Friday, February 28, 2014

Downsizing the giant:
The Hagel-Obama defense budget and what it means

ON MONDAY, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel finally dropped the ax on his own agency and delivered a sea change for the United States military, one he had promised, or threatened, for nearly a year. “Today I am announcing the key decisions I have recommended to the President for the Defense Department’s Fiscal Year 2015 budget and beyond.

“These recommendations will adapt and reshape our defense enterprise so that we can continue protecting this nation’s security in an era of unprecedented uncertainty and change. As we end our combat mission in Afghanistan, this will be the first budget to fully reflect the transition DoD is making for after 13 years of war — the longest conflict in our nation’s history.”

It was a frank admission of something we should already know, and have been led to believe: the armed forces of the United States, paragon of a sometimes lethal efficiency, has become both a victim of that efficiency and a victim of the wider, asymmetrically bad domestic economy.

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Back in the days, a certain visible muscularity was more necessary by our armed forces; a relative military and technological primitivism meant doing more with more: big armies, vast armadas, overwhelming firepower that could be as overwhelming for our side (logistically and economically) as it was for the enemy to fight.

Now, though, with better training, lighter aircraft and more powerful weapons; with the hindsight of generations of tragic wartime experience; and with an emerging economic reality that makes juggernauts unsustainable, the United States has a military that’s more dynamic, more technologically endowed and more financially strapped — a military that may be about to do more with less. A lot less.

“This budget helps us to remain the world’s finest military — modern, capable and ready — even while transitioning to a smaller, more affordable force over time,” Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said Monday.

Under the terms of the 2011 Budget Control Act, (sequestration), Congress approved a budget that required a reduction in force of Army personnel from 522,000 to about 420,000; and a cut in Marines’ numbers from 190,000 to about 175,000 — all by 2019.

The new Pentagon budget could pare as many as 90,000 soldiers from the branches of the U.S. military, dropping the force to about 440,000 — a figure that would be the lowest active force since before World War II. Hagel’s proposal will be part of President Obama’s official budget, which hits the stores on Tuesday calling for about $496 billion in core defense spending.

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WE ARE repositioning to focus on the strategic challenges and opportunities that will define our future: new technologies, new centers of power, and a world that is growing more volatile, more unpredictable, and in some instances more threatening to the United States,” Hagel said at the Pentagon.

But that thunderclap shouldn’t have been such a surprise. Hagel said almost exactly the same thing last July at the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Louisville, Ky. “We have to prepare our institution for whatever comes,” he said.

“To that end,” he said in Louisville, “these cuts are forcing us to make tough but necessary decisions to prioritize missions and capabilities around our core responsibility, which is the security of our country.” And back in December, Hagel announced a plan to slash 20 percent of the Pentagon's headquarters budgets, a move expected to save $1 billion over five years.

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But we really got a heads-up about this embrace-the-new thinking earlier than that. President Obama got the point across with humor and wit in October 2012, in his third presidential debate with Mitt Romney, at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.

Indulging his inner hawk, Romney said “our Navy is older — excuse me — our Navy is smaller now than any time since 1917. The Navy said they needed 313 ships to carry out their mission. We're now down to 285. We're headed down to the — to the low 200s if we go through with sequestration. That's unacceptable to me. I want to make sure that we have the ships that are required by our Navy.

“Our Air Force is older and smaller than any time since it was founded in 1947. We've changed for the first time since FDR. We — since FDR we had the — we've always had the strategy of saying we could fight in two conflicts at once. Now we're changing to one conflict. Look, this, in my view, is the highest responsibility of the president of the United States, which is to maintain the safety of the American people.”

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OBAMA PUSHED back on this convincingly, schooling Mitt from the perspective of the commander in chief in modern times. “I think Governor Romney maybe hasn't spent enough time looking at how our military works. You — you mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets — because the nature of our military's changed.

“We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines. And so the question is not a game of Battleship where we're counting ships. It's, it's [about] what are our capabilities?”

Apparently the days of swarms of American military power — a bristling, bloated force that (by virtue by size) revealed itself hours or days before an attack began — are over. The big planners at the Pentagon are yielding to economic realities, but they’re no doubt also looking at the U.S. military’s ever-evolving capability through the brutal lens of history.

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On D-Day, June 6, 1944, the United States sustained about 2,500 fatalities at Omaha Beach and Utah Beach, according to the National D-Day Memorial Foundation. In one battle on one day of the three years and eight months of America’s prosecution of World War II — a war that, according to the National WWII Museum, cost the United States more than 416,000 lives in combat.

By comparison, U.S. forces have suffered about 4,490 combat deaths in Iraq and, to this point, about 2,300 deaths in the Afghanistan conflict — about 6,800 fatalities total, according to iCasualties. This over a period of 13 years of war.

Even accounting for the obvious differences in terrain, weather, enemy capability and other variables, it’s a welcome decline in the number of American military personnel killed in successive shooting wars certainly since Vietnam, and more generally since World War II.

To one degree or another, that decline can be traced to better recruiting, better training, better equipment, more advanced medical technology, and superior research & development to help that military maintain its edge on the battlefield. Simply put, it’s an evolution that, over generational time, has meant fewer American soldiers dying in wartime, American forces generally able to accomplish more military objectives more efficiently than before.

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AS YOU’RE no doubt thinking, the war in Afghanistan is something of an exception. The longest and most complicated war in American history trudges on, with the hopeful prospect of a date certain for withdrawal of U.S. forces. But the largely thwarted objectives of that war — denial of safe haven for al Qaeda and other terrorist actors; stability of the Afghan government; development of the Afghan army — have played out on a dangerously long timeline.

And for some lawmakers, the uncertainty of what’s to come is problematic. California GOP Rep. Buck McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, insists that some residual force stays behind in Afghanistan after year’s end, “so that when we leave, we don’t do what happened in Iraq and leave the country to fall over and have all of the problems confronting them on a daily basis.”

“Afghanistan is not going to turn into Sweden overnight,” he said Feb. 24 at a National Press Club luncheon in Washington, U.S. News reported.

The retiring McKeon, one of Congress’ most learned men on defense policy, blasted the planned military downsizing as a wrong-headed budget experiment. “What we’re trying to do is solve our financial problems on the backs of our military, and that can’t be done.”

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There may be unanticipated upside. Dovetailing as it will with the end of the Afghan war and the years after, Hagel’s plan for a leaner military force could cut into the U.S. military’s troubling suicide rate. The unlikely has happened: deaths from suicide in Afghanistan have surpassed deaths in combat. Sure as hell, pulling out of a war zone should help change that.

But however Hagel’s plan is realized, and assuming it makes it all the way up river through the Congress, it’s already a basic recognition not just of new economic realities but also geopolitical realities as well.

“This is a time for reality,” Hagel said on Monday. “This is a budget that recognizes the reality of the magnitude of our fiscal challenges, the dangerous world we live in, and the American military’s unique and indispensable role in the security of this country and in today’s volatile world. There are difficult decisions ahead. That is the reality we’re living with.”

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IN A WORLD that’s more breathlessly interconnected today than it was yesterday, the proposed transformation of the American military is — among other things — a rejection of the gigantism that has characterized not just the military, but also the United States itself, around the world, for generations.

And a change like this can’t be proposed, or even contemplated, without the corresponding tweak of world view that goes with it. It represents a reappraisal, a shift in the sense of America’s size in the world.

We’ve gone from horses and bayonets to lasers and drones. The “what’s next?” phase for the most potent military in the world, and the government it defends, means striking a new old balance in an increasingly dangerous world — finding consensus on the dueling questions: “Can we afford to do it?” and “Can we afford not to?”

Image credits: Hagel: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images. B-17 bombers in formation, World War II: public domain. F117A Nighthawk Stealth fighter: Obama: 3rd presidential debate (pool). D-Day landing: public domain. McKeon: Noel St. John/National Press Club. Military suicides chart: The Guardian, from U.S. Department of Defense data. 

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