Tectonic geostrategic forces in international politics are shifting, causing a triple threat to U.S. national security. The choices we make in how to provide for the common defense will have irreversible consequences. But currently we do not even recognize the nature or power of these factors, nor their implications for American security and the U.S. military.
Failed or failing governance, ranging from desperate states such as Afghanistan and Zimbabwe to even major powers such as the United States, is the first of these overarching factors. Global economic disparity, despair, and dislocation are second. Third is the challenge posed by radical ideologies exacerbated by religious extremism. Unfortunately, the use of military force alone is unsuitable for addressing any of these tectonic factors.
For the United States, the first major consequence of this triple threat is a widening gap between a realistic strategy and current forces and their capabilities. Beyond contingencies on the Korean peninsula and Middle East/Persian Gulf, unless we are exceedingly clumsy in dealing with China, no peer military competitor is likely to emerge for a long time to come. And, as Afghanistan and Iraq remind us, even the strongest military power in the world cannot necessarily prevail over an adversary that has no army, navy, or air force. Thus there is no sound strategic or logical justification for retaining an active-duty force of 1.4 million and even far lower levels, even if the pivot to Asia is taken seriously.
Second, the Pentagon faces a tsunami of combined negative fiscal pressures and uncontrollable cost growth. Even if defense spending were kept at current levels, the escalation in the costs of personnel, retirement, procurement, and health care means that by the decade’s end if not sooner, the Department of Defense will have to either cut about half the force or stop buying the planned weapons, logistics, and support systems it needs. Well before 2020, if sequestration continues, rising interest rates and a Congress unlikely to protect defense at the expense of domestic programs or higher taxes will cut defense’s buying power in half.
Third and least visible is a looming personnel crisis. For the past dozen years, no expense has been spared in providing for the U.S. military. Expectations are high for continuing compensation and recognition for service. But as mundane, boring peacetime duties take precedence over preparing for and engaging in combat, many will choose to leave the service. This raises profound questions over the future of the all-volunteer force.
In 1970 at age 49, Admiral Elmo “Bud” Zumwalt became the youngest Chief of Naval Operations in history. At the time, Zumwalt saw the Navy in desperate straits. The Soviet Union was modernizing at a rapid rate. Many of the Navy’s 900-plus ships were relics of World War II. The Vietnam War was creating personnel crises that Zumwalt feared would become mutinous if not corrected immediately. And the Nixon administration was cutting back on defense spending.
Zumwalt initiated Project 60, perhaps the most effective strategic-planning exercise the Pentagon had seen since World War II. In it, The CNO redefined the Navy’s four missions as deterrence, power projection, sea control, and presence. He cut the service almost in half to recapitalize and modernize the Fleet with both high-value units and new technologies, and he instituted dramatic changes in personnel policy.
Today, the Navy and Marine Corps need a Project 60 for the current realities. Given the administration’s strategic review completed last year, with its pivot to Asia and the impending Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), the chances of starting, let alone completing, another study are slim. Yet the bureaucratic ponderousness of the QDR, combined with an already falling Damoclean fiscal sword, will almost certainly lead to massive cuts. Nonetheless, we need to develop an alternate and bold plan along the lines of Zumwalt’s Project 60.
The challenge is great and the opportunities greater, but one conclusion is strikingly obvious. With a more complicated, complex, and interconnected world; budgets that will only shrink; and fewer armies, navies, and air forces to fight, we must use brainpower rather than firepower to ensure our security. Here, the Naval Academy motto, “Ex Scientia Tridens,” could not apply more: Sea power through knowledge. A Project 60–like exercise is the best means to accomplish that objective.