Defense lacks modernity, flexibility

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The 21st century has been defined by surprise and complexity. Major events such as the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Arab Spring, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine arrived with little warning and spiraled quickly to upend regional and global stabilities.

Threats to U.S. interests around the world now emanate from states and non-state actors simultaneously, often in overlapping geographies and timeframes (see Syria). The U.S.’s traditional advantages, from conventional military superiority to leadership of the international system, are under strain as adversaries pursue capabilities and approaches that complicate U.S. responses, erode existing norms and challenge the rule of law.

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U.S. defense planners must design a military force that provides maximum flexibility to address this challenging security environment. But flexibility requires adequate resources, and the nation seems unwilling to provide those.

The passage of the Budget Control Act of 2011 has reduced the U.S. military’s ability to prepare for a broad, evolving range of contingencies. While the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 rescued the defense budget from sequestration for two years, it did not return funding to the full levels requested by the administration, and it did not reduce budget uncertainty beyond fiscal 2015.

My colleagues Clark Murdock and Ryan Crotty found in a recent study that internal cost growth in the Pentagon will erode the purchasing power of the defense dollar by 15 percent by fiscal 2021.

The effect of this mismatch between constrained resources and a seemingly unconstrained international threat environment is compounded by the need for the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force to move forward with overdue modernization, long delayed by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For the past decade, defense planners expected a strategic pause to allow them to reinvest, along with stability in the defense budget. These proved poor assumptions.

There are key differences between the military force structures required to fight extremist terrorist organizations hiding among civilian populations from the Sahel to the Pakistan border and preparing for a high-end contingency in the Asia-Pacific region against the most advanced weapons ever fielded by enemy forces. And it is an impossible choice. Preparing for a difficult future in which U.S. air and naval dominance and power projection are contested is no less vital than winning today’s wars and being prepared for the vast array of challenges for ground forces.

So too are budget cuts reducing overall U.S. defense capacity and eroding the ability of the United States to respond to overlapping events. Against some of the most stressing plausible scenarios — for instance, two simultaneous campaigns against advanced regional powers, far different than we’ve experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan — the United States is hanging on by its fingernails.

Yet, the charge to our military remains to do the same with less and maintain the global vision and responsibilities of the United States. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey has warned Congress of the cumulative effects of defense cuts and pointed out the simple truth, “We can do less with less, but not less well.”

Despite concerns voiced by other military and civilian officials inside the Pentagon (including in the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review), the Obama administration has not yet articulated a new national security strategy to inform a defense strategy that would prioritize strategic ends in line with available resources.

This century has more surprises in store, and our military is on a course to be less prepared to deal with them. Absent an increase in defense resources, or a willingness in Congress to take on the cost growth factors in the defense budget such as healthcare, compensation and installations, the American people must be told in plain terms that our country is accepting greater risk in an increasingly unpredictable security environment.


Brannen is a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.