President Donald Trump recently proposed an increase of $54 billion in next year's defense budget. While that sounds like a lot of money, relative to President Barack Obama's plan it is only about half as great, or some 5 percent of total military spending. However valid the plan may be—and however welcome an end to budgetary shenanigans like the constant threat of sequestration would be—the Pentagon will not simply be able to buy its way out of its problems with 5 percent more money. Creative thinking and new ways of doing business in the Department of Defense will be needed as well.
Today's military readiness problem is most stark in regard to the men, women and families of the U.S. armed forces. While they remain excellent, dedicated to their nation and their profession at arms, they are overworked after sixteen years of war and, even more to the point, they are gone from home too much. Today's military is 40 percent smaller than in Ronald Reagan’s day, yet very active from Poland to Korea, from the Pacific Ocean to the Persian Gulf, from Afghanistan to Iraq, Syria to Qatar and Djibouti and beyond. The pace of overdeployment is something Washington can substantially reduce even without growing the military or scaling back America’s role in the world.
With U.S. forces in Afghanistan now reduced by 90 percent and U.S. forces in Iraq by more than 95 percent relative to earlier peaks, one might expect things to get better. But in fact, as the Blue Star Families survey showed in its 2016 poll, more than 40 percent of military families had a soldier, sailor, marine, airman or airwoman deployed more than six months out of the previous eighteen months. Think about that again. Almost half the force has experienced a deployment tempo that exceeds the military's goal of being home at least two thirds of the time. That is very close to a full wartime pace, and too high to let America’s military warriors and their families get healthy and strong again—a particularly serious problem with more of our soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen and airwomen married than ever before.
Too many of today’s deployments are being conducted in formulaic, traditional ways that often unnecessarily separate servicemen and servicewomen from their spouses and children. In Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and a few other combat zones—as well as the high seas—separation may be unavoidable. But in other cases and other places, the Department of Defense needs to make the welfare and togetherness of military families a more central factor in how it deploys and employs the total force.
In Korea, for example, the Pentagon could allow most troops to bring their families with them for year long stays. Historically, South Korea was an underdeveloped country with serious security challenges, so the United States deployed forces there without their families. Today, most of our 28,000 military personnel on the peninsula (primarily Army and Air Force) are still unescorted. This puts an unnecessary burden on the force. Yes, Korea is still dangerous—but tens of thousands of American civilians not working for the Department of Defense live there anyway. Military families can handle the risks, too.
As another example, on Okinawa in Japan, the United States has deployed more than 15,000 marines on rotating assignments for decades as well. There are plans in the works to reduce this number and send some to Guam, but it is taking a long time to play out. A smaller number of marines on Okinawa, co-located with families for those who are married, could ease the strain. Marines eventually relocated to Guam should be able to go with families, too.
Creative thinking is possible for the European theater as well. The United States recently decided to maintain several thousand soldiers in Poland an initial defense against a possible Russian threat (as part of a broader NATO plan that will continuously deploy other allies’ forces in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania). Again, troops’ families could be stationed with them. The scale of the U.S. presence would remain very modest; Moscow could hardly lodge any reasonable complaint. Indeed, Washington might strengthen deterrence of Russia by stationing military families in Poland too—sending the message that we were settling in for the long haul.
There are also ways to maintain naval presence more effectively. Rather than always keep sailors on the same ship, and thereby wasting several weeks out of every deployment traversing the oceans to and from American ports, the U.S. Navy could rotate sailors by airplane every six months or so. Ships could stay on station for a year or two at a time, only coming home when maintenance requirements so dictated; sailors would train on one ship near U.S. shores and then deploy to another of similar vintage abroad, improving the efficiency of our overseas presence operations.