Report urges different role for future military


Are Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey “banging their heads against a brick wall” every time they go up on Capitol Hill to explain to lawmakers that they have to accept the proposed deep cuts in the Defense Department budget?

That phrase means “to do, say, or ask for something repeatedly but to be unable to change a situation,” according to the Cambridge Dictionaries Online.

Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washingon Post. He first came to the paper in 1966 and has covered numerous subjects, including nuclear weapons and arms control, politics and congressional investigations. He was among Post reporters awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. View Archive

On Tuesday, Dempsey told the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee: “We simply can’t afford to postpone essential reforms to compensation and health care. Both should be allowed to grow more gradually, [and] we should stop pouring money into excess facilities and unwanted weapons.”

Congress last year refused to adopt reforms for health care, start the process that would cut excess bases or reduce the weapons the administration suggested. And the lawmakers are well on their way to ignoring those requests again this year.

As for the future, Hagel said: “If the sequester-related provisions of the Budget Control Act are not changed, FY 2014 funding for national defense programs will be subject to an additional $52 billion reduction in DOD funding. And if there are no changes, continued sequestrations will result in roughly $500 billion in additional reductions to defense spending over the next 10 years.”

Hagel’s plan for the future will come from a “strategic choices and management review” ordered in April that was to reassess assumptions driving the Pentagon’s investment and force-structure decisions. He told the subcommittee that he is examining initial internal results of this review.

Perhaps it would be wise for Hagel and Dempsey to look at a May 2013 study done by the National Defense University Strategy Study Group (NDUSSG) and distributed Tuesday by the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Led by Michael J. Mazarr, a professor and associate dean for academics at the National War College, the group’s work lays out a “sustainable national security posture” that is based on the premise that “while foreign threats have dominated national security planning in the past . . . future wars may more typically involve nontraditional foes and means threatening the homeland.”

In short, the study suggests a new way of thinking about how to deal with the future “under austerity for the next ten years.” You recognize some ideas will appear radical when the authors say one of their core conclusions is that “the United States is buying systems, forces and capabilities increasingly mismatched to the challenges, threats, and opportunities of the emerging environment.”

The “most likely threats,” according to the authors, will continue to involve terrorism, but they also include biological pathogens, cyberthreats and financial instruments on which a limited portion of the defense budget is spent. Instead, our current course of spending will lead to a force “dominated by salaries, health care, retirement costs and a handful of staggeringly expensive major weapons systems,” according to the report.

To put that in context, Defense Comptroller Robert Hale told the Senate subcommittee that if the administration’s proposals to reform the Tricare health-care program for retirees were implemented, it would save $2.5 billion in 2018. “If we don’t do that and we have to say cut forces to offset it, it’s about 25,000 troops. We need to slow the growth.”

Rather than shrinking down the existing national security structure, the NDUSSG proposes “fundamental rethinking” in which the United States moves from military dominance to “restrained ambitions and greater selectivity.”

In the coming era, for example, the study sees “many roadblocks to the effective employment of state-based [military] power in general.” Countries and non-state actors, often terrorist groups, have many means — from insurgency to social protest, cyberattacks and misinformation campaigns up to active resistance — “to thwart efforts to employ military or even economic [sanctions] or informational power to coerce them.”

The group also sees in the coming decade “a time of relatively low direct threats to the United States, but a wider range of potential threats.” At the same time, it sees Asia, North Africa and the Middle East facing disruptive transitions “that will take far more than a decade to play out.”

Growing out of this turmoil will be cyber-militias, non-government activist groups and terrorist networks with “influence drastically out of proportion to their size or resources.”

To meet the new threats, the group proposes that the United States must remain “first among equals but use its power and influence to spur the actions of networks, coalitions, emerging powers and the international community generally.” That sounds a lot like what the Obama administration is trying to do.

This is a risky strategy that “will demand more listening and less talking, even as America continues to lead — a delicate and trickly balance to strike.” It also means patience rather than taking “costly, risky and urgent action” against provocative regimes such as those of North Korea and Iran.

On the military side, this means removing heavy footprints, such as bases, around the world and increasing training of host nations’ forces while maintaining infrastructure for surging in a crisis. It also means placing more emphasis on providing allies’ missile defenses and special forces training with rotational deployments to maintain a local presence.

Large-deck aircraft carriers and costly aircraft such as the F-35, along with the new generation of nuclear delivery systems, should be reconsidered. Instead, the study proposes more current-generation aircraft and nuclear submarines with conventional strike missiles for a majority of the future force. Better intelligence and collective action seem more appropriate for the future.

When threats emerge, they call for increasing balanced and overlapping stand-off strike systems as a threat for deterrent purposes or to actually allow a reaction in a timely fashion.

In summation, the group emphasized that “we know that the military instrument of power is over-emphasized” in today’s budget and that it is difficult to summon the “political will necessary to make the hard choices that are now fairly apparent.” Perhaps that’s why the study includes the disclaimer that its views “do not represent the opinions or conclusions of any element of the U.S. government.”

They are worth considering, but try selling any of these ideas on Capitol Hill.

For previous Fine Print columns, go to



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