U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has directed Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to conduct a review of military strategy in light of anticipated defense budget cuts extending over the next decade. Concurrently, the congressionally directed Quadrennial Defense Review, which has a similar objective, is underway.
Both of these reviews offer a unique opportunity for U.S. military forces to become more effective despite the inevitable funding cuts. How so? By embracing the concept of interdependence through reduced duplication and redundancy in our military services, a noble goal of the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act that has never fully taken hold in the Pentagon.
The usual way these studies take shape is for each military service to review its forces in light of future threat scenarios and project what capabilities and forces are needed to deal with each scenario within expected budgets. The inevitable result is a reduction of forces in each service, but little or no effort to look horizontally across the services to identify and eliminate redundant capabilities.
These two reviews should shun this conventional methodology and instead require each service to identify redundant capabilities residing in the other services that rightfully belong within the roles and missions of one service.
The principle of interdependence was supposed to be the heart and soul of Goldwater-Nichols: to force the services to work together in seamless, joint operations, not as independent operators, but with each supporting the joint team by providing forces without duplication.
Relying on each other’s core capabilities would result in a more effective joint force at lower costs. But over the years, service parochialism and a shortage of trust have trumped interdependence, leaving significant duplicative forces across the military, particularly in airpower and special operations.
To be sure, there are isolated cases of joint service cooperation but they are few and do not generate big savings. The Air Force and Navy have an agreement for air and sea battle strategies to avoid duplication in new programs, but not existing forces. The Air Force and Army have agreed on the ownership and operation of some unmanned aircraft, but even that agreement seems to be unraveling as the Army seeks more UAVs.
The Marines and the Navy have taken some steps to reduce duplication in their air forces. And all services have combined some training programs under a single, executive service. But these merely scratch the surface of this problem. To meet future budget targets, forcing interdependence is a fertile area to mine.
The former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Sam Nunn, was famous for asking senior generals and admirals appearing as witnesses, “Why do we have four air forces?” Air Force witnesses gave a straightforward answer, explaining that it was a full-service Air Force embracing the full spectrum of roles and missions required for dominance in air and space power and to support the other services.
But it was amusing to watch witnesses from the Army, Navy and Marine Corps employ emotion and tortured logic to defend their air forces. There may be valid reasons for duplication in airpower, but should not these major reviews force a fresh and deep look to eliminate unnecessary duplication and enforce interdependence?
The country faces a dilemma. The world is becoming more dangerous as time passes, with terrorism continuing to rise across Africa, Europe and the Middle East, while the vast Asia-Pacific region includes nations with expansionist goals and anti-access defenses that threaten our security. At the same time, our military forces face budget cuts that, without some restructuring, will diminish our capabilities to lead and deal with these global threats as we have in our past.
But resolving this dilemma need not create a less capable force. The nation would be better served if each of the armed services focused on its core mission and not try to overlap in capabilities. Enforcing interdependence in all mission areas, especially airpower and special operations, would allow the nation to retain its global military superiority while facing steep budget cuts to defense.
Even a rich and profligate nation cannot afford the duplication in capabilities that exist in our armed services. Our nation is not as rich and should not be as profligate as in the past. We can no longer afford this luxury. Interdependence is a long overdue solution.
Retired Gen. John Michael Loh is a former U.S. Air Force vice chief of staff and former commander of Air Combat Command. He consults for several defense contractors.