Bottom Line vs. Front Line

September 1, 1993 Topic: Security Tags: BusinessSlavic Countries

Bottom Line vs. Front Line

Mini Teaser: The Clinton administration is withdrawing money from the nation's defense accounts with no firmer justification than its hope for ten or twenty years of world peace, or at least its expectation that the foreseeable future holds no serious challeng

by Author(s): Seth Cropsey

In early August of 1990, the U.S. Air Force's First Tactical Fighter Wing, based at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, was ordered to the Middle East as Operation Desert Shield got under way. The unit began to arrive in eastern Saudi Arabia fourteen hours later. Ten years earlier in 1980, the same fighter wing failed its operational readiness examination: 47 out of its 72 aircraft were grounded for lack of spare parts. In the intervening decade, the Army, Navy, and Air Force's coffers swelled with modern sophisticated weaponry and supporting equipment; their ranks filled with ambitious, highly motivated young officers and enlisted personnel. The Defense Department is the one part of the federal government in which throwing more money at a problem produces useful results. It is also the one agency of the government most susceptible to decay and failure when funds are withdrawn.

The Clinton administration is withdrawing money from the nation's defense accounts with no firmer justification than its hope for ten or twenty years of world peace, or at least its expectation that the foreseeable future holds no serious challenges to American interests around the world. Secretary of Defense Les Aspin's "bottom-up" review of America's future military needs has never been anything more than an ill-concealed effort to clothe defense budget cuts directed by the White House with the respectable attire of numbers and charts manufactured by an obedient if reluctant Pentagon.

In his February 17 State of the Union Address, President Clinton declared that he would cut $120 billion--or twice the amount he promised he would cut as a candidate--from Defense for the fiscal years 1994 through 1997. Five weeks later, at the end of March, Aspin said he would undertake a "bottom-up" review of future U.S. defense requirements. "Bottom-line" would be a more accurate description of what has taken place since. The secretary of defense does not publicly conclude that his department needs more money than the president has said is available. Aspin has been left to convince the nation that the U.S. is to have a strategy-driven budget rather than a budget-driven strategy. Fortunately for this administration, current events make it easy to persuade the public that all is well. Unfortunately for the administration, Aspin has not even been up to this simple task.

Speaking at the National Defense University in Washington on June 16, Aspin suggested that the U.S. should retain enough force to be able to fight and win two regional wars--but not quite at once. Dubbed by its administration supporters a "win-hold-win" strategy, the plan bore an unmistakably theoretical imprint. It called for American forces to respond--in the case, for example, of wars that occurred simultaneously in the Persian Gulf and the Korean Peninsula--by holding one enemy at bay while defeating the other. After the first victory, U.S. forces would be moved in to support the holding action and go on the offensive.
If this plan did not specifically encourage such dictators as those who rule Iraq, Iran, and North Korea to coordinate their aggression, it would likely have a similar result. Once one power had engaged the U.S. another would have the strongest interest to make its move. In either case, troops and military equipment cannot be moved around the world like pieces on a chess board. In combat, the former are killed and wounded; the latter is destroyed and incapacitated. Leaving aside the logistical nightmare of transporting many men and large amounts of materiel from one distant theater to another, the notion of playing international hopscotch with combat forces, while attractive to armchair theoreticians, is in practice useless.

Aspin clung to the concept of "win-hold-win" for a week and a day, abandoning it on June 24 in a speech to retired flag officers at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington. U.S. forces, the secretary declared upon reflection, must be able to fight and win two regional wars at the same time. This fooled no one. A mid-level officer who was participating in the administration's strategy review told the Washington Post that "we're wrapping a veneer of a strategy on a budget that's already been decided." During a March 30 hearing before the House Armed Services Committee, Aspin admitted as much himself. Responding to a congressman who asked if the administration's defense budget figures had been pulled out of the air, Aspin said, "they're a little better than that, but not much. These numbers are built on a macroeconomic basis, not on a threat analysis...."

In plain language, the Clinton defense plan for the next five years is based on a strategy tailored to its budget request, and a budget which is unrelated to the threats facing this country. This suggests the administration's lack of seriousness about defense, but owing to the military's currently healthy condition, it does not spell immediate danger. A strong military takes a long time to assemble. And it can take a drawn-out period to dismember if the usual cost-cutting tools of base closures, pay cuts, reduced operating schedules, postponed future purchases, and gradual force reductions are adopted. These measures will bring defense expenditures down gradually, avoiding the predictable domestic dislocations and international shocks that would occur if the U.S. were suddenly to choke or eliminate its future purchases of military hardware.

There is a good chance that this or something like it will happen. Congress is increasingly unwilling to accede to the administration's plan to cap military pay. As a result, Aspin may have to look elsewhere to achieve the savings arbitrarily set by the original Clinton defense budget. Unable to persuade the White House to compensate by increasing its initial five-year defense spending figure, the Pentagon is now contemplating the real possibility that its authority to spend in the coming fiscal year will fall by ten percent, or as much as $30 billion. If this occurs, the new administration could find itself slashing budget authority in one year by as much as it had originally planned to cut in five. This will require chopping future purchases of major weapons systems to the bone. Indeed, the administration's 1994 budget request for procurement is 17 percent below the current year's spending level. Whether or not it foresaw so drastic a result so quickly, Aspin's budget clearly pointed the way towards the same outcome.

Since he was a congressman, Aspin has strongly supported readiness, i.e. the proficiency of training, and supply of spare parts and replacements by which the military measures its preparedness to go into combat at a moment's notice. On June 2 this year, the secretary told the Air Force Academy's graduating class that "no goal I have for the Defense Department is more important than maintaining a force that's ready to fight."

There are, however, other equally important indices of military force, most notably its size and sophistication. Aspin, in his June Colorado commencement address, proposed that the U.S. "cut whole divisions and make sure that the ones remaining are in a high state of readiness." The budget figures on which the "bottom-up" review are based support this approach. Of the four options for future military spending which Aspin drew up last year when he was chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, the Clinton budget comes closest to number three in descending order of strength. Starting from 1992, both the administration's budget and Aspin's third option envision slicing an average of $181 billion to reach a goal of $246 billion in defense budget authority in 1997. This will yield an American force that is significantly smaller than the one which--according to Pentagon leaks--is needed to fight one war, hold another enemy simultaneously at bay, and then move the victorious units from the first theater into the second to achieve a complete triumph.

The "bottom-up" review will see to it that the force which does remain is prepared, but small. The Aspin third option calls for only eight active Army divisions. A force this size would represent a 57 percent decrease from today's active U.S. land forces strength, leaving the American Army with a little more than one-fourth as many infantry, motorized and mechanized divisions as North Korea and Iraq respectively currently field. Faced with a war in each of these places at once, the "win-hold-win" plan is a pipe dream, the two-war stratagem absurd. Aspin's "bottom-up" review notwithstanding, Clinton's defense budget will not fund either plan.

As is often charged against the military brass, this secretary of defense is fighting the last war, albeit a political one. It was the unpreparedness of the Carter administration--as demonstrated in such disasters as the failed attempt to rescue American hostages in Teheran--that exposed the administration's weak military policy. The current administration means not to repeat this mistake. So, the Air Force's First Tactical Fighter Wing, whose readiness was compared above over a ten-year stretch, will be able to deploy at a moment's notice--if it still exists. Predictably, Aspin's effort to avoid previous mistakes will lead to other ones.
The author of the "bottom-up" review was one of the original whiz-kids, a protŽgŽ of former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and a thorough-going believer in systems analysis. In the ordered world of systems analysts, numbers, matrices, and cost-benefit analyses hold the keys to knotty problems, whether it's how to defeat the North Vietnamese or how to preserve America's position as the world's leading military power. McNamara told the military to count bodies as a gauge of success. Aspin has decided to measure U.S. military strength as a function of the "c-numbers" (by which the armed forces rate a unit's combat readiness).

But, the military, which has its own soft spot for measuring the world in numbers, may go along with the disciple much as they followed the master into using slide rules to calculate the progress of the Vietnam war. Aspin has named a commission of distinguished, retired senior officers headed by the highly respected former chief of staff of the Army, General Edward "Shy" Meyer to stand guard over the U.S. military's readiness. Unfortunately, this is like appointing a team of ear doctors to monitor the hearing of a patient whose limbs have been blown off.

The systems analyst-inspired bottom-up review hacks away at forces, slashes the procurement of future weapons, negates the benefits of research by failing to purchase its fruits, but--logically enough--keeps the units that remain in place healthy and ready to fight. This logic is unlikely to impress Saddam Hussein, Kim il-Sung, Mohamed Farah Aideed, Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic, or any of the world's other aspiring bad actors.

Communism utterly failed as a political system, but it succeeded in leaving its vanquishers with the mistaken idea that those who threaten liberty must be large, coordinated, and possessed of a political doctrine.

Unsystematic nationalism--bad enough in itself--is either incipient or rampant from Southeast Asia, where people are increasingly restive about Chinese minorities in their midst, to the old Soviet Union's periphery, to the heart of Europe. Americans might also see the dangers of the offer made in July by six Muslim nations and the Palestine Liberation Organization to send 18,000 troops to Bosnia to defend its besieged Muslim population. Alternatively, it could become clear in the future that the West's failure to stop Serbian aggression will be read by a future Russian leader as an endorsement of the same policy towards its nuclear-armed neighbors that are home to sizable Russian ethnic minorities.

We are--as everyone knows, though the current administration's defense plan fails to acknowledge it--in a time of great uncertainty. Unclear about what is happening in the world and even more unsure about how America should respond. Other statesmen, more experienced and more accustomed to exercising power abroad than Bill Clinton and his lieutenants, have in the past made seriously wrong predictions--for example, William Pitt the Younger, who as prime minister informed the House of Commons on February 17, 1792 that "there never was a time in the history of this country when we might more reasonably have expected peace than at this moment."

Pitt had no systems analysts, and if he had, they would have been the last to forecast the power and aggressiveness unleashed by the revolution across the Channel. But the prime minister did enjoy the good fortune of being soon proved wrong. Twenty years of war with France broke out twelve months later, thus saving Pitt from the consequences of the decreased defense request he had submitted. Let us hope that this kind of correction of the Clinton administration's course will not be necessary.

Essay Types: Essay