Outgoing Defense official warns about coming austerity

William Lynn used his final hours as deputy Defense secretary Wednesday to drive home the message that the U.S. military is going to shrink and become choosier about what it buys.

As Pentagon budgets are cut and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan come to a close, Pentagon officials likely will scale back the Army and Marine Corps, Lynn said.

At several points during his farewell speech at Washington’s Center for American Progress, Lynn said budget cuts would necessitate that those two services become a “smaller, more agile force.”

The military has over 1.4 million active-duty soldiers, and just slightly fewer Reserve component troops. The size of the military — particularly the Army and Marines — swelled during the post-9/11 era as the service engaged in two protracted troop-heavy operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But barring more large-scale military actions, it is becoming apparent that Pentagon officials believe the nation cannot afford to keep a military of that size.

Pentagon brass are willing to trade quantity for quality, Lynn made clear Wednesday.

His description of a smaller force will alarm some congressional defense hawks like those on the House Armed Services Committee. Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) has warned shrinking the Army and Marines by 200,000 troops would force Washington to reinstitute a military draft.

But Lynn and other DOD officials say if the military remains unchanged as the $350 billion in cuts set in motion by the August debt deal are enacted, the military likely will be unable to afford the intensive training and high-tech equipment that make for a top-notch force.

On his final day on the job — Pentagon acquisition chief Ashton Carter will soon take over as deputy secretary — Lynn reiterated the Pentagon’s position that it can take the $350 billion hit over 10 years without hindering national security. But “painful” cuts will have to be made, ones that will force the Defense Department to ward off “political constituencies” that will fight proposed cuts.

The military’s top four-star generals and civilian leaders have begun high-level talks about what kind of military the nation will need for decades to come, Lynn said.

Those deliberations are examining which missions are “core” ones and which the military might need to shed to cut costs, he said.

Pentagon officials are reviewing the defense strategy described in the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, and expect to “make modifications,” Lynn told a packed conference room.

One kind of mission that likely will not be at the center of a revised U.S. defense strategy is another years-long hybrid hot conflict-stability operation that requires hundreds of thousands of troops, wears out combat equipment, strains personnel and their families, and costs billions, officials and analysts say.

Lynn said he is “not sure we’ll see” operations like the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts again.

But as budget cuts are enacted, the outgoing No. 2 Pentagon official made clear the military will also “trim” its roster of procurement programs.

“It’s better to have a smaller, more capable force with fewer programs,” Lynn said, calling the practice of keeping alive weapon programs the nation cannot realistically afford “reckless.”

“The nice-to-have [programs] must go,” Lynn said. “We need to make hard decisions now.

“Things are not going to get better,” the deputy secretary said to a silent audience. “If we cannot afford it now, we’re not going to be able to afford it later.”

Still, Lynn said, decisionmakers must remember the mistakes of past post-war periods. In those five other eras, Lynn said, Pentagon budgets were drastically shrunk, equipment purchases were canceled and force sizes were slashed.

The result was failed operations like the botched Iranian hostage rescue and others that left U.S. troops dead in faraway lands.

Yet he made clear that Pentagon cuts are necessary to repair the nation’s financial outlook. But so, too, are other moves, like increasing federal revenues and reforming domestic entitlement programs, Lynn said.