The metaphor of the majestic and doomed liner RMS Titanic comes to mind when thinking about the future size, shape, and health of the U.S. military. Many dangerous icebergs, the political kind, sit astride the route ahead, hidden by an ocean of uncertainty. Collision is not inevitable, but the peril is very real.
Consider three of these potential icebergs. One is the strategic, operational, and even theological division over preparing, training, and equipping our forces for the future. Will thinking be dominated by preparing for "big" conventional wars or for conflicts such as in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the struggle against terrorism that are consuming the U.S. military?
Second is money. Given the defense spending needed to sustain these forces, will future Congresses and administrations fund at those levels?
Third, to what degree do civilian control and the role of professional military advice need to be re-evaluated after the misadventure in Iraq?
Each of these questions must be addressed under conditions in which it will be difficult or impossible to find answers that can gamer sufficient support to avoid fierce internecine warfare not only in the Pentagon but also with Congress and the defense industrial base. And there is no Soviet Union as an anchor and foundation for building our defenses. Worse, that the current Jihadist adversary has no army, navy, or air force further complicates how our military will be shaped and used.
"Big war" versus "small war" arguments are as old as and inherent in the Constitution. In today's world, obviously, strong standing forces are essential-but to do what?
The so-called "big Army" answers that question by advancing conventional conflict as the raison d'etre for our forces. Insurgencies and the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are viewed as temporary conditions, not replacements for the doctrine, training, and advanced weaponry central to winning big wars against powerful, conventionally armed enemies.
The other services reflect this divide. The "big Navy" is partial to carrier battle groups and nuclear-powered submarines. The "big Air Force" sees air superiority with F-22s as its major charter. And the Marines view amphibious operations in a similar light. Resolving this split over "big" and "little" wars will be crucial to defining our future forces. Yet, there is no semblance of agreement over the answers.
The second factor-money-drives everything. And the Defense Department has an insatiable appetite for it. This calendar year, Congress will appropriate more than $800 billion for defense-about $450 billion for the budget; $300 billion for two emergency supplemental for warfighting in Iraq and Afghanistan; and $50 billion to $100 billion to cover the Bush troop surge; or about 6 percent of Gross Domestic Product.
Economically, that is affordable. But politically, the downward pressure that level of spending places on domestic programs in order to keep a lid on expenditures cannot be sustained indefinitely. While troop reductions in Iraq will start next year, the built-in cost increases required to sustain even a smaller force will be budget-busters. For example, costs for planned future weapon systems are estimated by Pentagon officials to increase by 50 percent to 100 percent, accompanied by a decline in the total numbers to be bought.
Finally, in the wake of the Iraq intervention, allegations against military leaders for failing to confront their civilian masters over the grounds for and then the conduct of the war will force a re-examination of the role of professional advice.
That debate will touch the heart of the cultural and institutional foundations of the military profession. Or, as former First Lady Nancy Reagan put it in a different context, when should our uniformed leaders "just say no" to the commander-in-chief? Iran and how to deal with its nuclear ambitions could become the catalyst for making this matter more than an academic exercise.
The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan will end. But debate over the future of the U.S. armed forces will not. Finding a safe course in this sea of danger-and not just on the battlefield-will prove to be the greatest challenge our military leaders face for some time to come.