Under the report’s budget proposals, the Navy would see its carrier fleet reduced to 10 from 11, would truncate its program for the littoral combat ship — designed to fight adversaries near their own shores — and buy more of the older F/A-18 warplane instead of the newer F-35C. It calls for 25 percent of all carrier-based strike aircraft to be remotely piloted by 2025.
The Air Force, according to the report, “should create a new requirement for a long-range, stealthy unmanned strike/intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft in addition to its plans for a new bomber.”
They call on the Marine Corps to end its purchase program for the MV-22 Osprey, a tilt-rotor aircraft, and rely more on Navy and Air Force for troop transport missions.
“The U.S. military should increase interdependence across the four services and among the active and reserve components,” the study argues. “Some services and components have acquired substantial assets beyond the requirements of their core missions, and the past 10 years of elevated defense spending have accelerated this trend. While some redundancy provides a useful hedge against risk, today’s extensive overlap among and within the services is unnecessary and inefficient, especially when joint interdependencies can yield comparable war-fighting effectiveness at less expense.”
No doubt many civilian and uniformed budget planners will push back against the proposals. And expect another round of public debate — and studies — if Congress and the administration fail to strike a budget deal, which could trigger even deeper cuts in Defense Department spending under a punitive fiscal arrangement called sequestration.