Rebalancing the Defense budget

This summer, I worked with a committee of experts – including former military commanders, senior civilian leaders in national security agencies, defense contractors and academics – to develop recommendations for an appropriate force for protecting the United States, even at lower budget levels. Organized by the Stimson Center with support from the Peterson Foundation, our report, “Strategic Agility: Strong National Defense for Today's Global and Fiscal Realities,” was issued Sept. 24. It shows how these goals can be achieved by 2015 with $50 billion in targeted annual Defense Department budget cuts – ending the need for automatic cuts and their catastrophic effects on our military readiness.

Our strategic approach and recommendations preserve the U.S. military as the only true global force, maintaining the intelligence, command and control capabilities, and robust forces that allow us to maintain credible global presence, respond in areas of strategic importance and guarantee the global commons of the sea, air, and now the cyber domain. To do so in a cost-constrained environment, however, we must avoid the traditional default to equal budget shares among the service branches.

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Accordingly, we should invest disproportionately in the inherent ability of space, air, and naval forces to maintain a forward presence around the world and to respond rapidly, whether to strike against threats or to reassure allies. As anti-access/area denial capabilities grow, our naval forces are increasingly important in addressing area-denial challenges. In particular, the committee agreed on the importance of increasing investments in the flexible theater missile defenses provided by our AEGIS-equipped cruisers and destroyers.

While the Army and Marine Corps have borne a great burden over the past decade and have performed brilliantly, we cannot afford to maintain unnecessarily large ground forces at a time when large-scale ground warfare is increasingly unlikely. Current plans call for simply returning the active Army and Marine Corps to their pre-9/11 levels, but we should instead redesign our forces in a way consistent with strategy.

We cannot guarantee that the United States will not find itself in another protracted land conflict, but the ability to wage sustained ground operations can be preserved in our combat-proven reserve and National Guard units, while our active forces are sized for prompt, decisive initial response to achieve specific objectives.

We cannot properly realign our forces for the current global environment without controlling the spiraling costs within the Department of Defense that threaten to transform it into an agency whose primary mission is administering benefit programs, not protecting the nation. Reducing the phalanx of civilian employees and service contractors, which has remained illogically stable in size as military end-strength has fluctuated, is one essential reform upon which the committee agreed. Headquarters staffs and defense agencies have also grown rapidly, creating significant – and unnecessary – additional costs.

Some of the most important and most difficult reforms the Defense Department must make are to military pay and benefits. We must continue to recruit and retain the extraordinary young men and women of our all-volunteer force. Without reform, however, personnel costs will increasingly cut into operating and procurement funds, placing our servicemen and servicewomen at a tactical disadvantage, putting them at greater risk – and, ironically, reducing the attractiveness of service.

Similarly, we must honor our commitment to provide the men and women who defend the country with excellent healthcare, but we must provide that benefit in a way that preserves it for future service members while not breaking faith with our obligations.

It would be vastly preferable to implement these reforms gradually, but circumstances do not give us that choice. Our report offers a way to make necessary changes quickly. The longer leaders wait to rebalance the defense budget, the greater the risk that continued across-the-board cuts will leave the United States with a military not aligned with national security priorities and less responsive to world events. We cannot, wait, now is the time to act.

Roughead served as the chief of naval operations from 2007 to 2011.