The coming year will be a particularly consequential one for US defense. Critical decisions loom regarding budgets, personnel reforms, ending the war in Afghanistan, crafting a lasting national defense strategy, and dealing with China and Iran.
The Obama administration is finally developing a realistic Pentagon budget that is in line with congressionally mandated budget caps. But now that Congress has made a budget deal and given the Pentagon some budgetary flexibility, the military must not fall into the trap of thinking all is well; it cannot afford to ease back on reform efforts. The administration and Congress must work together to wisely trim manpower, slash overhead, safeguard training and protect investment in programs to ensure a smaller but more modern future force.
To do that, it must prioritize interests and threats and reconsider US military obligations worldwide to determine which missions are no longer necessary or worth their considerable investment. The merely important must not undercut the nationís ability to defend its vital interests.
The inaugural Defense News Leadership Poll indicates leaders throughout the defense establishment see cyberwarfare and terrorism as the greatest threats facing the nation, followed by the challenges posed by China across the Pacific rim.
Poll respondents expressed overwhelming skepticism that the Afghanistan mission will ultimately prove successful, with a slim majority favoring a quick end to the war. But Washington must continue with an orderly drawdown and negotiate to retain sufficient troops in the country to support Afghan forces and ensure stability there into the future.
As for China, the administration is right to strengthen ties with nations across the region that reject Beijingís drive to seize the East China Sea. And America must be prepared for an incident there, as China vows to enforce its new air defense identification zone and its neighbors ignore its demands. A Chinese warship last month tried to cut off a US cruiser in international waters; itís only a matter of time before an incident occurs. When it happens, Washington and its allies must be ready.
Here, too, the poll found skepticism that the administration can make good on its pivot to Asia in the face of budget cuts. But the renewed focus on Asia isnít simply resources, and the administration is boosting its engagement with allies across the region. A truly comprehensive approach is needed to allay fears of confrontation while keeping China from destabilizing Asiaís prosperity.
In Iran, talks toward peacefully ending Iranís nuclear program continue, but the international community must be prepared for those talks to fail as did earlier efforts. While the new regime in Tehran has taken steps to rejoin the international community, Iranís long history as a serial violator of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and a state sponsor of terrorism will not be wiped clean overnight.
Back at home, the necessity to address runaway personnel costs within the Defense Department must not be ignored. Both the Joint Staff and a congressionally mandated independent panel will unveil proposals to reform military and retiree pay and benefits this year, aiming to throttle back costs that are rising at 4.2 percent a year even as the force is shrinking. Generous wartime benefits doubled costs over the past decade, but must be reconsidered in a postwar era.
The budget deal passed in December included a surprise cut in cost-of-living adjustments to military retired pay that will cost each retiree some $80,000 or more in lifetime benefits. Pressure is already mounting to reverse the move, a hint of just how hard it will be to truly reform the personnel system.
How Washington handles these challenges will intimately shape its security agenda not only for 2014, but for many years to come.