In a piece written for AOL Defense, Nathan Freier, a senior fellow at CSIS and a retired U.S. Army officer, implores policymakers to think carefully about “known unknowns” before taking an axe to the Pentagon’s ground forces.
Employing former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s now-famous taxonomy, Freier asserts that the Pentagon, in keeping with its long-established culture, is now making thorough preparation for its preferred “known knowns.” These include China’s rising military power and Iran’s regional ambitions (addressed by the new Air-Sea Battle Concept), North Korea (presumably another network-centric targeting exercise), and post-al Qaeda terrorism (to be managed by the growing CIA-JSOC partnership). For all of the “known knowns” the Pentagon has its plans well in hand.
But what about the “known unknowns,” what Freier terms the “unacceptable disorder” that all serious planners realize the world will toss up and which Freier asserts U.S. ground forces will inevitably have to deal with? How do these unwelcome, unmanageable, and murky situations figure into the Pentagon’s plans?
Freier has a list of scenarios that policymakers don’t want to think about but which seem even more inevitable than the “known knowns”:
What options should the United States retain to respond to contagious violence in the Middle East? What might the United States have to do in case of civil war in Mexico or Cuba, regime collapse in nuclear-armed North Korea or Pakistan or the violent disintegration of Russia? Further, what role, if any, might U.S. forces play in containing unfavorable turns in the Arab Spring -- an Egyptian civil war, resurgent violence in Iraq, or an Iranian proxy war against the Gulf Arab states? Finally, what if the Arab Spring itself is only the vanguard of a more generalized global trend where other important governments prove more vulnerable than many expect to sudden social and political unrest?
Presumably extrapolating from the historical record, Freier implies that U.S. policymakers will not be able to resist eventual intervention in cases like these. And he believes that stabilizing these situations will require a lot of U.S. boots on the ground.
Facing off against Freier’s warning is a recent report from RAND that discusses how the Army might go about cutting its budget and how deep such cuts might get. In order to establish a medium-term floor for the Army’s expenditures, RAND examined the three previous postwar drawdowns since 1950. If these previous “peacetime” levels represent the lowest floors past policymakers have permitted, today’s Army could face up to a 50% cut in its funding. According to RAND, personnel funding could decline 42%; operations and maintenance 52%; and procurement 74%.
Here we have two lines of extrapolation colliding. Freier makes a defensible forecast of the demand for U.S. ground forces, based on the past behavior of U.S. policymakers. Similarly, RAND uses policymakers’ past postwar drawdown decisions to calculate a possible floor for the Army’s force structure. It foresees an Army suffering a decade-long procurement holiday and a force structure smaller than the 1990s.
Analysts like Freier and RAND are left to murky extrapolation because the chaotic policy environment in Washington has left them with nothing else to go on. Serial continuing resolutions, delayed budget sequesters, economic instability, and unresolved debates about America’s future role in the world mean that defense planners have little stable guidance on which to formulate plans. This state of affairs won’t be fixed until at least the next general election – and maybe not even then.