Surviving the austere defense years will require an internal partnership between the DoD, Congress, the defense industry, and the American people. The partnership will necessitate a new approach to how the United States views its defense expenditures—more as the foundation of national security and much less as direct support to a particular constituency. In practice this idea can be translated into several reasonable solutions, including reassessing short-term risk versus long-term strength, accepting best military advice while acquiescing to divestitures, and effectively executing the austere defense cuts required by current law through 2019 and beyond.
There is an unprecedented need for tools that provide a transparent, standardized assessment of US military power over time. A common baseline that describes how much hard power the United States actually has in relation to its vital interests would help discipline the defense sufficiency discussion. The first challenge in grading “military power” is to ask if it can be effectively measured. A second issue will be deciding what to measure. This measure might be limited to clearly definable elements of military power: force structure, modernization, readiness, and sustainability. These factors would have to be part of an annual assessment to determine how US military power is changing over time. A common measure would at least give all sides in the strategy debate a shared platform from which to address the needs for a future military.
GEN Colin Powell once stated, “All of the sophisticated talk about grand strategy is helpful, but show me your budgets and I will tell you what your strategy is.” What General Powell meant was that the definition of the US role in the world and its strategic goals flow from budgets, not the other way around. This commentary fleshes out Powell’s observation by focusing on the “means” part of the ends, ways, and means of strategy to explain how austerity affects force planning and strategy. It then describes today’s austere budgetary environment by first examining budget reductions as a general matter and concludes with the current strategic options that will likely characterize the contemporary discussion of US strategy and force planning.
Education is the engine of military innovation, creating knowledge capital that is the military answer to austerity. Military education is absolutely essential to conceptualizing and implementing productive change in US security, because we cannot train innovators. Educated men and women sense changes in the security environment that affect the international balance of power. Their horizons are broader than those defined by doctrine and standard tactics, techniques, and procedures. They understand the intricacies of civil-military relations so essential to funding, as well as the moral and ethical boundaries to action. Education is the key to dealing with austerity, because as budgets shrink and capabilities decline, knowledge capital earned in the interim will become critical to US national security.
The role of readiness as part of defense strategy is especially important today given the evolving threat environment and the impact of sequestration on defense spending. The trillion-dollar question for defense is: How can resources be allocated most effectively to achieve the readiness required by strategy? The question of how to achieve readiness is fundamentally one of resource management rather than strategy and is of great importance in an austere defense environment. The DoD should use existing METLs to identify the key tasks required of each unit in support of overall defense strategy. From these key tasks, it should develop quantifiable performance measures, using objective standards. Now is the perfect time to rethink how readiness is funded because budgetary and legislative constraints are likely to force the military to cut readiness resources. If the US military does not take advantage of this opportunity to rethink how it postures readiness, an adversary may do so and use its readiness advantage to challenge the United States in peacetime competition or in actual conflict.
US defense leaders were not wrong when they forecasted the devastating implications sequestration—coming on top of previous reductions in spending—would have upon the national defense. Rather, these implications have been obscured, spread thin over many priorities, and in some cases forestalled through a series of budget deals, temporary measures, and special exemptions. These actions have created a sort of sequestration purgatory where clear consequences of funding shortfalls are becoming increasingly visible, but the full sequestration bill has yet to come due. In the absence of the intense pain of sequestration in one event or one fiscal year, lawmakers and even Pentagon officials have become sensitized to accept sequestration as the decade-long baseline for austere defense spending. A more logical, responsible, and acceptable path is to reverse course now, before it is too late. A good point of departure would be to return Pentagon spending to the path set by Secretary Gates in FY 2012—about $100 billion dollars per year above where we currently stand for 2015.
The larger issue threatening US national security is that members of Congress use the military procurement process as an economic stimulus for their districts. For Congress, “to support and defend the constitution” seems to mean stabilizing local economies and creating constituent jobs; while to military personnel charged with protecting the people, it means acquiring specific capabilities for the national defense. But if elected officials are, in fact, more concerned with local economics and constituent jobs, a conflict of interest arises. As a result, the United States must reassess the degree to which politicians may alter the national security roadmap