At various times in US history, alarms of a pending defense “train wreck” or “hollow force” reverberated throughout Washington.
Today, the Pentagon is indeed vulnerable to a meltdown, in many ways far more severe than conventional wisdom holds. But if we are clever, and that is a Herculean “if,” we can still field the forces we need for the rest of this decade and beyond.
Three overarching factors explain why today differs from the past:
■ The need for a force of 1.4 million active-duty personnel is highly excessive. Contingencies on the Korean Peninsula and the Arabian Gulf must be covered. But no peer military threat approaching that of the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany looms unless we are incompetent in dealing with China, itself preoccupied with sustaining enough economic growth to prevent the 300 million or 400 million people living in poverty from rebelling, as has been the case throughout China’s long history.
And, as we should have learned in Afghanistan and Iraq, military force alone cannot bring peace, stability and prosperity to areas of conflict and violence.
■ Regardless of the sustainability of sequestration, which cuts $500 billion from planned defense spending over 10 years, built-in cost growth for people, health care, pensions and weapons will reduce the buying power of the Pentagon by about half by decade’s end.
■ After a dozen years of war in which money was no object in caring for our troops, we are facing if not a personnel crisis then a profound change in policies to attract, retain and incentivize our most important asset — our people.
And if a fourth factor were to be added, it is an obsolescent national security structure still largely rooted in post-World War II and Cold War assumptions and thinking.
The question today is no longer that of the 1960s, “how much is enough?” In the 21st century, the right questions are, “what do we need and why?”
This is especially true as the largest threats are not military in nature and not existential to society, as thermonuclear war with the Soviet Union would have been.
And here we are, very much limited by the frailty of our other tools to cope with crucial security challenges, such as failed and failing governments from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, with Brussels and Washington in between; economic deprivation, despair and disparity; and radical ideologies and religious extremism.
Fiscal reality will force major — some will argue draconian — changes in sizing and deploying our military. The extreme right will bitterly oppose cuts because they view power as an inherent good, and the more power the better. The left will see smaller forces as less capable of humanitarian intervention.
And the brokenness of the political system will make rational decision-making regarding defense as irrational as the ludicrous way in which the government shutdown and debt ceiling have been handled.
Meanwhile, aside from the Marine Corps, which seems to be anticipating the need for dealing with these crucial personnel issues, this has been a nearly invisible crisis. In fighting the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and against terrorism, our forces have not only lacked for nothing, but virtually no expense has been spared to support them, at least those on active duty.
A quadrennial defense review (QDR) is on the near horizon. Unfortunately, a QDR is perhaps the least likely forum to achieve fundamental change, as the enormous bureaucratic undertaking could strangle bold initiatives. So, what can be done?
Smart people usually have annual physicals to assess their health. The Pentagon needs precisely that: a no-holds-barred look at its strengths, weaknesses and opportunities. Missions will have to be changed. Budget cuts and in-built cost growth will dramatically reduce buying power. And personnel policies and incentives of the past will not work in the future.
That said, done properly and over time, a ready, well-equipped, highly motivated force of about 800,000 active duty should be more than enough to keep the nation safe and strong. Business as usual will lead not to a train wreck or a hollow force, but far worse — to a meltdown.
Harlan Ullman, senior adviser at the Atlantic Council in Washington and chairman of the Killowen Group, which advises leaders of business and government.