Small Wars Journal

New Year’s resolutions for the Pentagon – 2012

A year ago, I recommended some New Year’s resolutions for policymakers inside the Pentagon. At that time, I suggested Robert Gates, Admiral Mike Mullen, and their lieutenants resolve to:

  1. Make an honest appraisal of America’s relationship with Pakistan.
  2. Redesign the United States defense strategy in the Indo-Pacific region.
  3. Assess the entire government’s policy for security force assistance.

You can click here to read the whole blog post. Suffice it to say that the Pentagon and the rest of the government need to do much more work in all of these areas. For example, regarding Pakistan, it seems as if events, rather conscious policy decisions, are in control of the relationship.

But rather than looking back to last year’s resolutions (isn’t that what we all do?!), let’s move forward to this year.


1. Set priorities for America’s post-Afghanistan ground forces. The Army and Marine Corps are very likely to suffer the most from looming budget austerity. For soldiers and Marines, this won’t seem fair, but the logic will be hard to refute. Air, naval, space, and cyber forces are expensive, require long lead times to build, and have the most responsibility to protect against catastrophic surprise. By contrast, a 20-brigade stabilization mission is unlikely to arrive on short notice, while building new ground formations is relatively quick, as the Army and Marine Corps demonstrated in 2007-2008. Thus, from the perspective of strategic warning and reconstitution, policymakers will likely conclude that cutting ground forces is the least risky way to save a lot of money. The Army and Marine Corps need to brace themselves for headcounts below 2001 levels.

Even so, policymakers will assume risks. The Army and Marine Corps will not have the manpower or the funding to prepare for all of the missions and scenarios for which they could be held responsible. In order to manage these risks, leaders would do well to study a recent report from CSIS written by Nathan Freier and a large team of ground force experts. Freier and his co-authors systematically list and analyze the full range of possible ground force missions, assessing their likelihood, scale, duration, strategic warning, and other factors.

Post-Afghanistan U.S. ground forces, with diminished numbers and training budgets, will not be able to master to the extent their leaders would prefer all of the missions and associated tasks and skills Freier’s report describes. But Freier’s report will help decision-makers make some calculated bets while managing their resources and risks.

2. Find efficiencies in Navy shipbuilding. The Navy’s problems with cost control and contractor management are well-known and well-studied. Nonetheless, universal frustration continues. Blame is widely distributed and rightfully so. Navy program offices add new requirements, never allowing a design to stabilize. Contractors, with little or no competition, and with their own labor and management problems, enjoy little efficiency growth. Congressional appropriators prefer spending in as many districts as is possible rather than maximizing economic efficiency. And continuing disputes between the White House and Capitol Hill prevent in many cases the implementation of multi-year, multi-unit contracts that could save much money.

Meanwhile, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has concluded that the Navy will need 15% more funding than it thinks it needs to execute its 30-year shipbuilding plan. And even if the Navy buys all of the ships in that plan, it will still fall short of the fleet size it says it will need to accomplish its missions.

Thus, there is a lot here that needs attention. A modest suggestion would be to focus the Navy’s major shipbuilding, at least for the next 20 years, on the Burke destroyer, the Virginia submarine, and the Wasp/America large-deck amphibious assault ship, three proven and tested designs. The intent would be to reduce unit costs through contractor competition, shipyard focus, and large multi-year/multi-unit contracts, which the CBO estimates would save at least 10% per unit. Deleted from future Navy plans would be the Littoral Combat Ship and the Zumwalt destroyer. The Navy should buy a new large aircraft carrier every ten years rather than every five, with the funds from the deleted carrier instead spent on three America-class LHAs armed with F-35Bs, as suggested in this Proceedings article.  

With the new national focus on the Asia-Pacific region, the Navy and Air Force are bound to win the Pentagon’s budget wars. But it won’t do to simply throw more money at a dysfunctional shipbuilding program. By cutting out extraneous and underwhelming ship types and focusing on proven designs, the Navy will spend its money in ways that will actually put more new warships in the water.

3. Prepare the services for the long-range strike revolution. In spite of budget cuts, by all accounts the Pentagon’s long-range strike programs remain a top priority and will very likely continue to receive their funding. This should not come as a surprise. As I examined in my column last week in Foreign Policy, it has dawned on the Air Force and Navy that their tactical aircraft, originally conceived for the confined European theater during the Cold War, are swallowed up in the Asia-Pacific’s vast spaces. China’s large and comprehensive anti-aircraft, anti-ship, and land attack missile forces, most of which are mounted on hard-to-find mobile platforms, constitute a shrewd exploitation of its advantages as a continental power against the limitation and vulnerabilities of existing U.S. platforms.

So the Pentagon, years late, is finally getting on with its response, Air Force and Navy long-range strike systems, many of which are still hidden inside black budgets. When they emerge into the open, we will see intercontinental and trans-ocean robotic reconnaissance and strike aircraft, launched from aircraft carriers and land bases. In order to reduce costs and minimize development risks, these aircraft are likely to specialize in ISR, electronic attack, strike, and other functions. And they will need to synchronize their operations with their fellow robots, with manned aircraft, and with soldiers on the ground.

The big long-range strike programs will demand large cultural changes inside all of the services. The Air Force officer corps is already getting used to the idea of robotic aircraft. The Navy and its aviators will soon be next. Carrier strike groups will have to get comfortable with the idea of launching robotic air strikes from the far side of an ocean. The Air Force and Navy will also have to get comfortable with tightly integrating their operations to an unprecedented extent.

Ground forces will also have to adapt. Close air support will come from the robot above, which will pass to a patrol leader’s control after a flight from the far side of the world. Always-on-station tactical air support at intercontinental ranges will permit ground operations that would otherwise have been impossible.

Long-range strike will also alter diplomacy and grand strategy. The U.S. now needs long-range strike because forward presence is becoming untenable in some places. Shifting from forward presence to long-range power projection will require U.S. statesmen and diplomats to find new ways of “showing the flag” and of reassuring allies on the wrong side of an adversary’s missile zone, from which the U.S. may have been forced to withdraw most its military forces.


Last year I concluded by noting that “[m]any defense policies are stagnating, going obsolete, or breaking down before policymakers get around to reforming them.” That is still true. But the drastically altered budget situation the Pentagon now faces, combined with rapidly advancing technology, will also have significant organizational and culture implications for all of the services, to which they will have to adapt.


Bill M.

Sat, 12/31/2011 - 11:32pm

In reply to by bumperplate

Put in perspective first, this is a reporter's assessment, so while many of these ideas are being discussed, they're not policy yet. Unfortunately there is very little political risk to downsizing the military because we represent a small percentage of the population, on the other hand start messing with social security and medicare etc. watch out. We been through this before several times, we'll survive and those that get forced out will make new lives. Still a shame thought to lose so much experience.


Sat, 12/31/2011 - 6:16pm

I just want to know what politician is going to cripple his or her re-election bid by telling combat vets and their families that they are going to be fired: no retirement, no medical, etc. That's what will happen with a large RIF.

I hope our policy makers step lightly into this issue. Given a ten year war in two theaters, mistreatment of those that fought is likely to damage perceptions of the military leadership and civilian control for years to come. It will jeopardize the military's ability to recruit and retain for at least twenty years as people will live in fear of when they'll be purged. The majority will simply not wait and they'll exit. The career population come 2020 will not be a pretty sight.

The other large issue here is the large increase in contractor support for the DoD. Their salaries are a huge expenditure. If they get purged and there's also a RIF - where's the manpower to support training and operations? Answer: there isn't any.

There's always a lot of talk about losing mid-grade officers and they are definitely going to be leaving. But, let's not underestimate the NCOs too - todays platoon sergeants grew up and started deploying as Privates. Hollow out the force and the budget and many of them are going to depart. That means many of our E8 and E9 bubbas are going to be void of combat time, come 2020 and beyond.

Honestly I just don't have high hopes for this process.

For the "grunts", I really hope our generals have the guts to start purging those 30yr+ GOs, COLs, SGMs, CSMs first. These cuts must start at the top.