Sustaining America’s Military Might: The Devil Is In The Details
Today’s global security crystal ball is murky, but a safe assumption is that the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe will remain unsettled and nests of terrorist activity, motivation, and recruitment; with sanctions lifted Iran’s conventional military re-emergence in the region will further challenge the security environment in the Middle East; Northeast Asian allies, China, and the U.S. will continue to react to an unpredictable regime in North Korea and the increasing military heft and flexing of China will disquiet the broader Indo-Pacific region as China and the U.S. continue their strategic dance of cooperation and competition. The connectedness of our world, our interests in it, and the singular stabilizing role of the U.S. make American retreat a very bad strategic option.
Although many continue to see the compelling need for the U.S. to remain engaged militarily, American public opinion, after over a decade of war, will argue against even modest deployments of our sons and daughters to foreign lands. That aversion is reinforced by loud voices asserting other nations are not doing enough to carry their share of the load, so why should we bear the burden? Adding fuel to that argument will be the increasing reluctance of non-allies to host U.S. forces on their soil due to increasing sensitivity of their publics of a perceived loss of sovereignty because the U.S. is conducting military operations from their bases and facilities. Regardless of those attitudes, no other nation is ready and able to step up to the global stabilizing role of the U.S. That incumbency means we must be ready for our time of continuing disorder. It cannot be business as usual. We must open our aperture of thought and get away from our recent land-centric view of military force, our current bias that most future military operations will be against ISIS or a resurgent Russia, and the dangerous assumption that our military of tomorrow will be capable and ready.
Today’s understanding and discussion of American military capability, capacity, and response is far too superficial. Debates go on about where and how the U.S. military should respond or where U.S. stabilizing presence must be. These are mostly within an insular defense policy community, and very absent in our political season among potential commanders-in-chief. So very few address the erroneous assumption that the capacity and readiness of the U.S. military are or will be as they have been in years past.
Our military, indeed any military, is what it buys in people (i.e., numbers, skills, and competence), capital investments (e.g., ships, airplanes, ground force equipment, networks), and operating accounts (i.e., deployed operations, preparatory training, and equipment maintenance). We acknowledge erratic, unpredictable budget processes are hurting our military, but we allow that internal disorder to continue. We focus too much on the total amount of spending for defense as a measure of efficacy and commitment, and how that figure can be attained through budget machinations such as raising the top line by manipulating funds in various defense appropriations. Some highly regarded defense policy experts ignore the internal pressures on defense spending and offer the simplistic solution of “doing away with sequestration” as if lifting caps on defense spending and eliminating the illogical procedural constraints of sequestration are the solution to our problem. The fact is, absent a catastrophic event American public opinion will be slow to demand a more rigorous assessment of defense needs and funding, nor will the budget floodgates be thrown open. The devil, ominously, lives in the details. Failure to dig into those details, particularly the amount available for capital investment, will leave our military inadequately prepared for the security environment and events of the future.
As we dig into those details we must measure outcomes on two scales—capability and capacity. The increasing complexity of warfare, the systems we use today, and the technology we must have for tomorrow demand capabilities better than those of our adversaries. While we must provide the very best to those we send in harm’s way; unfortunately, our fixation on capability is squelching the discussion on capacity—adequate numbers of capital assets to deter, engage, and prevail. Numbers still matter greatly. The U.S. has the great benefit of conducting military operations far from our shores thus insulating our public from conflict, but that distance adds to the numbers of things needed to provide credible, persistent forward presence.
What to do to best meet America’s strategic responsibilities going forward?
1) Get serious and call out the details of our defense budget. Cease fixating on the total amount, and honestly assess and debate the trends in the budget categories of personnel, capital investments, and operating accounts. Drive reform and make the hard political decisions in personnel policy and compensation to control those smothering costs while incentivizing the skills and competencies for the future. Face the reality that the investment account is being eroded from within by growing personnel costs. If that squeeze is not met head-on quickly, our nation’s military capacity and our industrial base that produces it will wither away. Getting it back will be a wish not a reality.
2) There is no switch that will turn ISIS and other like groups off. The fight against them will be a long slog. Our special operations forces will remain on point. Invest in their resilience. They are the best of the best, have been at it a long time, and the future will be more of the same. They and their families must have the attention and the resources to maintain the unforgiving pace and nature of their deployments.