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Editorial: Time to Innovate

Feb. 24, 2014 - 03:45AM   |  
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US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will discuss the Obama administration’s new quadrennial defense review (QDR) this week, which insiders say will yield a balanced strategy for a post-Afghanistan world.

The new QDR is an update of the 2010 version and will emphasize Asia, the need for more global engagement and maintaining strong special operations forces. It seeks to ensure a force large enough to fight one major war and several smaller contingencies at once.

It also will support key future programs such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, new long range bombers and ballistic missile subs, as well as supporting capabilities such as aerial tanker aircraft, improved intelligence and cyber systems.

The review also will codify manpower cuts, especially from the Army, and pare back even priority programs, including F-35 and the Navy’s littoral combat ships. And even special operations forces, which remain integral to the administration’s long-term counterterrorism and engagement strategy, will see the funding flatten into the coming years.

Critics maintain that the new QDR fails to account for nearly $1 trillion in actual or planned cuts, claiming scores of programs and thousands of personnel. Some top officers privately suggest that the new strategy is impossible to execute given steep spending cuts.

That’s an overstatement. By almost any measure, America retains the world’s most potent military.

But cuts are taking their toll, increasing risk that will mount over time. Even Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall — by no means an alarmist — has warned that budget cuts are making it harder for America to maintain its military technological edge over its rivals, especially China.

Rising personnel and weapons costs, along with its ponderous overhead, will continue to make that problem worse.

How the services, DoD and Congress respond to that remains an open question. The increasing rift between active and reserve components of the Army and Air Force is indicative of the kinds of problems the US military could see in its future.

Yet the implications of the QDR go far beyond parochial service boundaries and even national borders.

This strategy will be closely watched worldwide as allies and adversaries look for indications of just how dedicated the United States is to various regions around the world. Many will undoubtedly regard the new document as the latest evidence that a war-weary Washington is withdrawing from the world stage.

Washington can’t merely pay lip service to global engagement but must actively work ever more closely with allies to solve security challenges and to convince them of its unflinching support.

It’s not unreasonable for allies to worry when the nation they depend on for their security is not only cutting spending on its capabilities but also appears unwilling to leverage its considerable power to address festering problems like Syria or growing challenges like an increasingly aggressive China.

But despite fiscal challenges, the United States can support the strategy it’s crafted by shifting resources from what doesn’t matter to what does. While $500 billion — plus another $85 billion in wartime funding — is less than what was expected, it is still an enormous sum that if more wisely spent can fund an awful lot of security.

While some see this as purely a money problem, it’s also an innovation challenge. Ultimately, the US military must stay ahead of current and future adversaries by being more innovative when it comes to strategy, tactics, organization and how it develops and fields new technology and systems.

When the going gets tough, the tough innovate or fall behind.

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