January 26, 2012

The Pentagon's Way Forward

By Nora Bensahel, Travis Sharp, David W. Barno, and USA (Ret.)

The new defense guidance and budget request released by the Pentagon can best be described as “pivot-but-hedge” approaches to global engagement. Set against the backdrop of receding American involvement in Afghanistan, a rising China and looming defense-spending cuts, the guidance and budget request direct the U.S. military to pivot to the Asia-Pacific but hedge against unexpected threats elsewhere, particularly in the greater Middle East.

While these are the correct strategic ends to pursue in the emerging international-security environment, the Obama administration’s plans omit two critical elements needed for a truly complete strategy: they lack clarity about the budgetary means, for which Congress is responsible, and they are ambiguous about the operational needs, which would be delineated by the Department of Defense (DOD). Fortunately, strategy making is an iterative process, and the U.S. government still has time to get it right. Congress should clarify the budgetary means by repealing sequestration, and DOD should address the operational needs by adopting a new division of geographic responsibilities among the army, navy, air force and Marines.

Congress must face the consequences of political gridlock. The failure of the deficit-reduction “supercommittee” triggered a sequestration process that will increase the amount of defense cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act from $487 billion to $950 billion over ten years,according to DOD. The Pentagon’s new guidance and budget request are based on the lower level of cuts, and senior officials have stated that they cannot implement the guidance if sequestration occurs.

The bigger cuts imposed by sequestration are simply too large in a world rife with threats to the United States and its interests. As we have concluded elsewhere, cutting beyond $550 billion threatens the U.S. military’s longstanding and generally successful global-engagement strategy, which the Obama administration has modified but upheld in its new guidance.

The process for implementing sequestration is even worse than the size of the cuts. Sequestration will push the defense budget off a cliff in 2013. That year, sequestration requires cutting the Pentagon’s annual base budget (excluding war costs) from the current level of $530 billion to $472 billion, an 11 percent year-to-year reduction that DOD must implement in a matter of months. If President Obama exempts military-personnel costs from these cuts—as he almost certainly will—all other defense programs will be cut by 23 percent to make up the difference.

Cutting this much so suddenly will inhibit DOD from implementing cuts flexibly and strategically over the decade. For example, DOD could sequence the cuts so that more occur after 2014, when the U.S. military will be less involved in Afghanistan and thus able to trim capabilities integral to the war effort, such as the size of the army and Marine Corps. Sequestration undermines this common-sense approach because it forces the Pentagon to absorb large cuts abruptly in 2013.

Sequestration also requires DOD to allocate cuts in equal percentagesto every program, project and activity in its budget in 2013 and possibly beyond. Every weapons system, research and development initiative, and training program will be reduced by the same amount regardless of its importance to U.S. security. For example, the training budget for special-operations forces like those responsible for killing Osama bin Laden would be cut by the same percentage as the training budget for military bands. With all due respect to our military musicians, this is clearly a prescription for mindless slashing, not strategic choices that preserve more important programs. Yet this exact approach is enshrined in law and will take effect on January 1, 2013, unless new legislation is passed.

The responsible way forward is clear: Congress should set aside sequestration as soon as possible and work to develop a thoughtful, comprehensive deficit-reduction package. The Budget Control Act’s $487 billion level of defense cuts should stand, and any further cuts should be implemented gradually as part of a new deficit-reduction package—while keeping in mind the potential for greater national-security risk as the amount of cuts increases.

While Congress spends time working on budgetary means, senior defense officials should focus on operational adjustments, furnishing the military with more information about how to implement the new guidance. In our view, the Pentagon should adopt a new division of geographic responsibilities among the military services: In the years ahead, the army, partnered with the air force, should focus primarily on the Middle East, while a navy-air force partnership should focus primarily on the Asia-Pacific. The Marines should retain their unique amphibious roles in both theaters.

This is not to suggest that any service should be excluded in a given theater. A military operation in any region would of course require substantial participation by each service. Even during peacetime, there will still be great global demand for all the services. Bilateral engagement missions, for example, will continue to require U.S. ground forces working with armies throughout the Asia-Pacific and U.S. naval forces collaborating with their counterparts in and around the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea.

Yet in an era of constrained resources, the formidable organizing and planning powers of the services should be more regionally focused and less globally dispersed. Aligning the services with specific geographic theaters offers one way to foster innovation and leverage experience among the services while simultaneously saving money. Adopting a new division of responsibilities makes sense for both geostrategic and bureaucratic reasons.

From a geostrategic perspective, this division will help the United States balance its growing emphasis on the Asia-Pacific with the continuing reality of deep instability in other areas where its interests are at stake, especially the greater Middle East. There is little question that some geographic theaters of operation favor different mixes of armed forces. The Asia-Pacific is a vast maritime region that requires strong naval and air forces to project military power. Meanwhile, the greater Middle East is a more condensed area where solid engagements by ground forces can provide both a deterrent to adversaries and partnerships with friends. Highly capable American ground forces, present in modest numbers, help offer a credible counterweight to growing volatility in the greater Middle East.

Pentagon officials should account for these differing geographic requirements as they set future priorities. As the defense budget shrinks, it no longer makes sense to ask each service to accord equal priority to each theater, a requirement that inhibits the attainment of deeper regional expertise. Adopting a new division of responsibilities will empower the services to establish closer ties to important regional stakeholders, develop more leaders with regional specialization and pursue operational breakthroughs in regions where they possess a geographic comparative advantage.

From a bureaucratic perspective, a new division of responsibilities will lessen harmful interservice infighting that has emerged already in the face of budget cuts. The intense debate over Air-Sea Battle is but one example. Air-Sea Battle is an emerging defense concept that endeavors to counteract countries such as China and Iran that want to prevent the U.S. military from being able to access key areas during a confrontation. Yet even though Air-Sea Battle tackles a serious military problem, some analysts have criticized it as merely an attempt by the navy and air force to increase their shares of the defense budget at the expense of the army and Marine Corps.

Embracing a new division of responsibilities would help stem this infighting and make a clear statement about each service’s enduring strategic relevance. This approach should make interservice competition more productive, with the services constructively challenging one another’s methods to refine collective wisdom but cooperating in the pursuit of national objectives. History shows that harnessing competition this way leads to both doctrinal innovation and the most efficient use of defense dollars.

The Pentagon’s new guidance and budget request identify clear objectives for the future, but they lack details about the ways and means through which the U.S. military should “pivot but hedge” in the years ahead. Taking the steps outlined here—a sane approach to the budget and new division of labor among the services—would elevate the Obama administration’s plans to the level of a truly complete strategy.

Lt. General David W. Barno, USA (Ret.), Nora Bensahel, and Travis Sharp are fellows at the Center for a New American Security and co-authors of the center's report “Hard Choices: Responsible Defense in an Age of Austerity.”