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Mission near impossible: Lloyd Austin at the Pentagon

Greg Nash

Make no mistake: Former General Lloyd Austin faces monumental challenges and formidable obstacles at the Pentagon. Strategy, budget and culture are among the most daunting. That Austin is also the 11th secretary of defense in as many years  (seven confirmed and four acting) is not only an unacceptable turnover in civilian leadership, it has led to greater military influence to keep the department running and an erosion of civilian control.  

About strategy, the department is wedded to the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) and its mandate to “compete, deter and defeat” a range of potential adversaries headed by China and Russia. Yet how and at what cost these adversaries are to be deterred and defeated has not been specifically defined. And a key rationale for the NDS was to prevent a “fait accompli” in which China invaded Taiwan and Russia seized the Baltics. But is either scenario realistic? 

A rigorous analysis of fait accomplis raises several profound questions. Regarding Taiwan, in 1944, U.S. plans for an amphibious assault to retake the island from the Japanese that had occupied it since 1894 called for 4,000 ships and 400,000 soldiers and marines — a larger force than went ashore at Normandy. China simply lacks the capacity at present. And Taiwan is more formidably armed than it was in 1944.

China has other options. It could obliterate the island with missile and bombs. It could occupy any one of the 60 tiny islets Taiwan oversees or force an economic blockade. But it will not invade.

About Russia, only four of 30 NATO states directly border on Russia: Estonia, Latvia, Norway and the United States’ Little Diomede in the Barents Sea. Poland and Lithuania border on Kaliningrad, which is separated from Russia. Russia has no interest of re-occupying the Baltics as it did in World War II, risking conflict with NATO that could become nuclear. And much of a Russian attack would have to pass through Belarus.

Regarding budgets, the department needs at least 3-5 percent annual real growth to maintain the current force. With a huge and increasing debt and the termination of the Budget Control Act of 2011 used to boost defense spending despite the constraints of sequestration that made automatic cuts, the future is clear. Defense spending at best will be level and probably less. Hence, the traditional strategy-force level-budget mismatch will be exacerbated.

Last is culture and civilian control of the military. Despite the assurances General Austin gave to Congress during his confirmation hearing, civilian control is an issue. When James Mattis was defense secretary, given his military experience, the organization of the office of the secretary of defense took on a military structure more akin to a combatant command. Many senior positions were filled by retired military personnel with whom the retired general had served and trusted.

One consequence, exacerbated by the rapid turnover of secretaries of defense, was the increasing influence of the chairman of the joint chiefs, the joint staff and the combatant commands in the field over civilian elements. The second consequence was that the three military departments of the Army, Navy and Air Force reached a de facto agreement that each would support the major programs of the others, meaning that budget discipline was subordinate to maintaining a sense of harmony, precluding making tough choices and setting real budget priorities.

What can or should Secretary Austin do? First, the aims, assumptions and ability to execute the NDS at acceptable fiscal and operational costs must be ruthlessly challenged. China is assumed to be the pacing and major threat. But why?

As was the case in the Cold War and second Iraq war, has the U.S. exaggerated the dangers posed by China and underplayed the more immediate danger of Russia? Two words make this case: Solar Winds. And what exactly are the threats that China and Russia pose to the U.S. and its allies? Which can be countered by military means and which cannot? This analysis is vital for maintaining any fiscal discipline given the harsh budget realities.

Second, under Title X of the law, service secretaries are responsible for “organizing, training and equipping” the forces and thus are in charge with executing the budget. But military leadership has largely assumed these roles, reducing civilian control. Austin should ensure that nominees for service secretaries not only understand the need for civilian control; each must have the capacity to fill that need.

Third, Austin needs complete congressional support. He would be wise to work closely with the two armed services committees, soliciting advice, input and advice. Without closer interaction with Congress, strategy, budget and culture will overwhelm the new secretary.

Harlan Ullman’s forthcoming book is “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: The Tragic History of How Massive Attacks of Disruption Are Endangering, Infecting, Engulfing and Disuniting a 51% Nation.”

Tags China Civilian control of the military Defense Department James Mattis Lloyd Austin Military strategy National Defense Strategy Office of the Secretary of Defense Pentagon Russia United States Secretary of Defense

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