Framing the Defense Debates

By James L George

Before we turn to these main issues, however, let us see how far the military already has been downsized since the end of the Cold War. Table 1, based on the force structure outlined in the fiscal year 1997 budget submission, compares the 1990 Cold War Base to the Bush administration's Base Force, and finally the Clinton administration's Bottom Up Review force goal. The BUR force structure amounts to approximately a 40% reduction from the 1990 Cold War base and a 20% decrease from the Base Force. As also shown, the BUR force goals have just about been reached, meaning that further savings from reductions are over. Interestingly, the only force that has not been cut has been the Marine Corps, for reasons to be explained later.

The MRC Debate: Real and de facto

The QDR will focus on five issues: Strategy, Force Structure, Infrastructure, Readiness, and Modernization. On some subjects, there seems to be general agreement. For example-even though Senator John McCain (R-AZ) has advanced the notion of tiered readiness, with some forces not quite as ready as others-there is widespread belief that readiness should be maintained across the board. All the services would like further decreases in infrastructure, to save money for forces and modernization. There even is some talk of reviving the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission, but that might be politically impossible. Besides, the BRAC process actually costs more money initially for closing bases, relocations, environmental cleanups, and the like, with crossover into savings not coming for years. All the services want to maintain their force structure and modernization programs-which they probably should, under the current two-MRC strategy. Thus the debate really revolves around strategy: specifically, the two-MRC scenario, continued forward presence, and crisis response. After all, the forces and equipment should fit the strategy-not vice versa (which, frankly, has been the case sometimes).

The first issue will be the two-MRC scenario. The Clinton administration Bottom Up Review force was based on fighting "nearly simultaneously two major regional conflicts," using as examples a North Korean situation in Asia and another Iraqi-type conflict in the Middle East. Few national security observers today believe that the United States has the forces today for two MRCs. Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990-91 came just as the United States and many NATO allies were starting their drawdowns from the Cold War, so gearing up was relatively easy. Even so, the buildup took more than six months under nearly ideal conditions-with a friendly country (Saudi Arabia) next door and an in-place infrastructure, including a good harbors and empty warehouses, to facilitate the buildup. If Saddam had thrust quickly into Saudi Arabia after capturing Kuwait, it would probably have been a 100-day, not 100-hour, war, although the outcome would have been the same.

More important, however, Desert Storm took place with 1990 forces when the Bush administration was just starting its own Base Force level drawdowns-not with today's Bottom Up Review force, approximately 40% lower. Today, most analysts agree that the United States probably could not conduct another Desert Storm with forces presently available without having to strip all its other forces elsewhere. In short, although the official policy still might be two MRCs, the de facto capabilities are closer to one MRC.

For this reason, it looked as though the major result of the defense reviews would be dropping the unrealistic two MRC scenario, which, quite frankly, does reflect past realities, more or less. Since World War II there have been three MRCs: Korea, 1950-53; Vietnam, 1963-72; and Desert Storm in 1990-91. At least one decade has passed between each MRC-almost two between Vietnam and Desert Storm. Dropping the two-MRC scenario would simply reflect the empirical evidence of the post-World War 11 period. There are dangers, however. The two-MRC scenario might be considered the typical military "worse possible case," but a one-MRC scenario might prove to be a rather naive "best possible case." Thus, for a time, it looked as though a one-and-a-half MRC or a one-MRC, one-limited regional conflict (LRC) strategy might be adopted.

That one-and-a-half MRC notion now has apparently been dropped-at least by the QDR, but not necessarily the NDP-and the Pentagon will stick officially with the two-MRC requirement. That does not dismiss the fact that no matter what the official policy is, the de facto force structure still cannot sustain two MRCs or even simultaneous MRC/LRCs. The question then becomes: What forces, however limited, are actually available for that second MRC or LRC? The answer is that only Navy and Marine forces forward based in the area already or in process of deploying from the United States could respond. This does not mean that Army and Air Force units in the region would not also take part. A second MRC or LRC will be joint to that extent, as it must and should be. But the issue here is reinforcements-and only the Navy and Marine Corps would have the resources for that.

For example, if a Desert Storm II in the Middle East were under way and North Korea decided at that moment to attack the South, obviously the U.S. Army forces in Korea would engage, as would any remaining Air Force units in the area. But, with a Desert Storm II stripping all other Army and Air Force units, the only forces available for reinforcement will be the Navy's Seventh Fleet and Marines on Okinawa still in the region, and then from Third Fleet units in Hawaii and the West Coast of the United States. Similarly, if a North Korean invasion were under way, with Saddam deciding to attack again, the only units available would be Sixth Fleet and Fifth Fleet units in the area. Also crucial for the second MRC/LRC scenario would be the Navy and Marine Corps' Maritime Propositioning Ships (MPSs), which again probably would be the only forces remaining for any logistics support. In short, with today's force levels, that second MRC/LRC scenario is really a Navy-Marine Corps mission. There simply are no other forces available.

Crisis Response and Forward Presence

The other concern is crisis response, which is closely related to the whole question of forward presence. While there have been only three MRCs since World War II, there have been approximately 300 crises requiring a U.S. military response-with the classic "Where are the carriers?" heard at least once a year. Just this past year, carriers played their usual role in showing American determination by sailing through the Taiwan Strait when the Chinese were trying to intimidate the Taiwanese during their elections by conducting military exercises. Crisis response has been the Navy and Marine Corps bread-and-butter mission since the end of World War II. The empirical evidence first appeared in the frequently quoted 1978 Brookings study, Force Without War U.S. Armed Forces as a Political Instrument:

Throughout the postwar period the United States has turned most often to its Navy when it desired to employ components of the armed forces in support of political objectives. Naval units participated in 177 of the 215 incidents, or more than four out of every five....

In short, the Navy clearly has been the foremost instrument for the United States' political uses of the armed forces: at all times, in all places, and regardless of the specifics of the situation.

That 1978 study has been reconfirmed many times with the number of crises now grown to about 300. This quote, in various forms, has usually shown up in Navy posture statements. Not quoted so often, however, are the reasons:

. . . The reasons for this dominance are not difficult to discern. First, ships are easier to move about than are Army or land-based aircraft units, and can be moved at less incremental cost and more rapidly than can any land-based unit of comparable size. Because a larger portion of the Navy's support is organic to the combat unit (that is, a ship as compared to a battalion or a squadron), the establishment of communications and logistics flows can be accomplished with less difficulty.

Second, warships on the scene of a disturbance are less disruptive psychologically than are land-based forces and thus are likely to be less offensive diplomatically; if desirable, naval forces can remain nearby but out of sight.

Although these reasons may sound self-evident to navalists, they have recently been challenged by the Air Force in its Global Reach-Global Power post-Cold War strategy where, in brief, it asserts that it can take over many of the traditional Navy presence and crisis-response roles. This has led to a a bomber-versus-carrier debate in many newspapers and journals, including recent articles in the Naval Institute's Proceedings. Can anyone imagine, as the Air Force has suggested, using bombers in a Taiwan Strait situation? Can you imagine the alarm bells that would have been set off in Beijing if a flight of bombers attempting a "presence" fly-over had been detected on Chinese radar? New stealth bombers might not have been detected, but that would have defeated the whole purpose of forward presence and crisis response. More recently, B-52 bombers were flown three-quarters of the way around the world to fire a few air-launched cruise missiles against Iraq, even though several Navy cruise-missile destroyers, cruisers, and submarines were in the area already. At recent talks, Marine Corps Commandant General Charles Krulak has been blunt in his assessment that the street thugs-found to be the cause of too many crises, such as in Liberia and Somalia-are not going to be intimidated by bombers.

A solution could be Army and Air Force bases in forward areas, but that has become politically intolerable and even dangerous, as seen in the recent barracks bombing in Saudi Arabia. And that dangerous environment for land-based forward Army or Air Force bases is only bound to get worse. As one of America's most astute national security experts, Samuel P. Huntington, has noted in a recent Foreign Affairs article, "the image of an emerging universally Western World is misguided, arrogant, false and dangerous" (emphasis added). The new dangers will come from threats such as increasing hostile indigenous forces like radical Muslims. That will further necessitate only Navy forward presence, for the reasons stated in the Brookings study: "warships on the scene of a disturbance are less disruptive psychologically than are land-based forces and thus are less offensive diplomatically; if desirable, naval forces can remain out of sight."

These debates will undoubtedly become more focused as the studies progress, but the fact is that only Navy Marine forces have the capabilities for fast, sustained, unobtrusive, on-scene crisis response. As pointed out in one background meeting on the QDR, in only 5 of the 300 crises was there a "build-up" and these included the three MRCs and the Cuban Missile Crisis. All the others were handled by the available, organic forces on hand and only the Navy and Marine Corps have such forces. Bombers have important roles in any sustained MRCs but are not the proper forces for forward-presence or crisis response missions. In short, the Navy must go beyond just quoting the first part of the Brookings study and carefully start articulating the reasons why they are the force, and only force, "at all times, in all places, and regardless of the specifics of the situation."


Will the 1997 debates, studies, and commissions be important? There is a cynical view. These two post-Cold War studies and commissions are by no means the first. There was a similar QDR-like study four years ago and a similar outside Roles and Missions Commission two years ago-neither of which resulted in any major changes. However, both were conducted while downsizing was already taking place. The last QDR was conducted while the Base Force reductions were still under way-as was the Roles and Missions Commission, with the Bottom Up Review still in progress-so it should not be too surprising that those studies and commissions have had little impact. Such is not the case today, but there is already some cynicism about the outcome of the current QDR. The lead in a Defense News article was, "The much-ballyhooed U.S. Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) is likely to recommend little change in the current composition of U.S. forces, according to several senior military officials"4 If left to their own devices, that might be the outcome. However, Congress had stepped in and, as the story continued, "Instead, the congressionally mandated National Defense Panel could emerge as the real power in the impending debate over what strategy and forces are required to manage and protect American interests in the 21st century." The NDP will make its report in December 1997, which means that this year's debates, regardless of the QDR's outcome, could be crucial.

Besides the NDP's looking over the Pentagon's shoulder, there is another reason to take a hard look at the 1997 studies. Although everyone is certainly taking such defense issues as strategy, force structure, modernization, and the like seriously, make no mistake-these are budget driven studies. That is the message presented in a series of background sessions and briefings on the QDR and NDP at think tanks around the country. In fact, some of the same Pentagon officials who just a few months ago were saying the Bottom Up Review force was affordable are now admitting what everyone else has been saying for at least a year-that the force is underfunded with the services living off the fat of the Reagan-years' buildups.

Even the Joint Chiefs of Staff's goal of a $60 billion procurement budget is not enough. When this year's (fiscal year 1997) procurement budget of approximately $40 billion was submitted to Congress, the Chiefs testified that $60 billion was required. However, even when looking at the always optimistic out-year of 2001, which has a $60 billion procurement budget, the Navy buys only five new warships-less than half the number needed to sustain a 346-ship Navy, assuming the traditional 30-year life for ships. Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and General Accounting Office (GAO) estimates of Defense budget shortfalls are in the $50 to $150 billion range. Worse, budget officials are now admitting that even the $60 billion dollar goal will be hard to meet, especially with the promised increases in defense spending coming at the same time Congress wants to balance the budget. The only solution will be another inevitable downsizing. Although further reductions are unknown, there is some speculation that the end result might be a 6-8 division Army, an Air Force of 10 wings, and a 250-odd ship Navy. One thing is known, the current and even projected Defense budgets can no longer sustain the current force structure.

Because these major budget shortfalls bump up against balanced-budget promises, anyone who takes a cynical view of these 1997 studies-because of the inaction from previous commissions-probably is making a horrible mistake. This time, the reviewers are serious-so it is time for the Navy to get serious. The Navy should take a leaf out of the Marines' book in the forthcoming defense debate. The Marines have been so successful articulating their roles and missions that theirs is the only service that has not been severely cut since the end of the Cold War. In addition to the fact that Navy and Marine Corps fortunes are obviously interrelated, the Navy-like the Marine Corps-has a good story to tell on the most important strategy issues facing the nation.

In background briefings Pentagon officials have said the MRC capabilities, forward presence, and crisis response all are important issues. Although the Navy cannot take on the two-MRC strategy directly-if that is still the official policy-it can point out that only Navy and Marine Corps forces would be available to reinforce that second MRC or LRC. Crisis response is a well-documented, classic Navy mission that cannot be done by any other service. And both crisis response and responding to a second MRC or LRC are based on an at-sea, unobtrusive Navy forward presence which requires a large Navy. For all those reasons the Navy must maintain a relatively larger force for their necessarily constant forward presence and crisis-response requirements. The Navy is already stretched thin with 346 ships; a 250-odd ship fleet would be a disaster-not just for the Navy but for the nation's current defense strategy, as well.


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