January 10, 2011

The Right Cuts

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

"To amass military power without regard to our economic capacity would be to defend ourselves against one kind of disaster by inviting another," said U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower over a half-century ago. Today's political leaders seem to be relearning Ike's lesson. Freshly minted House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said on Jan. 4 that defense spending cuts are on the table, and several high-profile commissions have offered realistic ways to trim military expenditures. The Defense Department can undoubtedly contribute more to deficit-reduction efforts that will help ensure that economic insolvency does not further curtail U.S. global influence, an outcome that would reduce U.S.national security. Indeed, the U.S. military needs to better ingrain affordability into its training, culture, and strategy. Thankfully, many military spending reductions may also make the United States safer by reorienting U.S. defenses to meet the evolving security challenges of the 21st century. These reductions are good math and good strategy. Defense Secretary Robert Gates surged ahead of the curve on on Jan. 6 by canceling the Marine Corps' Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle and delaying its version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, designed for short takeoff and vertical landing. While both programs are behind schedule and over budget, their fates were precipitated by the fact that they are, at approximately $55 billion combined, too expensive given their vulnerability to the new weapons and tactics increasingly relied on by potential adversaries. Countries such as China and Iran are stocking up on relatively inexpensive weapons such as improvised explosive devices, air defense systems, anti-ship cruise missiles, precision-guided rockets, and swarming small boats. These "anti-access" assets are designed to prevent vehicles, aircraft, and ships from getting close to their territory. By buying 573 Expeditionary Fighting Vehicles and 311 Joint Strike Fighters as currently planned, the Marine Corps would have been investing massive resources into just the kind of short-range platforms that anti-access weapons are intended to neutralize. The resulting U.S. force would inspire less fear in potential adversaries than it should, and the U.S. president might hesitate to use it when needed because of the costs in material and human life in doing so. The United States still needs the assault capabilities provided by the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle and Joint Strike Fighter in order to retain flexible attack options and force potential adversaries to bear the costs of defensive measures. But this need can be met for less money through upgrades and purchases of less expensive existing platforms, such as the F-18, and through development of versatile alternatives, such as large numbers of new, low-cost, amphibious craft and unmanned, aerial systems featuring longer flight ranges. These alternatives could better overwhelm anti-access defenses, particularly when combined with the massive combat power of the rest of the U.S. military. We should embrace technological innovation when it affordably provides higher quantity and quality. But the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have shown that determined enemies can find deadly ways to neutralize U.S. technological superiority. To meet this challenge, the United States should pursue a "high-low-new" weapons modernization strategy that buys some high-tech replacement systems, upgrades some versions of their lower-tech legacy counterparts, and develops some affordable new technological solutions for unprecedented threats like cyberattacks. Such an approach will provide the military with a more balanced and affordable portfolio of capabilities that can be deployed to meet a wide range of complex threats. Although high-priced weapons systems bore the brunt of Gates's punishment on Jan. 6, it is important to recognize that reforming military personnel policies will save more money in the long run than cutting weapons. Military health-care costs are "eating the [Defense] Department alive," as Gates said last year. The Pentagon still retains a retirement system that encourages military personnel to leave service after 20 years when they are most productive, but continues to pay them and their families for another 40 years -- even if they move into lucrative second careers. While changes to these policies must respect the sacrifices made by those who serve in uniform, there are reasonable ways to lower costs that must be explored immediately. While reducing defense spending will not single-handedly right the United States' fiscal ship, policymakers should keep military cuts on the table because of the potential budgetary and strategic benefits. The resulting savings could help pay down the deficit so that the United States can continue to meet global consumer demand and undergird an international financial system that facilitates secure transnational economic transactions. Ultimately, these assets will be far more important to future U.S. security and prosperity than a few more military vehicles or aircraft.