Let’s stop pretending that deep defense cuts can be done safely

In recent weeks, several organizations have put out proposals of various defense cuts which they claimed are informed by or based on some strategy. In a few cases, this is true, in other cases, it is not. These proposals of defense cuts follow earlier ones reviewed and refuted here on CDN and on my blog (see here).

The two latest reports proposing defense cuts and extrapolating on how to make them are the Stimson Center’s Strategic Agility and the RAND Corporation’s A Strategy-Based Framework for Accommodating Reductions in the Defense Budget. Both of them propose a defense posture and a strategy far different from the ones the DOD has so far operated under, and markedly different even from the new strategy the DOD announced in January of this year in response to the Budget Control Act’s spending cut mandates. Both of these strategies/blueprints claim that significant defense budget cuts/savings are possible if these strategies are adopted.

What Strategic Agility conveniently omits, however (while the Strategy-Based Framework admits it openly), is that the deep defense budget and force posture cuts presented therein would significantly weaken the US military and its ability to defend the US and its allies and invite much greater risk than that presently accepted by defense planners.

Let’s review both of these strategies in brief.

Strategic Agility claims that $400 bn per decade in efficiencies (such as significant reforms to military retirement and healthcare programs, acquisition system reform, and downsizing defense bureaucracies) is possible, but it doesn’t specify what those reforms and efficiencies would be. In case the Stimson Center hasn’t noticed, the DOD has already requested Congressional authorization for sweeping reforms to its retirement and healthcare programs – necessary to meet the initial BCA mandate to cut $487 bn out of the DOD’s budget over the next decade – and has been denied that authority by Congress.

Strategic Agility also calls for withdrawing almost all troops from the locations where they are permanently deployed and instead making rotational deployments to these locations, and most importantly, relying heavily on “expeditionary” capabilities – i.e. projecting military power from the US. Accordingly, they want most troops stationed abroad to be brought back to the States.

Stimson’s Barry Blechman says “We should shift over time from static deployments overseas in an evolutionary way to a more rotational system. Permanent presence in regions like the Middle East is a lightning rod for those who oppose us. It allows them to recruit supporters. It causes problems with local populations.”

But this is true only in the Middle East, where permanently stationed American troops are indeed viewed as occupiers. Nations in the Pacific Rim and in Europe, OTOH, welcome American troops and view them as as guaranteers of their security. This is especially true of Central European countries like Poland and the Czech Republic, two stalwart US allies who have suffered repeated foreign (usually Russian, in Poland’s case) aggression and which continue to be threatened by it. While Iran is threatening to wipe Israel off the map, most Americans don’t know that in 1795 Russia DID actually wipe Poland off the map for 123 years. Putin’s confrontational and aggressive foreign policy is a threat to European security, and only a permanent presence of US troops on Polish soil can reassure America’s Central European allies that they will never again be subjugated by Russia.

Similarly, America’s Pacific Rim allies very much want American troops to be stationed permanently on their soil and, like European allies, view American troops as their defenders, not occupiers. The only country that don’t welcome them are China and North Korea – precisely the aggressors America must defend its allies from. Rotational presence doesn’t reassure allies, nor does it allow the US military to train their militaries and build their capabilities to defend themselves. It is also more costly than bringing the troops home, building new bases for them in the US, and redeploying them rotationally every year or so.

Stimson’s proposal to rely on expeditionary capabilities is no panacea, either. These are currently shrinking due to the shrinkage of the Navy’s ship (including carrier) fleet and the USAF’s fleet of strategic and tactical airlifters. Just a few years ago, the USAF had 316 strategic airlifters. Now it has 301 and is due to retire another 26 this fiscal year. Stimson essentially wants to increase the burden on already overburnened expeditionary units.

Worst of all, though, Stimson proposes deep, reckless cuts to America’s nuclear deterrent: cutting the ICBM fleet from 450 to just 300, the ballistic missile submarine fleet from 14 to just 10, and not replacing the USAF’s unsurvivable B-52 nuclear bombers with new, stealthy aircraft. (Stimson supports the Next Generation Bomber, but wants it to be purely conventional.) This is reckless and unacceptable.

Such a cut would make the USAF’s ICBM fleet 134 missiles smaller than Russia’s (434 ICBMs), and it would be even weaker than these raw numbers indicate, because most Russian ICBMs can carry far more warheads than the Minuteman’s mere 3 tetes: the SS-18 Satan can carry ten (plus up to 30 countermeasures like decoys), the SS-19 Stiletto can carry six, and the SS-29 can carry four. The Russians are now developing a new heavy ICBM, “the Son of Satan”, due to enter service in 2018, which will carry as many warheads as the SS-18 Satan.

Similarly, the Russians are now building eight ballistic missile submarines due to replace eight older ones (of the Delta class). The first three will carry 16 SLBMs each, same as America’s planned SSBN replacement class, but Russian boats #4 through #8 will carry 20 SLBMs each, thus giving the Russian Navy an advantage over the USN in terms of missiles and warheads carried on these subs. Yet, Stimson wants to cut America’s SSBN fleet further, to just 10 boats with 16 missiles each, 2 boats fewer than what Russia has and will continue to have (excluding the Dmitry Donskoy SSBN, now serving as a test platform).

America’s nuclear arsenal is already barely adequate. Any further cuts to it are absolutely unacceptable.

So Stimson’s nuclear arsenal cuts proposals are reckless, and for that reason alone, their “strategy” is unacceptable.

RAND does not propose any specific strategy itself. Instead, it illustrates three different scenarios under which the size and capabilities of the military would be cut significantly if further defense budget cuts are made. Each of these scenarios is tied to a specific strategy.

The first one prioritizes the Army and the Marine Corps and would continue to prepare the military for persistent, protracted large-scale ground wars, such as those of the past. The second one would contract most defense responsibilites to America’s allies, without regard for their ability to assume them (most of them are either deeply in debt or, in the case of Central European countries, too poor to defend themselves on their own). The third strategy assumes that the US will have to play the lead role in some regions of the world, but only in the most important ones, and  contract responsibility for securing other regions to allies, while focusing on the most important (through the prism of American national interests) parts of the world: the Pacific Rim and the Persian Gulf. Accordingly, the third strategy would prioritize the capabilities most relevant for winning in the Pacific Rim and the Gulf, while cutting back on less essential capabilities, and prioritize long-range strike and striking from over the horizon. This means putting a premium on the Navy and the Air Force.

Thus, the cutbacks to the military’s force structure under these three different scenarios would be (quoting directly from RAND, A Strategy Based Framework…, pp. 38-39):

“I: Prepare for Persistent Conflict Force Structure Reductions
Savings Initiative:
• No cuts to Army
• No cuts to Marine Corps
• Reduce Navy by 30 percent, including retiring three CSGs
• Reduce Air Force by 10 percent, including retiring two active TFWs.

II: Cede More Responsibility to Allies and Partners Force Structure Reductions
Savings Initiative:
• Reduce Army by two BCTs
• Reduce Marine Corps end strength by 13,500 Marines and 2 active tactical
fighter squadrons
• Reduce Navy by 20 percent, including retiring two CSGs
• Reduce Air Force by 10 percent, including retiring two active TFWs.

III: Shift Geostrategic Focus to the Western Pacific Force Structure Reductions
Savings Initiative:
• Reduce Army by six BCTs
• Reduce Marine Corps end strength by 13,500 Marines and 2 active tactical
fighter squadrons
• Reduce Navy by 5 percent, including retiring 15 combatants
• Reduce Air Force by 5 percent, including retiring one active TFW”

The first and second scenario would make devastating and probably irreparable cuts to the Navy and Air Force, and the second would also make some (albeit smaller) cuts to the Army and the Marines, while the first would spare the ground force from any further cuts. Both the first and the second scenario would, in short, significantly weaken the US military and its ability to defend America and its allies.

Only the third strategy is suited to the kind of wars America will be fighting in the future and the geographic theaters where these wars will be fought (which will be predominantly maritime). Only the third strategy prioritizes, and mostly preserves, the capabilities and the kind of units and assets needed to prevail in such wars.

That is because almost all future wars – whether against China, North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, or Syria – will be fought predominantly in the air and at sea, NOT on the ground, thus requiring that priority status be accorded to airpower and seapower. Moreover, such wars will put a premium on survivable assets (such as stealthy aircraft, air/missile defense warships, and submarines) and on long-range strike platforms (e.g. the Next Generation Bomber and future carrier-based UCAVs), while ground troops will play only a marginal role. Thus, small additional ground force reductions could be made, although the Marine Corps cuts that RAND proposes would go too far. A better idea would be to move many Army brigades to the reserve component and for the USMC to divest itself of capabilities and assets that other services can provide.

Moreover, it is in America’s interest to avoid being drawn into any new large-scale or protracted ground wars, and such wars are politically impossible these days, anyway, because American voters are war-weary. As then-SECDEF Robert Gates said in 2011, any future SECDEF who again advises the President to send another American ground army to Asia or the Middle East should have his head reexamined.

RAND’s strategy for the third (Pacific/maritime) scenario is not flawless, however. It calls for a further cut of 15 ships from the Navy and retiring one additional Tactical Fighter Wing from the Air Force. This would weaken America’s seapower and airpower, which will be so crucial in the Pacific and the Persian Gulf, where every ship will matter, especially large surface combatants. Moreover, ships and planes are much harder to produce again once production lines have closed, so cuts in the Navy and the USAF are hard to reverse, unlike cuts in the ground force. To pay for protecting the Navy and the USAF, the DOD could, for example, delay or cancel the Ground Combat Vehicle program and move 50% of the Army’s heavy brigades to the reserve component.

Overall, RAND’s Strategy #3 is relatively the best suited of all “strategies” bandied so far by anyone to the threats of the future. Even that strategy, however, has its flaws, as it would still cut further (although not deeply) the very services crucial for defeating these threats and winning the wars of the future.


One comment

  • It doesn’t take rocket science to know that a nation with a weakened economy & a weakened military is, in fact, a weak nation. These are the firewalls between us & ‘them’, &why the USA has been considered ‘exceptional’ by the rest of the world. The mismanagement of both seem to be ‘dismantlement by design’ by those envisioning the perfect unity of all. IF one truly wants to make cuts at DOD, let’s look at the itemes included in the budget. There is a multimillion annuel contribution to a fund that saves some critter (can’t recall which of endangered) this is hardly contribute to defense or security & where there is one there is more.PERSONNEL of the civilian nomenclature. Once hired, government employees are almost impossible to fire…& they know it…GS-4’s-5’s average 21K annuel, a GS-12 is well over 100K. If you went to each military base & eliminated the excess personnel just imagine that amount alone.And while more & more cyber techniques come into play…nothing replaces the baic foot soldier & his hands on even during a power failure..but I digress..Do all field grade officers (& often their wives) need cars & drivers?

    I don’t give a tinker’s____if you name is Stimpson, Rand or Muki Mouse..either get sensible & SPECIFIC or return to you neandrathal cave & let real men with real military knowledge be in charge of our defense…that includes worn out congress/senate inhabitants.. & Leon Panetta..