A Military for a Dangerous New World
Editorial | November 16, 2008
As president, Barack Obama will face the most daunting and complicated national security challenges in more than a generation — and he will inherit a military that is critically ill-equipped for the task.
Troops and equipment are so overtaxed by President Bush’s disastrous Iraq war that the Pentagon does not have enough of either for the fight in Afghanistan, the war on terror’s front line, let alone to confront the next threats.
This is intolerable, especially when the Pentagon’s budget, including spending on the two wars, reached $685 billion in 2008. That is an increase of 85 percent in real dollars since 2000 and nearly equal to all of the rest of the world’s defense budgets combined. It is also the highest level in real dollars since World War II.
To protect the nation, the Obama administration will have to rebuild and significantly reshape the military. We do not minimize the difficulty of this task. Even if money were limitless, planning is extraordinarily difficult in a world with no single enemy and many dangers.
The United States and its NATO allies must be able to defeat the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan — and keep pursuing Al Qaeda forces around the world. Pentagon planners must weigh the potential threats posed by Iran’s nuclear ambitions, an erratic North Korea, a rising China, an assertive Russia and a raft of unstable countries like Somalia and nuclear-armed Pakistan. And they must have sufficient troops, ships and planes to reassure allies in Asia, the Middle East and Europe.
The goal is a military that is large enough and mobile enough to deter enemies. There must be no more ill-founded wars of choice like the one in Iraq. The next president must be far more willing to solve problems with creative and sustained diplomacy.
But this country must also be prepared to fight if needed. To build an effective military the next president must make some fundamental changes.
More ground forces: We believe the military needs the 65,000 additional Army troops and the 27,000 additional marines that Congress finally pushed President Bush into seeking. That buildup is projected to take at least two years; by the end the United States will have 759,000 active-duty ground troops.
That sounds like a lot, especially with the prospect of significant withdrawals from Iraq. But it would still be about 200,000 fewer ground forces than the United States had 20 years ago, during the final stages of the cold war. Less than a third of that expanded ground force would be available for deployment at any given moment.
Military experts agree that for every year active-duty troops spend in the field, they need two years at home recovering, retraining and reconnecting with their families, especially in an all-volunteer force. (The older, part-time soldiers of the National Guard and the Reserves need even more).
The Army has been so badly stretched, mainly by the Iraq war, that it has been unable to honor this one-year-out-of-three rule. Brigades have been rotated back in for second and even third combat tours with barely one year’s rest in between. Even then, the Pentagon has still had to rely far too heavily on National Guard and Reserve units to supplement the force. The long-term cost in morale, recruit quality and readiness will persist for years. Nearly one-fifth of the troops — some 300,000 men and women — have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan reporting post-traumatic stress disorders.
The most responsible prescription for overcoming these problems is a significantly larger ground force. If the country is lucky enough to need fewer troops in the field over the next few years, improving rotation ratios will still help create a higher quality military force.
New skills: America still may have to fight traditional wars against hostile regimes, but future conflicts are at least as likely to involve guerrilla insurgencies wielding terror tactics or possibly weapons of mass destruction. The Pentagon easily defeated Saddam Hussein’s army. It was clearly unprepared to handle the insurgency and then the fierce sectarian civil war that followed.
The Army has made strides in training troops for “irregular warfare.” Gen. David Petraeus has rewritten American counterinsurgency doctrine to make protecting the civilian population and legitimizing the indigenous government central tasks for American soldiers.
The new doctrine gives as much priority to dealing with civilians in conflict zones (shaping attitudes, restoring security, minimizing casualties, restoring basic services and engaging in other “stability operations”) as to combat operations.
Every soldier and marine who has served in Iraq or Afghanistan has had real world experience. But the Army’s structure and institutional bias are still weighted toward conventional war-fighting. Some experts fear that, as happened after Vietnam, the Army will in time reject the recent lessons and innovations.
For the foreseeable future, troops must be schooled in counterinsurgency and stability operations as well as more traditional fighting. And they must be prepared to sustain long-term operations.
The military also must field more specialized units, including more trainers to help friendly countries develop their own armies to supplement or replace American troops in conflict zones. It means hiring more linguists, training more special forces, and building expertise in civil affairs and cultural awareness.
Maintain mobility: In an unpredictable world with no clear battle lines, the country must ensure its ability — so-called lift capacity — to move enormous quantities of men and matériel quickly around the world and to supply them when necessary by sea.
Except in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon has reduced its number of permanent overseas bases as a way to lower America’s profile. Between 2004 and 2014, American bases abroad are expected to decline from 850 to 550. The number of troops permanently based overseas will drop to 180,000, down from 450,000 in the 1980s.
Much of the transport equipment is old and wearing out. The Pentagon will need to invest more in unglamorous but essential aircraft like long-haul cargo planes and refueling tankers. The KC-X aerial tanker got caught up in a messy contracting controversy. The new administration must move forward on plans to buy 179 new planes in a fair and open competition.
China is expanding its deep-water navy, much to the anxiety of many of its neighbors. The United States should not try to block China’s re-emergence as a great power. Neither can it cede the seas. Nor can it allow any country to interfere with vital maritime lanes.
America should maintain its investment in sealift, including Maritime Prepositioning Force ships that carry everything marines need for initial military operations (helicopter landing decks, food, water pumping equipment). It must also restock ships’ supplies that have been depleted for use in Iraq. One 2006 study predicted replenishment would cost $12 billion plus $5 billion for every additional year the marines stayed in Iraq.
The Pentagon needs to spend more on capable, smaller coastal warcraft — the littoral combat ship deserves support — and less on blue-water fighting ships.
More rational spending: What we are calling for will be expensive. Adding 92,000 ground troops will cost more than $100 billion over the next six years, and maintaining lift capacity will cost billions more. Much of the savings from withdrawing troops from Iraq will have to be devoted to repairing and rebuilding the force.
Money must be spent more wisely. If the Pentagon continues buying expensive weapons systems more suited for the cold war, it will be impossible to invest in the armaments and talents needed to prevail in the future.
There are savings to be found — by slowing or eliminating production of hugely expensive aerial combat fighters (like the F-22, which has not been used in the two current wars) and mid-ocean fighting ships with no likely near-term use. The Pentagon plans to spend $10 billion next year on an untested missile defense system in Alaska and Europe. Mr. Obama should halt deployment and devote a fraction of that budget to continued research until there is a guarantee that the system will work.
The Pentagon’s procurement system must be fixed. Dozens of the most costly weapons program are billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule.
Killing a weapons program, starting a new one or carrying out new doctrine — all this takes time and political leadership. President Obama will need to quickly lay out his vision of the military this country needs to keep safe and to prevail over 21st-century threats.