Retired Gen. James Cartwright offers a fresh view on defense

Walter Pincus
Reporter May 21, 2012

Retired Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright aired some fresh ideas about U.S. defense policies last week. About the same time, the House was preparing to pass next year’s Pentagon authorization bill and, in the process, illustrating Cartwright’s point that the nation isn’t downsizing correctly.

The former Joint Chiefs of Staff vice chairman questioned the emphasis on additional manned aircraft, tanks and land vehicles, saying unmanned systems will prove more effective.

He also spoke of the “fallacy of the two-war scenario” and argued against an emphasis on cyberdefense rather than cyberoffense. He made his off-the-cuff remarks during a presentation last Tuesday at the annual Joint Warfighting Conference, hosted by the U.S. Naval Institute and the industry group AFCEA International (Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association).

Although the House is adding about $4 billion to next year’s spending, Cartwright said that “truth be told,” the Pentagon had been planning $480 billion in reductions over the next 10 years. “It was just a question of when and how,” he said.

What concerns him is that $480 billion “was about a 10 percent reduction, and historically we’ve run about 20 percent reductions after these [military] conflicts. We’re about halfway there.”

If there is an additional $200 billion cut in the next 10 years, there will be a problem, he said.

Although the United States has taken a volunteer force through a decade of war, Cartwright said, “we have not taken an all-volunteer force through a downturn when resources become stretched.”

Voicing concern about recruitment and retention, he said, “How we entice people to stay is something that we have really not done in the past. We have been a service in the mind-set of ‘We will RIF [reduce in force]. I don’t need you, I need that dollar that pays you, so I am going to get rid of you, and goodbye.’ ”

That approach can’t continue, Cartwright said.

He also spoke of the need to recognize that the United States has become an “occupying force.”

“When you go to battle by getting up in the morning in your compound, getting into your armored vehicles, go out and patrol, and return to your compound at night, that is an occupation force,” he argued.

As the country prepares to rebuild its fighting forces, he asked: “Are we going to build an occupation force for the last war or [build a force for] the next war we want to prepare for?”

He advocated new approaches in general and said the strategy of the Air Sea Battle, a new partnership between the Navy and Air Force, was not well conceived.

Additionally, he said, the new emphasis on U.S. forces in the Asia-Pacific region politically demonizes China, “which is not in anybody’s interest.” Not only that, he said, but it also gives the impression that the United States is turning its back on other areas.

The former fighter pilot talked about the future using airplanes as an example, but he said his views also applied to land and sea weapons. He described today’s aircraft as at “the human edge of performance,” meaning small and costly increments to a manned plane produce only small gains in fighting capability.

For instance, a U-2 surveillance craft can be in the air for 22 hours, but a pilot generally can do only nine, he said.

It would cost $100 billion and many years to engineer a 5 percent improvement in a manned bomber, but unmanned planes could be improved faster and at a lower cost, he said. “I love being in the cockpit, but this is the reality of the world we are in,” Cartwright said.

Cyberwarfare issues are another challenge, he said. The new and costly F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which has stealth capability, has no protection against cyberattacks. Previous aircraft could turn off electronic transmission with one switch to avoid detection, he noted, but the F-35 has no such mechanism.

Cartwright said the United States also needs to protect its military systems from hackers, noting: “That’s the reality of the battlefield we are going to be in.”

But he insisted, “In military terms [of] offense and defense, we are thinking 90 percent defense, 10 percent offense. That is bass-ackwards for us. Our job is to kill things . . . change people’s mind-set.”

He closed by saying that cyberweapon development should be done at the tactical individual service level and not by some centralized Defense Department organization. Centralization, he said, would mean that the individual services would no longer be compelled to use their research money to develop weapons and train fighters for combatant commanders.

I hope the Senate Armed Services Committee, as it works on the fiscal 2013 defense bill this week, considers Cartwright’s viewpoint.

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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