The Quadrennial Defense Charade
Once more the mountain has labored, and once more a mouse has been born, in this case the Quadrennial Defense Review released in mid-May. Readers undoubtedly were shocked to discover that the United States is to maintain current commitments with declining forces, but that modernization will solve all problems, with improvement expected in the "out years."
Part of the solution is further reduction in the fixed overhead represented by bases and other facilities (although an independent assessment suggested that the figures involved were, at best, fantasies). True to the spirit of jointness, no real effort was made to concentrate resources on any one service, despite the profound changes caused by the end of the Cold War. Jointness, long touted as a way to reduce duplication among the services, now means that the pain of declining budgets must be borne evenly.
The outcome is unworthy of earlier Defense Department efforts. The last time the Department had to make radical cuts, in the late 1940s, it adopted a stance emphasizing strategic nuclear airpower. The Army and the Navy were severely cut, and they did not like it (recall the "revolt of the admirals"). It is often argued that the results (which, incidentally, were ratified or even advocated by the Joint Chiefs) were felt painfully in Korea. Clearly the administration overestimated the importance of the bomb. Had the deep cuts been evenly applied, however, they would not have solved the problem of incapacity; they would merely have left the United States with three, rather than two, hollow military departments.
Then, only enormous increases in the overall budget would have solved the problem, and even the administration's preferred strategy would have required substantially heavier investment than was being made. The real problem at the time was fiscal: the administration believed that the budget had to be tightly balanced, that major military spending could not be sustained over the decades for which it expected the Cold War to run. As it turned out, however, the greatly increased budgets begun during the Korean War were not only sustainable, but contributed heavily to U.S. growth in the 1950s and into the 1960s.
Today, it seems logical to emphasize capabilities to combat limited conflicts far from the United States, which require expeditionary or intervention forces. Unless we act with allies, we will have to push our way in. At the least, it seems fair to say that we cannot use the Army or the Air Force for most presence roles, although military presence is usually the way the United States applies pressure abroad.
Interestingly, the U.S. Army is now claiming a role as the nation's premier presence force, based on its experience in Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia. It is now suggested that Army overseas deployment rates under Presidents Bush and Clinton matched or exceeded Navy rates. That may be true because of the massive deployments involved in the Gulf War and in subsequent reactions to Iraqi threats; but those special cases hardly prove much. The Army is a presence force only if it is invited in, which means only if the administration can assemble the necessary coalition quickly enough. Perhaps this is the place to point out that the coalition may well assemble only after the United States demonstrates the ability to go it alone, as it did in defending Saudi Arabia in 1990 after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
Surely, the recent defense review was the time to think through the meaning of defense to a post-Cold War United States. Presently, we have two major commitments, one to the defense of the Persian Gulf and one to the defense of South Korea. It seems likely that the Korean situation, after decades of tension, will be resolved quite soon, and we will no longer need the massive firepower based in South Korea. Indeed, if it ends with unification on South Korean terms, it seems unlikely that our troops will be wanted on a continued basis.
The Gulf is more likely to be a continuing concern. Should we withdraw, every country in the region now allied with us will have to choose between Iran and Iraq, the two current regional powers. Since we find neither attractive, we must stay. That having been said, the recent election of a surprisingly moderate Iranian president may make it possible for us to rethink our policy.
In the aftermath of Vietnam, President Richard Nixon proposed a doctrine under which the United States would provide air and naval backing for friendly regimes, and they would provide all or most of the ground troops. That may not be a bad idea for the future, perhaps with the exception of the Gulf. If it makes sense, then it is difficult to justify maintaining the ten-division Army currently envisaged. An Army that large is not needed except in a very large ground war, one we probably ought not to welcome. Much the same may be said of a large land-based Air Force, which cannot operate unless a local power provides bases.
On the other hand, something like the Cold War or even a nasty hot war can arise. If that happens, we will need very powerful ground and ground-based air forces. The question is whether they should be maintained in the interim, in times of very lean budgets. After all, their cost must be borne by those forces the country does use constantly for presence and intervention, the Navy and the Marines. Hollowing out the forward forces does not seem to benefit the country as a whole.
Presumably, then, we want to be able to recreate large ground and ground-based air forces if a threat presents itself; we want a certain agility. We want to keep the existing forces viable. We know from historical examples that if the forces shrink below a certain size vital competence is lost. But history also shows that a heavy fixed investment in standing forces makes modernization difficult at best, and that potential enemy forces built up from a lower level may well prove more modern when it matters. This is what happened to France in 1940; the sheer size of the standing French Army made modernization too expensive. Granted, also, that army's prestige made it very difficult for it to accept that technology and tactics had changed.
The Quadrennial Review blessed all three U.S. tactical aircraft programs: F/A-18E/F, F-22, and Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). Oddly, the airplane most likely to see combat in intervention, the F/A-18E/F, suffered a deeper percentage cut than the F-22, which may well never see combat. This occurred despite the excellent record of cost management shown by the F/A-18E/F team, and the extremely high unit cost estimated for the F-22 (at what many consider an unduly optimistic projection of F22 costs, the country can buy two F/A-18E/Fs for each F-22; the more likely figure is probably three or four or more). Presumably the F-22 is favored because it offers higher performance, but in the absence of really advanced competitors, it is not clear that this performance is needed at all. Might it be wiser to continue building pricey prototypes, to keep the state of the art hot, while buying and using perfectly acceptable aircraft? During the 1930s, the Royal Air Force adopted just this strategy. Few would argue that the outcome—the Hurricane-Spitfire team—was less than adequate; and the use of large numbers of cheaper aircraft in the interim guaranteed that pilots would be available when needed.
Maybe this is the time to ask whether integrated avionics, rather than a new airframe, is not the JSF's most important feature. If so, perhaps we should adapt the new-generation avionics to existing airframes such as the F/A-18E/F. As for air superiority, much of the advantage expected of the F-22 can be traced to a new air-to-air missile and a new kind of helmet-mounted sight (already in service in other countries). Is it possible that investment in the sight and in the missile will generate most of the advantage expected of the F-22?
If aircraft numbers fall far enough, then normal attrition will become a major problem. If airplanes cost too much, we will find it impossible to make up for peacetime losses, unless we forgo pilot training. Just how much can we pay for a single airplane? As a cynic might have expected, the paper JSF project will solve all problems—in the out-years.
The prospect for the out-years, of course, is bleak at best. Whatever budget-balancing agreement is worked out this year or next, clearly the budget will be in serious trouble as soon as the baby-boomers begin to retire in any numbers, say in 2010. National income will fall as workers leave the work force, and savings (not to mention Social Security) will begin to vanish. That is not to deny any hope of a solution. For example, any increase in retirement age would retain more workers and limit the retirement problem. Immigration might add more workers to help support retirees. Clearly, however, there will be serious budgetary problems just about the time the JSF is supposed to enter service, hence when its production rate peaks.
At the least, barring a foreign threat (always a dangerous bet), it seems unlikely that the defense budget will actually grow over the next ten or twenty years, whoever is in office. Indeed, there is likely to be increased pressure to improve the national infrastructure and to solve such problems as the educational system. On the other hand, there is little reason to imagine that the world as a whole will suddenly become a more peaceful place, or that some alternative superpower will suddenly materialize to share our overseas role with us. Something will have to give. If it does not, at some point our hollow forces will suffer badly and unacceptably.
Historical analogies are dangerous, but two spring to mind. After the coalition defeated Napoleon in 1815, Britain was the world's only superpower. The government decided to limit spending on defense, on the theory that there was no major current threat, and that national finances had to be allowed to recover (not least, to meet any future threat). A relatively small active fleet sufficed to make British presence obvious abroad. A massive reserve fleet was, however, retained to contain France. Because Britain had a large merchant fleet, the reserve ships could be manned relatively quickly. A limited army was also maintained. The British policy collapsed because naval technology changed radically (the reserve fleet was no longer useful) and because the East India Company lost control of India, which then required a large garrison. It is not clear to what extent the considerable increase in defense spending after midcentury sapped the British economy, which was in decline by the end of the century.
If we accept that some emergency will arise (but not in the near term), then we may find it prudent to contain current spending in hopes of repairing those problems at home that may, ultimately, destroy our economy. Infrastructure and an ineffective educational system are surely among them. Remember that the economies effected after Napoleon's demise at least provided the British with the maneuvering room they needed when crisis struck, in the form of new technology (steam and then armor), and also in the form of demands for heavy troop commitments overseas (in the Crimea and then in India).
The British 20th-century experience between the two world wars offers another analogy. Britain emerged from World War I as a largely bankrupt superpower. War clearly could happen again, but not for some time. Thus was created the annual "no war for ten years" charade, which put off having to face reality; in the early 1920s, however, it provided a breathing space for modernization using the new technology and to meet new threats (particularly in the Far East). The Quadrennial Review's emphasis on modernization in the out-years is vaguely reminiscent of the spirit of the original "ten-year rule." As the out-years recede, it can easily take on the very destructive spirit of the later versions of the same rule. It is probably far better for the country's leadership to know which forces are modern and which are clearly weak than to be blind to hollowness extending across all the U.S. services.